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. Continue reading Do not read this important message!→
Framing is a concept important in understanding how language works. It originated in anthropology, developed in sociology, re-employed in anthropology and linguistics, and is now a major part of communication science. It is the new thing. Framing is a verb that has come to mean correctly, or effectively, communicating a message in a way that is convincing. It isn’t, really. Framing is part of normal day to day linguistic communication, and I assure you, it is possible to “frame” something in an utterly disastrous way. So, “I did framing today” does not guarantee you did not screw up your message. “I was a good framer today” means you believe you didn’t screw it up, and maybe did a great job!
Here, I want to look at one example of communication to critique it from the perspective of framing, to give an idea of what framing is all about.
Have a look at this bumper sticker:
Framing is always part of linguistic communication. Linguistic communication is a symbolic process, by which meaning is generated in a recipient, meaning that originated from another linguistic being, by reference to a commonly understood system of symbols and symbolic relationships. If I say the word “fish” you might think of some aquatic vertebrate animal easily available to your mind, maybe a trout. That is not because the word “fish” sounds, looks, or feels inherently fishish, but because we are communicating in a language in which “fish” is a shared symbol.
Which of the following words is not a word for “fish”?
You would not know that the first three mean “a fish” while the fourth one means “a goat” unless you also know Samoan, Indonesian, Shona, and Luxembourgian. The link between the thing and the word is arbitrary. That is what makes the word a symbol for a fish, instead of, say, an icon for a fish (which would look at least somewhat like a fish, and might be hard to say out loud using voice).
But what if I meant the verb “fish” instead of the noun? Go get a fishing pole, a worm, and the other gear, and try to catch a fish. You would probably know the difference between the noun and the verb because of other parts of the sentence. Like I might say, “Hey you, go fish” (verb) as opposed to “Hey you, look at that fish” (noun).
The difference here is typically thought of as grammatical. The actual symbol being used is not really “fish” but rather the collection of words arranged in such a way to be identified as a noun, or a verb, or some other thing. This can be less obvious in English which tends to disassociate the grammatical elements compared to some other languages. (This is probably a feature of both Romance and Germanic languages generally). Thinking of words as distinct sets of letters set off by surrounding white space is a hindrance for English speakers when it comes to understanding the symbolic nature of language.
But what about this difference: I say to you “go, fish!” as you stand on the dock next to a boat loaded up with angling gear. This might compel you to get in the boat and start hunting for fish. But if instead of standing on the dock, we are inside sitting around a table and we have a bunch of playing cards in play, and I say “go fish!” we are probably playing the card game by that name, and your next move is to look for a card in the deck.
The difference between being on the dock and looking in the deck is a matter of framing. The symbolic utterance is “go fish” but it has multiple possible meanings. But there is something else involved in this act of symbolizing, that allows you to be more likely to correctly interpret my words. In this case, it is the physical context (out by the lake vs inside at the table) and the presence of certain artifacts (the paraphernalia of angling vs a deck of cards). That additional information keys the frame to either being about an outdoor activity involving fish or an indoor activity involving a deck of cards.
In the symbolic structure represented in the NCSE bumper sticker, what is the meaning of the three elements “EVIDENCE”, “>”, and “Misinformation”?
I believe you are supposed to take the “>” as a greater than sign, so EVIDENCE is greater than Misinformation. The details of the typeface (bold vs. not bold) reinforces this. The additional symbol, the Darwin’s Phylogeny drawing in the earthy sphere tells us this bumper sticker is about science and evolution, and is anti-misinformation, but never mind that for now. Just given the two words and the greater-than sign tell us all we need to know.
Or does it? Stick with the assumption that the symbols are symbols, ie., arbitrary in meaning. If so, why is “>” greater than? If this bumper sticker is meant to convince mathematicians that evidence is greater than misinformation, then yes, that makes sense, the meaning is clear, but this is also a waste of good paper and glue, because mathematicians, or sciency people who have some affinity to math, already know that. But what if the person interpreting this symbolic entity happens to be primarily a computer expert who programs in the scripting language bash? That might sound like a small, obscure, group, but it is not. Raise your hand if you know enough bash to know what two words with a “>” between them means! In bash, greater than is symbolized by “-gt” and the “>” symbol means something totally different. Like this, for example:
means spew the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to what is called “standard output,” which means onto the screen, normally. However,
means redirect from standard output, and copy the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to the end of the file called “Misinformation” and if that file does not exist, create “Misinformation” and fill it with the contents of “EVIDENCE”.
