Do not read this until you have time for the equivalent of one or two chapters in a book. But if you can settle down for a while and you care about messaging, and your copy of “don’t think of an elephant” is across the room and you don’t feel like getting up, dig in. Also, please respond, tell me what you think. This is a set of thoughts in progress.
Here is my message: Use training in “Framing,” “Race Class Narrative,” or similar ways to improve your communication abilities to become a better producer of messages in the same way an athlete uses strength and aerobic cross training to become a better athlete. Message training is to the hopeful messenger what running 5 miles a day and pumping iron three times a week is to an amateur softball player. You will get better.
Practicing softball itself is of course also a great way to be a better softball player. Messaging training by repeatedly applying techniques you are learning, to a test case, especially in a group with some guidance and some critique, can work wonders on your muscle memory, when the muscle is your brain and the sport is convincing people. Doing it well will become more automatic.
In addition to a discussion of messaging training, I have a few words on writing letters to the editor, and suggest a few items to read.
Your job in developing messages is to take an internalized desire, having to do with policy or behavior or something, and turning that into words that will change the brain cells in others in a way that causes them to make better decisions, join up with your idea, vote a certain way, or start or stop doing a certain thing. Part of that is knowing what the point is, what you want to happen, and turning that into sensible articulate concepts or statements.
Think about what some of those points might be. I want there to be fewer guns around generally, and less dangerous ones. I want people who have been traditionally kept from voting to vote all the time. I want us to adopt electric cars and trucks, and to replace internal combustion engines. What do you want? If this was a workshop, you’d write some of your ideas down and share them with the person to your right. Or left. Or anywhere on the political spectrum, really.
The second part of that is rephrasing or reforming your message in a way that uses the tools of messaging, so all that hard work you did thinking of a concept actually makes a difference.
The current message improvement culture has three main approaches, which overlap, are not exclusive, and all three of which work and should be used.
Let’s take them in reverse order.
Rhetoric is the time honored process of persuasive communication. The whole shebang of messaging can be called “rhetoric” but here I refer to intentional rhetorical technique. There are a gazillion rhetorical forms, most identified in great antiquity, because even then, people had been speaking for many thousands of years. When we use rhetorical forms, a certain magical thing happens. The reshaping of the brain cells in the recipient of our message that we are going for happens quicker, more strongly, or lasts longer. Often, the rhetorical form outlives the message. I can’t believe I ate the whole thing but I have no memory of what product I was supposed to buy because I did eat the whole thing. (Kidding: It was Alka Seltzer.)
The great speeches used rhetorical forms, enhancing the impact at the moment, making the messages more memorable. Joe Romm in his book on this topic called it being “clicky and sticky” (see below for links to books).
For example, repetition or enumeration comes naturally and shapes brain cells nicely. One of the most memorable and powerful speeches ever given was Churchill’s “fight on the beaches” ditty. He used meter (putting your words out in packages of similar cadence and size, like a poem might do), alliteration (reusing the same sound) and most notably, repetition.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender …
This speech was brought to you by the letter F, S, and G, and powerful concept that “we shall fight.” (And, as you may learn if you investigate framing theory, this speech used a protection frame, and also keyed into the relatable concepts of fighting in the air, streets, and landing grounds, very much in the average British person’s mind as the Nazis were dropping bombs on them.)
Rhetorical form is sometimes scoffed at as “bumper sticker thinking” or cheap jingle-making. Fine. But Donald Trump became the President of the United States and is still in the business of ruining democracy and advancing fascism, and much of the energy that launched that Juggernaut came from rhetorical tropes developed, repeatedly tested, and frequently applied. Do not think “lock her up” came out of his butt. No. It came out of Steve Bannon’s butt along with a bunch of other crap, and survived testing by Cambridge Analytics, and then became the slogan of the Trumpian movement, along with a few other phrases.
Rhetorical form does not, I quickly add, imply one sentence slogans. Churchill readied the British people for war, Roosevelt psyched the American people back to the banks during the Great Depression, and Emmeline Pankhurst got women the vote, using rhetorical forms, and I only slightly exaggerate.
We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest; and so you see in the woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannot stop it.
