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Why repeating your message isn't the same as staying on message

January 4, 2013, at 10:45 AM

Somewhere along the line, political consultants must have told politicians and their spokespeople to repeat their answers over and over again. The logic behind their recommendation: News organizations often have space for only a single quote per person, so if you utter the same sentence over and over again, they'll be forced to use it. 

That may have worked many years ago, but it doesn't work anymore. Today's reporters shame repetitive pols by releasing the video of their full, evasive, interview. And it's not just broadcast reporters who shame obfuscating politicians — print reporters often post the video to their newspaper websites as well.

Ed Miliband, Leader of the British Labour Party, offered a classic example of why the "repeat your message" strategy doesn't work anymore. In this video — which received hundreds of thousands of views and temporarily made Miliband a laughingstock — he repeats his exact same message five times.

And see if you can spot the message in this 2008 press conference delivered by Cullen Sheehan, then the spokesperson for Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

Brad Phillips writes in his new book, The Media Training Bible, that such overt repetition tends to infuriate the audience. Instead, he recommends that politicians repeat the themes of their messages in every answer by using a combination of stories, statistics, and sound bites. By using variety, spokespeople can ensure that they stay "on message" without ever being overly redundant.

It's a good lesson for anyone who wants to be an effective communicator.

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