From the bash point of view, evidence is the basis for misinformation. This bumper sticker is, maybe, saying that evidence is bullpucky, or creates bullpucky, or the basis for bullpucky. This would be an example of the framing stepping big time on the message.
Here, the framing is pre-done, or primed, in advance. A person who is likely to see a “>” as a mathematical symbol understands the bumper sticker as meant. A person who spends all day with bash scripts may well get the same meaning, but their brain may alternatively go right to “>” as the redirect symbol, and figure that evidence becomes misinformation, or that misinformation is made out of evidence. That would be a bumper sticker fail.
On top of this, consider that even though the meaning of symbols is arbitrary, icons also exist as part of our linguistic communication. So, that green thing that looks like an arrow might be showing us that EVIDENCE becomes, or goes to, Misinformation. That is still a matter of framing, but in this case, more the absence of a key to set the frame up properly. The recipient of the message is simply trying to interpret what starts out as nonsense (as do all symbols until our brains figure them out), by giving a meaning of implied directionality to the thing that looks like an arrow, and coming up with a reasonably comfortable interpretation of the message. Evidence leads to misinformation.
I love the NCSE. I’m a big supporter. They have helped me greatly in the past. This bumper sticker, though … might be lesser than other options.
*Framing was originally formulated in the work of Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, though not everyone acknowledges (or knows) that. This was picked up and greatly expanded by Erving Goffman, and his work was sufficiently significant to attribute the origin of framing to him, though he was building on Bateson. Framing then spread as an idea across anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy, and was noticed by linguist George Lakoff and evile Republican strategist Frank Luntz, and applied to communication strategy. Biographies of the framing concept will vary, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.
How well we communicate determines success or failure in every aspect of life. The ability to effectively get a message across is learned, even if the person learning is unaware of that learning. We are not born as linguistic beings, but acquire that ability after birth, during early childhood. We hone that ability subconsciously as we engage in our social interactions, our inner dialogue typically running ahead of our overt patter by about a mile. Every now and then the message that the message is important gets out. Lately that has been in the form of memish** aphorisms, like “don’t repeat the falsehood” or “stop using their talking points” or “get a better frame!”
These bits of advice often do more damage then good. They are potentially sharp knives, or meaty mallets, or highly useful duct tape, in the tool kit of novices, but just as likely to cut or pound a finger or gum something up as to help. These bits of advice are like the tricks surgeons used to close off a bleeder or work around a key nerve without harming it. They are nice to know if you are a trained surgeon, but really not that useful if you are not. They serve mainly to make people think they are suddenly good communicators.
My advice is to either let other people do it, or to ramp it up. By ramp it up I mean don’t attend one seminar on how to communicate, but ten. Not three or four, but ten. Don’t read the first four paragraphs of a commentary on communication in The Atlantic, but read five books. Not one or two books, but five books. Or seven,even.
You need to do enough study of the matter to go through the phase when you realize you know way less than you thought.
Pursuant to this effort, I hereby recommend a few items. These are not 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.
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.)
Twenty five centuries ago, long before the start of the common era, the written record about the spoken language began. The ancient Greeks were not likely the first to study speech and communication, and they certainly were not the first to write stuff down, but among the early writers, they were probably the first to write about how we construct messages and stories with words.
Today we are engaged in a great battle between those who respect, even demand, the truth, and those who care more about partisan power than advancing or even using knowledge.
Perhaps this is why we tend to quote the dead more than ever. During the current election season, I’ve heard the late great Senator Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) quoted at nearly every meeting of loyal Democrats. “We all do better when we all do better.” “The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” “I’m short, I’m Jewish and I’m a liberal”
We remember the inspiring words of JFK. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” “A child miseducated is a child lost.” “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” “Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.”
