Crafting messages that resonate and result in desired action is not a simple task. It takes careful audience exploration, thorough language analysis and clear alignment with goals.


Last week, for the tenth year in a row, Porter Novelli (PN) was a sponsor of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 10th annual National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media (NCHCMM). As a part of this year’s sponorship,  we hosted a spotlight session entitled, “It’s Not What You Say that Matters, It’s What They Hear: Non-Partisan Communications Lessons from the Campaign Trail” that explored the steps communicators and brands should take to develop impactful messages and stories. The session featured Lee Carter, president, maslansky + partners, an Omnicom sister agency, and was moderated by PN’s Shelly Spoeth, senior vice president, Health and Social Impact Practice in the Atlanta office.

NCHCMM Program

For the last 17 months, Carter followed the presidential campaign trail and evaluated messages used by all the candidates using polls, surveys and instant response testing tools with audiences. Her objective: get rid of the emotion (which seemed to prevail so many of the discussions) and become curious about what messages resonate with American audiences and why.


Build a Masterful Narrative


A communicator must tap into the life experiences of their target audience and utilize that insight to build a master narrative. Additionally, the language that develops the narrative must be simple, clear and concise.


In a poll Carter conducted measuring awareness of campaign messaging, over 98 percent of audiences polled knew what Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s narrative was: “Make America Great Again.” Carter explained that Trump’s repetition and consistency in delivering the master narrative and the simple language usedmade the story easy for people to share, tell and support. Regardless of whether you agree with Trump’s beliefs and policies, he has created a master narrative that isn’t about him, but about what he can do for the country.


Don’t Underestimate the Power of Storytelling


Once the master narrative is developed, a communicator must support that story carefully and thoughtfully.One way to tell a masterful story is underpin the message with compelling and memorable symbols that are relevant to the audience.


For instance, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders didn’t make his campaign about him. He made his campaign all about his supporters (largely younger voters) and their future.  Sanders selected three issues to discuss and made those messages clear: income and equality,debt-free college financing and getting big money out of government. In turn, Sanders’ campaign message of taking from the rich and giving to the poor became a powerful symbol for his supporters: Robin Hood.


Authenticity Matters


It’s all about being who you are. That means the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses. To resonate and be authentic with audiences, companies and brands must be true to what they believe and genuine in their connection with their audiences.


For example, Carter explained how Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton can, at times, come across as inauthentic when trying to show humor or compassion. However, during an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a young girl meets Clinton and says that she wants grow up to be president of the United States. Ellen gives the girl a blue pint-sized pantsuit to match the exact one Clinton wears on the show that day (a nod to her often-critisized pantsuits). Later in the show, the little girl is dressed in the blue suit and Clinton’s non-verbal communication and interactions with the child show her having fun and being authentic without any staging.


Carter reinforced that companies and brands are often criticized for not connecting deeply enough with their audiences and getting to the heart of what people want to know. Stories must be real and come from the heart.


Control the Message


When a story whirls out of control, communicators must stop and listen to what the public is saying in response to that narrative. Carter referenced specifically former Republican presidential candidates, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, and their attempt at an alliance in the final days of the Republican presidential nomination race. Instead of both candidates uniting and coordinating their campaign strategies and communication efforts, they lost control of the central message and delivered mixed messages.. Ultimately, neither succeeded in communicating the story they were trying to share, which was that together they were representing the approximate 60 percent of voters who did not want Trump.


Telling a masterful story can bridge communities and influence  behavior change for a greater vision.  In the end, the intent of the message doesn’t matter as much how as how an audience interprets that message. As communicators, if we continue to practice and sharpen our skills and think beyond the basic language rules of transferring information and think more about the human connection our messages can carry, then we will be more effective in achieving our objectives.

Lee Carter and PN's Shelly Spoeth

Shelly Spoeth and Lee Carter


  1. Cj Heard

    Great blog! Control The Message. Might as well be one of the 48 Laws of Power.

  2. Rosemarie Martinez

    Great pointers. This is what I call Communication with a purpose. Connecting with audiences (sometimes that means speaking in their native language) is more important that plainly talking to them. Words mean nothing unless we are authentic about believing the message.