Enumeration (highest to lowest), repetition and alliteration (we wear we belong we etc. etc.) irony (dear men) and so on. Auxesis and crescendo (the sequence of statements about class being ever bigger and bolder). You can’t stop a speech like this.
Ask not what you can do for your sentences, ask what your sentences can do for you. Rhetorical mastery equals compelling writing and speech making, period. Without this, framing and RCN training are nothing.
(Did I mention that exaggeration is a time honored rhetorial device?)
Race Class Narrative as a sea of good
Race Class Narrative is an approach to writing that involves contextualizing your message as a push-back against systemic racist (and classist) repression. It involves identifying the racism (often by identifying and naming dog whisles) and identifying the bad guy (usually the utterer of the dog whistle).
This whopping helping of “j’accuse” is sandwiched between layers of value statements, usually a broad one at the top, and a more speicfic one at the bottom. It is usually served with a side of ask, as in, the message doesn’t just say something, it tells you what to do next.
The best way to grok the RCN is to take one or two of the free and frequent training sessions provided by various organizations. It is worth your time.
This concept is near and dear to me, because of its role in the study of meaning generation and semiotics, a subfield of Anthropology (from my perspective) that I studied in graduate school. Years later, I saw framing emerge as a proposed method of making more effective messages, and I objected to the way the theory was being used, and misunderstood. This led to a major on line controversy with PZ Myers and me on one side, and Chris Mooney and a guy named Nesbit on the other.
The blogging network PZ and I wrote on worked together with the Bell Museum of the University of Minnesota to have a “steel cage death match” between those two guys and us two guys. It was a widely publicized and well attended public four way debate held in Ford Hall in Minneapolis with a follow-up drunken seminar at the Kit Kat Klub.
During the debate, I batted last, like Nature, and I’m afraid I might have surprised some people. Instead of giving a cogent and unbeatable anti-framing followup, I declared that I had changed my mind, and though Nisbet was totally wrong about everything he ever said, Mooney was mostly right, and using framing to make better messages could be a thing if done right. Which they weren’t quite doing yet.
That was decades ago, and since then framing has undergone a number of cycles of populatarity and refinement. The method comes to us today, in our community, in the form of Connections Lab, with George and Lisa Green and their crew. So now we have framing training, not just framing as an idea.
Pre-messaging, framing was an obscure linguist concept that had to do with how meaning is correctly generated in a recipient. All messages (aka utterances, aka meaning generation, aka acts of semiosis) have a frame. A message has to have a frame to be understood, and the frame, in its simplist and most obvious form, is often an agreement between message sender and message recipient on what the topic of conversation is. This agreement is usually subconscious and contextual. A common language, a common dialect, and a shared lexicon can be part of the frame. Things that seem outside language, but that provide context, can be part of the frame.
So, if I say, “I’m going on a fishing expedition” and I’m a prosecutor standing in front of the grand jury room wearing a nine thousand dollar Italian suit, you know I’m going to go in that room and ask questions of a witness that may or may not lead to an indictment of someobody, depending on what the answers are, and I dont’ know for sure what those answers will be. If I say “I’m going on a fishing expedition” and I’m wearing my fishing vest with the creel case and there are lures stuck to my hat and I’m about to climb into my Lunds 202 Pro V GL outboard docked on Leech Lake, you know my intent is to catch some walleye.
The suit/boat and other features of the context “key the frame” so the term “fishing expedition” is understood. The keying of frames is a way of shifting meaning, or playing around with ambiguities in meaning. You see examples of this all the time in humor. There is an example in the first few paragraphs of this thing you are reading, in reference to the political spectrum. See what I did there? I shifted the frame on you, and made you slip on a rhetorical banana.
We also see the power of framing in the mistakes we make. Framing is often from context, and can include auxiliary information. One day I left work and walked to the multi floor parking lot where I always parked on the third floor. I took the elevator to the third floor and walked directly to my blue Volvo 740. When I put the key in the door, it did not work. I then noticed that someone had switched the car seat in the back to a different brand, and I wondered why that would happen. I then noticed that the trash laying around on the floor and seats of the car was different trash than I usually had in the car, and wondered how that could happen. Eventually, it occurred to me that this was not my car, but only after several layers of framing — the parking lot, the third floor, the model of car, the color of car, all framing the inference that this was my car — the assumption that this is my car unraveled, and against a good deal of frame-induced inertia. Often, we most clearly see a frame when the frame is either broken, or somehow, it breaks us.
