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Positioning applies to public affairs as well as marketing when you need to get your point across to inform and influence.

Win Audience Mindshare and Trust with Simplicity, Clarity and Conviction

Positioning is a well-established marketing technique to help a product or service stand out in a crowded marketplace. Positioning also plays a valuable role in the realm of public affairs to stake out a position to gain mindshare and bring clarity and conviction to a complex situation.

The gold-standard book on positioning was written by advertising executives Al Ries and Jack Trout. Following their own advice, their book was titled Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind. Ries and Trout didn’t invent positioning. Their insight was to underscore its value, or as one wag described it, “They positioned positioning”.

In a world filled with communication, Ries and Trout advised, “The best approach to address our overcommunicated society is the oversimplified message”. They published their book in 1981. Communications since then has only become more intense and invasive.

To stand out in this whirlpool of words and videos, Ries and Trout say, “You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind. You have to jettison ambiguities, simplify the message and then simplify some more if you want to make a long-lasting impression.”

The best positioning statement isn’t what you want to say; it is what you need to say to be heard and understood.

Storytelling Versus Positioning
This advice runs counter to the instinct to tell the whole story. It turns out, most people need their interest piqued before taking the time to listen to a story. Positioning is about cutting through the noise to attract an audience’s attention.

Like most communication, the principles of positioning start with understanding an intended audience. You can’t penetrate the minds of an audience without knowing the windows into their minds. In the case of policy issues or labor negotiations, those audience windows are mostly open to hear what matters to them.

An audience-first approach in positioning doesn’t always come naturally. The urge to share information, details and points of view can overwhelm a positioning statement and dash the interest of an audience. The best positioning statement isn’t what you want to say; it is what you need to say – to be heard and understood on a policy or situation.

A keen insight flagged by Ries and Trout is that meaning isn’t in the words you use, but rather it’s in words that mean something to your audience. If you want someone to respond or care about your issue, you need to reach them on their turf, with words they use and comprehend. You also need to be aware of trap words that may have more than one meaning or inference in the minds of your audience.

Drafting positioning statements on issues can be counter-intuitive, especially in complex situations or issues with multiple parts. Trying to be comprehensive can overwhelm an audience. The Ries/Trout admonition to simplify and then simplify some more applies. The challenge is to pinpoint what you absolutely want your audience to know with only essential details.

The analog is the 30-second TV spot that introduces a product or service and tries to convince you why you need it. Successful positioning statements on policy issues face the same challenge by squeezing a message into a 12-second sound bite for a TV interview or a 30-word lead paragraph in a news story.

Sticky Impressions
The goal of issue positioning statements is to make an impression that sticks in the audience’s mind. Details can be provided on a website or in a brochure. Even then, simplicity rules on how and how many details are used. Visual content can be the most impactful.

Elegant expression is a phrase that embodies the point of positioning. Elegant expression involves making a point worth hearing easy to hear and remember. In the policy and issue world, it’s less like a slogan and more like a memorable line from a book or movie.

As Ries and Trout explain, it is hard to plant something in someone’s mind that doesn’t already have some roots. Those roots can take the form of a concern or an abiding interest. Those roots can be nourished by a conversational style that uses familiar language and sentence patterns. If possible, use words that paint a picture for the mind’s eye.

The battle for the mind doesn’t have set rules of engagement. In marketing, being first is usually the best positioning. In public affairs, being first isn’t as important as being clear and convincing. The goal is to persuade and win trust. Positive messaging has a better track record of generating successful first impressions than negative messaging.

Positioning shouldn’t be confused with being superficial or misleading. The opposite is true. Positioning statements on issues are meant to convey important stances and describe desired outcomes. They seek to stake a claim to a position in the minds of a target constituency. To achieve that, the positioning must be real and meaningful. It should seek to inform and influence.

Positioning and Messengers
Positioning statements are only as effective as the messengers who deliver them, especially live in front of cameras and microphones. Conversational phrasing is easiest to remember and deliver, as well as easier for listeners to hear, grasp and recall. A memorable earworm phrase never hurts in service to a positioning statement.

Creating positioning statements, whether for products or policies, is a team effort. Different voices and perspectives can sharpen the message and, even more important, point out offkey or off-the-mark words and phrasing. The secret sauce of this kind of teamwork is collectively recognizing the objective, being sensitive to the audience and appreciating the channels the positioning statement will travel.