When I first started advocating for causes, I thought the important thing was to tell people as much knowledge as quickly as possible. Surely if they knew the facts that I knew, they would want to take action?
I would later come to learn that this is known as the information deficit model, and that it almost never works.
What then is an effective way to inform people and move them to action?
It’s not enough to tell the truth, we have to tell the truth in a way that resonates with what everyone believes is true.
The truth of this was starkly demonstrated in research by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Australia. They discovered that the more they told people about human right’s abuses against people seeking asylum, the more it harmed their own credibility. Australian’s firmly believe that abuse would never take place on Australia’s watch, and so the only way the easiest way to reconcile that belief with what they were told was to assume the messenger was exaggerating or lying.
Framing your Cause
Advocates have to be aware how the words we choose (and the words people we’re talking to choose), will shape the way they perceive what we’re talking about: they will frame the discussion by bringing into mind images associated with those words.
Those associations in turn will speak to our values and our world views and either activate something we deeply feel to be true, or rub against it.
The association is often subconscious. Every word carries with it associations that we as individuals and as a society have attached to that word.
The power of words
Take a moment to think about what pops into your head when you read each of these: auntie, elderly, child, student, deforestation, habitat destruction, biosolids, treated sewerage.
Would you prefer farmers used biosolids, or treated sewerage to fertilise your food?
The point is not that using biosolids is bad, but there’s a reason they’re called biosolids. Biosolids conjures up a more pleasant image than than treated sewerage.
The effect of these associations is powerful. A study in 2012 found that just changing the word citizen to consumer in an otherwise identical set of tasks resulted in people being more competitive, less co-operative and less trusting.
If just one word can do that, then imagine what the right choice of words can do for your cause. Obviously this doesn’t mean that all we need to do is change our language and all our problems will be solved, but it does mean that not paying enough attention to our language can get in the way of our work.
Often, subconsciously, we will choose the words that we hear others use so as to fit in with the conversation, but if their framing obscures what you’re talking about, then they do you a disservice.
Framing is more than words
Framing isn’t just about the choice of words, it’s about building up a narrative that resonates with people.
If you’re going to advocate for a cause that you care deeply about, then you should read George Lakoff’s game changing book on framing: Don’t Think of an Elephant. Though it’s embedded in a discussion of American politics, it’s instructive in understanding how important framing is, and how it’s about more than the choice of nice words.
For discussion specific to cause advocacy, Common Cause has prepared excellent materials on applying framing to causes.
Geese image courtesy of Roger Blackwell, CC-BY