When panhandlers produce more effective messaging than progressive elected leaders, it’s time to rethink our approach.
A clear message doesn’t hedge, fudge, fumble or futz. It’s a story that moves Minnesota’s public policy debate forward. Conservatives have a clear message; progressives do not.
Driving over to the Seward Co-op, waiting at a light past Riverside Avenue, I noticed a panhandler working the intersection. It’s a prime location. The one-way traffic allows the solicitor greater access to drivers without darting into the street.
The guy held a cardboard sign. In my experience, all roadside panhandlers have signs. This one was different.
Panhandlers use cardboard like outdoor advertising companies use billboards. It’s a momentary information exchange. The panhandler needs to communicate his financial solicitation quickly and effectively. His sign conveys a sympathetic message designed to increase a prospective donor’s compassionate emotional reaction. “Out of work” and “need help” are pretty standard fair. “God bless,” offered as a coda, is not unusual.
Nodding to communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, best known for his “the medium is the message” declaration, the panhandler’s message is clearly printed, usually with a Sharpie, on a piece of cardboard. The sign’s home-made quality reinforces the solicitation’s message. Higher quality signage undermines the unspoken poverty context.
The panhandler’s narrative is constructed to suggest a seamless chain of events leading to his request for financial assistance. He is, in this story line, a victim rather than an agent of his circumstances.
Experience teaches me to consider panhandler solicitation with caution. I am, bluntly, not a strong prospect but I still read the cardboard sign. Which, brings me back to the guy in Seward.
The sign read: Unemployment is 9%! Out of work. Please Help.
That caught my attention. This panhandler altered the standard narrative, using current unemployment data to reinforce his story. He created a message that negates substantial contextual doubt.
By announcing their employment status, panhandlers risk raising the question, “why aren’t you working or seeking work?” This guy anticipated that question and its implied barrier to successful solicitation. He’s out of work because approximately every tenth Minnesotans is out of work. He is, in effect, the consequence of a contracting economy and conservative policy resistance to job creation.
That’s smart messaging.
This guy didn’t complicate the story. He offered unimpeachable data, pivoted to application then followed with a call to action. He didn’t get bogged down trying to explain his personal circumstances or how he came to choose that corner or what he would do if it started raining. He certainly dodged the strong hint of chemical dependency attached to street corner panhandlers.
Sitting in my car, staring at the sign, I clearly and immediately understood this panhandler’s message: Many people are out of work. I’m out of work and not earning money. Please mitigate my poverty by giving me a modest amount of financial assistance.
Minnesota’s elected progressive policymakers should adopt the same approach. Let’s start by standing on a street corner, holding a cardboard sign with Sharpie lettering. If the message won’t fit on the sign then the message is too long and too complicated.
How about this: Unemployment is 9%. Jobs now.
That fits on a cardboard sign. It’s unambiguous. There’s no unspoken footnote overwhelming the core message. This sign requires no more explanation than what’s written. And, challenging this sign’s message infers opposition to the “jobs now” policy allowing me to aggressively reassert my message.
Let’s learn the simple lessons of effective communication. Say what we mean. Say it clearly. Don’t muddy or complicate the message. Repeat.
I rarely respond to panhandling but the more I think about it, I’m going to keep my eye peeled for that guy and slip him a buck. He didn’t mean to offer an object lesson in his messaging but I found one. And, that’s worth something.
Unemployment is 9%. Jobs now. Repeat.