Look for the Insight

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that what Americans value most has “shifted dramatically”, to quote the WSJ article summarizing the findings. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “For the times they are a-changin'“, and that’s appropriate, since the biggest differences among Americans are generational.

The survey asked 1000 adults which values they considered “very important”. Overall, the percentage of Americans saying that patriotism, religion, and having children are all down, by 9, 12 and 16 percentage points since 1998, driven by shifting priorities among Millennials and Gen Z. I’ll leave it up to you and others to decide what this means for America, but the article frames the poll results as a “challenge” or “difficulty”. How will the 2020 presidential candidates create a message that is unifying (and hopefully uplifting) when what Americans want seems to differ so much? How do you relate to an audience that is heterogenous in values?

Well, before we get into that, please allow me to take a step back. I don’t agree with the premise that Americans are all that different, and my suspicions seem to be confirmed by the stories featured in the WSJ article. A 62-year-old mother speaks about how her views have impacted her parenting, which in turn was inspired by her own religious upbringing. A 31-year-old woman questions patriotism “for the sake of patriotism”, having lived overseas as a result of her father’s military tenure.

When I first began my professional career, in a research department at a well-known media agency, I was fortunate to have been taught to look for the insight. The principle works just as well in speechwriting as it did when I worked with brands to determine the appeal of their products to specific audiences. When I work with clients, it’s always the stories they tell me that provide the most material. But it’s not about having enough content to fill a page. It’s about discovering the anecdotes that will bring data or discovery to life for an audience. 

It’s about finding the connective tissue that will give the message maximum impact. That’s not the same thing as finding the message that will appeal to “everyone” (I’m convinced no such message exists). In reality, it has to be unifying enough to capture a broad audience, but open to interpretation so each person feels like you are talking to him or her.

Going back to the example resulting from the NBC News/WSJ poll, I notice one commonality that could unify Democrats and Republicans: family. The anecdotes shared by the two women were about family - taking care of family, how family impacts your worldview. 

However you approach crafting your message, you have to look for the insight; in many cases, it’s more important than finding the elusive common ground. To learn more about my process, download my infographic.