Pivot Pivot Pivot

It’s time we stopped complaining about how poorly the Democrats do messaging and started learning how to implement effective methods for communicating.

Have you ever watched a television pundit interview a Republican spokesperson and been aggravated because the Republican mouthpiece never seems to be answering the pundit's question? Over and over the pundit or ‘journalist’ will try to get information from the guest and the guest seemingly ignores the question and uses up the allotted time speaking about something entirely different. This technique is called Pivoting. The speaker Pivots off the question and advances his own agenda. The Pivot is one of the most effective tools in the communication toolbox. It’s also a tool that is largely counter-intuitive to the Democratic brain.

The Manipulation Game

Here’s a water cooler scenario: A Democrat broaches the subject of Health Care Reform with a co-worker and begins to explain how premiums will go down for many people when certain aspects of the Bill go into effect. A Republican sees that the other co-worker is actually listening and beginning to change his mind about supporting the reform. The Republican walks up to the two people and blurts, “I heard that new law created death panels.” The Democrat then reacts to the statement and begins to explain why the death panels aren’t going to happen, with rising blood pressure and perhaps getting flustered. The person who had been listening before now becomes bored or disgusted and leaves. The Republican smiles and leaves, or just hangs around to see how long he can keep up the aggravation. What happened? The Democrat focused on correcting the falsehood instead of pivoting off the deliberate falsehood back onto his original topic of lowering premiums.

As Democrats we want so badly to get things right in discussions that we’re easily manipulated off our topic or agenda by the simplest statements if we perceive those statements as being incorrect in any way. We focus on trying to correct the mistake or falsehood and become completely diverted from any point we hoped to make. All a Republican has to do is interject a deliberate falsehood into an exchange and we chase it down the conversational rabbit hole like a terrier hopped up on energy drinks. Meanwhile the Republican just laughs inwardly; it’s like a sport with them.

If the Pivot is one of the most effective techniques to use, it is also one of the most difficult to learn. My belief is what makes it difficult is that it involves an element of confrontational behavior that the average Democrat finds uncomfortable. We think it’s rude. And, in a way, it is rude. Dominating and directing conversation requires a certain amount of aggression and determination. Let’s be frank here, very few of us will ever actually find ourselves in a situation like my water cooler example. However we are exposed to this technique on a regular basis and learning how to recognize it can help us build up an understanding of how it works and how we’re susceptible to it. We can also learn to apply the technique to the cyber world by discovering how ‘trolls’ are employing the Pivot to dismantle online dialogue.

A Delicious Example

On June 1st, 2011 Jay Carney conducted a Press Briefing and the reliably counter-productive Jake Tapper tried to draw the White House into a silly complaint by Congressman Ryan about how the Democrats were characterizing his budget. Watch as Jake tries repeatedly to get his desired response and how Jay Carney uses the questions to advance the White House message about how the Ryan Budget eliminates Medicare as we know it and forces seniors to pay more to finance tax cuts for the rich. Besides being an excellent example of the Pivot, it’s also fun to watch Jake be frustrated by Jay Carney. Thanks go to What Is Working for creating this clip.

OUR Agenda

What is absolutely critical about this exercise is that we learn how to find ways in conversation in real life and online to dominate discussions and constantly, CONSTANTLY be advancing our own agenda and not reacting to the agendas of others.

Look at this gorgeous paragraph that just rolled off Jay Carney’s tongue without notes or a teleprompter:
“And one of the fundamental problems -- and I think why people around the country have reacted poorly to the Republican proposal -- is that it not only eliminates or changes the Medicare program to the point where it is no longer the program we know and does not provide the guarantees that it used to, but it does so, in part, in order to fund tax cuts for wealthy Americans who have already benefited significantly at a time when the middle class and others have been squeezed so tightly.”

That’s our agenda in a nutshell. Jay Carney advanced it twice in his first answer to Tapper. Three times during that exchange Tapper tried to bring the conversation back to the ad he objected to and tried to get the White House to make the Democrats stop running ads that hammered the Republican Plan. All three times, Jay Carney Pivoted off the topic and advanced his own, our own agenda.

The key here isn’t the question but the answer and more importantly the audience. Jay Carney was speaking to the larger audience of other ‘journalists’ and anyone who might watch the broadcast of the Press Briefing. Jake’s questions were merely a tool to use to highlight the agenda that needed advancing or clarifying.

Bridging Statements

In the real world few of us will be fielding questions from a podium or have the ear of the Media. But we will find ourselves with an audience: family, friends, neighbors and coworkers or fellow church members. For many we may even find our audience among fellow Democrats. We can begin now to practice these techniques and make them our own. Here are some opening lines that we can use to answer any question, and makes the Pivot more seamless:

“It’s important to remember that…”

“The bottom line is that…”

“What people really need to know is that…”

“The thing that convinced me is that…”

For example:
  • It’s important to remember that the Republican Plan ends Medicare as we know it to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.
  • What people really need to know is that it does so at a time when the wealthy have benefited greatly and the middle class has been squeezed.
  • The thing that convinced me was that 33 seniors will pay $6,000 a year more to pay for a $200,000 tax cut for one wealthy person.
Message discipline isn’t limited to the White House, elected officials and campaigns. Think about that when you're crafting comments on Blogs or news sites where your audience goes well beyond the others who are commenting to the people who read but never participate. Repetition is fundamental to the process. Restate the Democratic message at every turn. When you're getting sick of doing it, then you're doing it correctly. For us to succeed at advancing our agenda, message discipline must be something we practice every chance we're given.

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