Repetition makes things easier to remember.
That’s one of the first things they teach you at advertising school. Most of the great brands were built on slogans that have endured for years.
It must also be one of the first things they teach you at politician school. No-one who lived through the most recent UK general election can have failed to hear the words ‘strong and stable leadership’ repeated ad nauseam by anyone in a blue tie or dress.
The problem with repetition is that it’s only half the story. Getting people to remember your slogan does not necessarily translate into persuading people to buy what you’re selling. For that to happen, your slogan also has to be compelling.
‘Strong and stable leadership’ was not a compelling slogan: it was just a rather dull claim. Worse, it wasn’t even a credible claim. As Theresa May’s gaffe-laden campaign rolled off the rails and into the ditch, ‘strong and stable’ began to sound not just patronising, but needy, desperate and lacking in substance.
By contrast, ‘for the many, not the few’ was a much more compelling slogan. It was a promise that sounded like it might be worth listening to – the promise of a better, fairer country. It was positive. It was meaningful. It resonated with more impressionable, younger voters. And, unlike ‘strong and stable’, its credibility grew over time, as the words coming out of Jeremy Corbyn’s mouth seemed to chime with the promise he was making.
I don’t make this point because I have a political axe to grind (for the record, I didn’t vote for either of them).
I make it because there’s a vital lesson in here that the leadership team in every organisation can learn from. The lesson is that you can’t expect to engage people with a message that’s dull, meaningless or lacking in authenticity. You can make people remember it, but you can’t make them believe it – and you certainly can’t make them buy into it.
Repetition is part of making a message memorable. But the first, and most important, part is to have a message that’s worth remembering in the first place.
There’s a good, chemical reason for this. Whenever we see or hear something that stimulates or excites us, it sets off a little charge of dopamine in our brains. This acts like a kind of mental post-it note, making it easy for our sub-conscious to access the memory. But, if there’s nothing interesting, there won’t be any dopamine and you’re going to have to work very hard to get people to remember your message, let alone care about it.
In other words, learn from Theresa May’s experience.
You can’t bore people into paying attention, so don’t waste time worrying about whether you’re ‘on message’.
Worry about the message you’re on.