In framing a message, the point is to make the recipient receptive to your message in a positive way. So, if I’m wearing all black and I’m drinking a latte chai leaning against the counter in a grungy coffee shop and I say, “I’d like you to vote for Jane because she wants us to have great broadband” and you are a farmer in Freeborn County, Minnesota. You won’t give me the time of day and this “Jane” character can go to heck. If, on the other hand, I’m wearing my plaid farmer suit sitting on a tractor hooked up to a potato harvester, and I say “Vote for Jane, she wants us to have great broadband” you’ll like Jane because you want great broadband, but you’ll hear and accept my message because I’m already on your side. (Or at least, not a member of what to you is an unsavory counter culture.)
Framing is like laying down a road bed before you put down the pavement. It is like providing an excellent, entertaining, informative, likable guide on a safari. Good framing induces comfort. The people who get a better framed message will be comfortable with the message, will more deeply and accurately internalize the meaning. The reshaping of other people’s brain cells is a difficult and dangerous thing that can go wrong. How often do you tell someone something and they totally miss the point? Your intentional control of the framing that is going to happen anyway helps avoid that. How often do you tell someone something and they get it, but irrationally fail to agree with you because of discomfort in the way the message was sent and received? Or, the discomfort is simply in the mismatch between your message and what they see as reality?
An example of that last point because it is both key and not totally obvious: Assume that I want you to vote for a referendum to spend money on education. A framing analyst would instantly note that most Americans believe we live in a world of scarcity, so we can’t pay for things. Indeed, scarcity is a right wing frame that is used to scare people off of “liberal” ideas and to underscore the falsehood of “tax and spend” Democrats. Any referendum starts out as a firm “no” for a majority of voters because this scarcity frame is wildly successful.
A well framed message supporting spending on education may follow or be part of a message that demonstrates that we actually live in a society with plenty. This is not the same as the message that compares a school building with the cost of a smart bomb, which is bad framing because it links education with bombs or pits education against national defense. Nor is it like a frame that paints education as a superior thing to like over some other thing, which is bad framing because it reminds the recipient that we are all in the business of judging each other’s moral standing. Rather, it changes the mind of the recipient to be more comfortable with talking about spending money, without pushing the recipient away. If done right, it might even play on the message recipient’s sense of fairness.
Framing training like Connnections Lab does is not exclusively about framing, but about great messaging, with framing theory as a key guiding, er, framework. And, again, it is training your brain, not handing you a recipe card.
When you write a letter to the editor…
Rule number one is to write the damn letter.
Rule number two is to write your own letter. Don’t send in someone else’s letter, don’t write a letter for someone else. Yes, collaborate, yes, help with editing, yes, pass around bullet points that might be helpful. But do your own letter, put your own name on it.
Rule number three: Write your message in your own voice, and using your own approach. No one should look at your message and see the imprint of an organized entity, or a different writer.
When we look at messaging that was designed and promulgated by entities such as the Kochtupus (via Bradley Foundation, ALEC, Center of the American Experiment, etc) it is blindingly obvious that the letter writer (or speaker at the school board) is parroting a canned message. No matter how well that message was originally constructed, it is ruined by virtue of its assembly line manufacturing. This is a flaw in the current right wing strategy, a chink in their armor. We can do better, if we don’t produce assembly line messages.
Do use the messaging training we have access to. The Race Class Narrative Deli Sandwich is a great way of constructing messages, but if you follow the recipe and that’s all you do, you will have a Big Mac. If, on the other hand, you practice the RCN approach and internalize it, your own voice and your own approach will refine and become better. Then, writing messages in your own voice and using your own approach is made better by your RCN work. Instead of a Big Mac, you will have a luscious three-decker deli sandwich.
Understanding the point of framing will help you structure your messages and your logical arguments, and especially, it will help you recognize counter-productive framing in your own rhetoric. The framing approach is less recipe based than the RCN method, so it is more natural when applied. But remember, the word “framing” does not mean “tricking the audience” or even shaping the message. Framing is how we set up our messages so the context of interpretation is made (usually) more comfortable and acceptable by the target audience. It can also be used to make a message more clear and less ambiguous, so misfires are less frequent. It isn’t so much message shaping as it is message delivery and refinement.