To turn to the living for one moment, Gloria Steinem. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” “Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.”
What do these memorable, moving, or emotive missives have in common? They all rely on rhetorical practices that have been part of language since, possibly, some ancient early stage of this unique human ability. Alliteration, Allusion, and Analogy are to language what a good set of planes and saws it to a carpenter. Parallelism, balance, and anaphora are used repeatedly. It is not hyberbole to suggest that metaphor underlies all of these statements. Human language, when used well, can shape minds, steer conversations, and cause more change than any military weapon.
Yet progressives, Democrats, and others on the left, even with their deep respect for and love of education, can’t seem to create a message that serves the struggle of keeping civilization on track. Why? I might guess it is because the eschewing of rhetorical forms has become the style of the day. Or, it could be because learning the rhetorical forms that work is hard to do, and our school systems, burdened under the ever increasing weight of standards across a wide range of subjects, had to squeeze something out, so rhetoric had to go. Whatever the reason, we are paying a cost. We need to dedicate serious effort to changing this.
Maybe it is a difference between private and public schools. Maybe the people who write for Republicans are from Exeter and the people who write for Democrats are from Stuyvesant High. This is not necessarily a difference in quality of education, but perhaps the elite prep schools know to teach about metonymy, epizeuxis, and enumeratio, because they know to weaponize the young else the efforts of the ascending generation would be in vain.
And yes, those forms of speech do sound like JK Rowlings-conceived spells one would cast with a unicorn-core wand made of ash. And they are, in the sense that powerfully crafted words are the original powerful magic.
Everybody left of center would do well to embrace tried and true ways to communicate, else that side of the political spectrum becomes extinct.
Notice that the title of the book is rhetorically structured to attract readers.
Joe’s book does the rarely done task of integrating, as I imply above, the thinking of the ancient Greeks, the practice of rhetorical greats like JFK and MLK, and the more recent battle over messaging between Republicans and Democrats. This is further informed by reference to modern social science and psychology research.
This is really more of a war than a single battle, and the Republicans famously win most of the battles. Romm provides key insight as to how they do this, and how those on the left can to better. And when we do better, any of us, we all do better. It is said.
I’ll have to go back to see if Joe Romm explains why most of our paragraphs are so short these days.
Romm’s book is informative and offers inspiration, but it also offers very specific advice and guidance. It is well researched, authoritative, accessible, and memorable. Unlike so many other books on communication, it is a good piece of communication.
As an added bonus, Romm talks about his own experience with the publication process, an excellent source of helpful advice and perhaps inspiration for potential self-published authors.
Finally, a challenge to Joe Romm himself: If you come across this post, can you suggest a better headline than my original? (“How to put together a message that will be clicky and sticky”)? One of these days, I’ll install a headline tester plugin. For now I’m flying with the stick. Which is probably a metaphor that went out of style about the time they invented sliced bread.
I am having a conversation with my friend, Pat. We are talking about the way we talk when we have a chance to spend some time, or the way our emails seem to go.
“I tire of being asked what I think about something only to have the conversation derailed at the first ‘bump’ in my logic, at the first self-contradiction,” Pat says, of life in general.
My response: “I savor your contradictions. It’s my desire to explore them with you and to experience the change that happens when you wrestle with them.”
“Yes, I think you get it. How refreshing.”
As you can see, Pat and I have a deeply meaningful relationship. Enviable, in fact. It is based on not knowing things that we want to know, and how to fix that. There is also an element of bringing unformed or poorly formed thoughts to the table, cutting them up like a fruit salad, and enjoying them. Our conversations are like a cold fruit salad on a dusty hot summer day. Yes, very, very refreshing.
But not everybody has the opportunity to interact that way. This is because all utterances are questionable, if you want them to be. All communications are subject to measurement against a standard that one can easily justify as “Teh Standard,” even though one has merely pulled it out of one orifice or another. In fact, there is a place where that kind of communication is favored, revered, honed and practiced, and imposed by force of will and repetition on those who do not come to the table oppositional in affect and armed with snark.