Becoming a messaging expert, or let’s just say, improving your message, is not possible by taking a couple of introductory meetings with RCN trainers or a group like Connections. A colleague of mine started out working with framing and other messaging experts to develop a message for a particular organization. He would tell you that he very quickly improved in his understanding of how to put a message together. Then, he moved to a phase of being able to recognize badly framed messaging. Then he realized what he needed to do to refine the method more. In the middle of this process of development, he presented a draft of his message to a large audience, and there was not a dry eye in the house (in a good way, that was the intent).
Then, he went back and refined. And when I say “he” I mean a small group of about four individuals. This whole thing went on for three years. Sometime over the next year, the message will be deployed. It will be fantastic, and it will be so good because the team included framing experts.
That is not a terribly extreme case.
On the other hand, I’ve observed in workshops individuals trying out framing techniques, or RCN techniques, and going from being an average communicator as all humans naturally are to having a much better approach, and truly appreciating what is learned on the very first day. It can make a huge difference over the short term.
The mistake we don’t want to make is this: Hearing a single lecture on messaging by someone who read a book, or attending a single workshop, then believing it possible to pivot to your own group and guide a set of volunteers to develop excellent messaging. I promise that the best message creator in your group BEFORE that influx of a little training will still be the best message creator in your group afterwards, simply because prior experience and talent in writing is going to beat a three hour tour through RCN, Framing, or any messaging strategy, every time.
One more item: A mistake I see made all the time. Folks show up for training, but it is clear from what they are saying that they are not listening to the training and how it challenges what they are already thinking. They are not changing. They reinforce their bad habits. This is why we give tests in school. If you don’t learn, don’t change, you don’t do well on tests. It is very inadvisable for RCN or framing teachers to be hard on their clients and prove to them that they are not learning, that they have to get their heads out of their butts to really change. They need to be nice, they are glad you showed up, they figure you will eventually get it.
But I can be a jerk about it and lose absolutely nothing in the way of credentials or friends, because that is what my friends expect of me and that is what I am credentialed to do. I am an anthropologist, hear me whine. So I’m telling you: check in with yourself. Did you leave the training session thinking you had some stuff wrong, and thinking you know new stuff? If not, do it again, in a different frame of mind. As it were.
Your reading assignment
Pursuant to the matter of messaging, I hereby recommend a few items. These are not necessarily new, but they are current. Newness is not the key to success. One of the best references in how we communicate with words is well over 2,000 years old.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath.
Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists—struggle to make them “stick.”
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the human scale principle, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating curiosity gaps. Along the way, we discover that sticky messages of all kinds—from the infamous “kidney theft ring” hoax to a coach’s lessons on sportsmanship to a vision for a new product at Sony—draw their power from the same six traits.
How To Go Viral And Reach Millions is the first book to reveal all the latest secrets for consistently generating viral online content—words, images, or videos that are seen and shared by hundreds of thousands and eventually even millions of people, something Romm and his colleagues in three different organizations achieve routinely.
Ten years after writing the definitive, international bestselling book on political debate and messaging, George Lakoff returns with new strategies about how to frame today’s essential issues.
Called the “father of framing” by The New York Times, Lakoff explains how framing is about ideas?ideas that come before policy, ideas that make sense of facts, ideas that are proactive not reactive, positive not negative, ideas that need to be communicated out loud every day in public.
The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! picks up where the original book left off?delving deeper into how framing works, how framing has evolved in the past decade, how to speak to people who harbor elements of both progressive and conservative worldviews, how to counter propaganda and slogans, and more.
In this updated and expanded edition, Lakoff, urges progressives to go beyond the typical laundry list of facts, policies, and programs and present a clear moral vision to the country?one that is traditionally American and can become a guidepost for developing compassionate, effective policy that upholds citizens’ well-being and freedom. (NB: “All New” here does not mean all new now. It was all new a few years ago.)
*Most of these links are tied to my Amazon Associates account, so if you go there and buy the book I become wealthy. If there are a lot of you.