You might have heard you should be ‘reframing’, ‘storytelling’, or ‘shaping the narrative’. But we don’t all want to get psychology degrees, we want to get on with changing the world. This is a Bluffer’s Guide to Framing for busy activists.
I have read and summarised xxx pages of PDFs by framing experts, so you can get on with changing people’s minds – or at least so you can bluff the next time someone lectures you about some TED talk they saw.
[Check out my first Bluffer’s Guide to Framing from 2018 here]
I am definitely guilty of hearing someone use a buzzword one day and thinking to myself: “that’s just a fresh label for what we already tried four years ago”. Then using the same buzzword myself the next day.
So here’s my best try at separating the terms we need to recognise, partly so you can spot when someone else is bluffing.
One of the best definitions I’ve heard is that framing differs from just ‘editing your message to be more persuasive’ because it tries to use science, or at least some kind of testing. It states that our brain needs help simply processing all the info flying at it, so we all have associations and experiences already inside our brain that ‘frame’ anything we see, read, or hear. Therefore it must be possible to experiment with what messages can ‘reframe’ how people see and react to your issue.
The classic example is when researchers showed members of the public two identical articles about an urban crime wave: when crime was described as a ‘beast’ it provoked more support for police enforcement, but when the metaphor was changed to ‘virus’ readers were more sympathetic to social reform.
The inspiration for storytelling structure is usually Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” from 1949 and his theory that in all types of stories, all around the world, a recurring 12-step ‘monomyth’ creates a compelling “Hero’s Journey”.
Especially since Jonah Sachs’ “Winning the Story Wars” was published in 2012, campaigners and advertisers alike have been encouraged to use storytelling structure as a vehicle for their non-fiction communications too. Even more than framing, this communications trend has exploded in the past decade with everyone from mattress brands to life coaches to Game of Thrones characters going on about the persuasive power of storytelling.
That might be too cynical – good storytelling is crucial, but we’re still lacking much robust evidence it has uniquely magical powers (as Daniel Stanley argued in Stir to Action magazine) and there is even a warning from the Topos Partnership that
“close-up portraits of individuals are a type of story that, when treated as a main focus of communications, almost always works against building support for progressive policy change”.
I’ve generally found that ‘shaping the narrative’ gets used as a euphemism to signal that someone is ‘thinking bigger’. Specifically, what they mean by narrative is a larger worldview that is influenced by stories and framing, and what they’re trying to do is something more holistic and long-term that draws from both storytelling, framing, as well as other evidence.
You’ll now sometimes see this also described as ‘strategic communications’, which is – confusingly – not describing communications which are strategic, but is more like a general label for this interdisciplinary, overarching practice.
Pretty much every influential thinker on these subjects in the USA spoke to the Narrative Initiative for their ‘Toward New Gravity’ report where their analogy was:
“What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives. The relationship is symbiotic; stories bring narratives to life by making them relatable and accessible, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning.”
A combination of linguistics and psychology that is concerned with how language can change how we think, and how the way we think changes language. This is the academic discipline that gave framing its evidence base, beginning in the 1980s but becoming popular amongst progressives with the 2004 book “Don’t Think of An Elephant” (more in the previous blog’s short history of framing).
This could sound quite similar to ‘social priming’, the study of how tiny, subtle cues can have dramatic subconscious effects on our behaviour, but for some reason that field in particular seems to have become the punching bag of the psychology field.
Confused? Me too, so my approach is to pay attention to the science, but not get too devoted to a single study, field, or scientist, because they seem to all be flailing about just as much as the rest of us.
Most people will probably use these terms pretty much interchangeably with no problems, but I think there’s value in trying to draw relatively tight lines around terms if we are going to use them.
The broader the definition the less meaningful it is, and the more laziness in application, as warned by Brett Davidson of Open Society Foundations:
“Hardly a conversation or meeting happens without the term ‘narrative change’ being used. However there is always a danger when a term becomes a trend, because it starts to become a short-cut for thinking – a term without precision – where everybody thinks they know what it means, but nobody really does for sure.”
What would my inner idealist say? At its simplest, paying attention to the way we communicate about an issue can help us change more minds and inspire more action, which is why we’re all doing this. That may sound obvious but it’s worth remembering as the objective we measure everything against.
Framing in its current form has been going on long enough to be able to claim real successes: from the self-contained, attributable tests that can be conducted digitally (“when Obama reworded a button from ‘sign up’ to ‘join us’, x% more people clicked!”, etc) to the larger victories like marriage equality where attribution is harder, but most observers believe that reframing played a decisive role. If you still need to convince your teammates that this is worth doing, there’s plenty of ammunition out there. But this guide is assuming that you know whether to do framing, and what you want are bite-sized tips on how to do it.
What would my inner sceptic say? For a start, there might be some advertising pioneers or Greek philosophers who are smirking from beyond the grave that – just like each generation thinks they have invented sex – each era thinks that they have invented the concept of playing with wording to persuade people.
PDFs very rarely get into the nitty gritty of how you apply insights when you get into the office on Monday morning, so here are some common traps I’ve seen fellow campaigners fall into. Do you recognise any of these?
“I just feel it’s better framing”
People using the buzzword as cover for their personal taste in copywriting or personal policy preferences about what the content of the message should be.
“Have we followed the model in these comms?”
Storytelling structures and framing models are great when they provide prompts to get started. Not so great when they turn into rigid templates which leave junior communications staff struggling to fit all 12 steps of the hero’s journey into a tweet.
“People will get turned off if you put those facts in”
Plenty of evidence has emerged that bludgeoning audiences with statistics can actually turn them against you – but that has seemed to lead to a lazy overcorrection against the use of facts. The problem with over-learning from the wilful anti-empiricism of reactionaries is that us progressives need people to value expertise and evidence.
My day-job is to take these insights and theories and try to turn them into words, pictures, or activities that are simple for organisations and activists to use in their day-to-day campaigning. Because we are all acting under more financial, time, and legal constraints than ever.
So this is what I’m looking out for in this Bluffer’s Guide to Framing:
Is it just reheating truisms like “be positive rather than negative” and giving us a long list of values we need to tick off, or is it giving us Do’s and Don’ts that are meaningful because they actually address mistakes that we might make and redirect us to choose messages we might not have thought of otherwise?
Communications is a craft, and if a framing project’s output is ugly, meandering and poorly written it undermines the conclusions. Is there some nugget of imagery or phrasing that we might conceivably use in our day job, some spark of creativity that lifts the quality of our work?
Is there some attempt at providing evidence for a particular recommendation? An alarming number of justifications seem to solely cite social media reach of a video, the simple existence of Trump/Brexit, a ‘focus group’ that is actually just a roundtable of NGO staff, or just assert “studies have shown”.
Is the only way of communicating the insights to sit someone through a 20-slide powerpoint? Or has the project tried to promote itself to a wider audience, and provided us with useful tools to make it easy for us to implement those insights and share them with others?
I’m kicking off with ‘race-class’ as a must-read in 2020. not just because I’m summarising a couple of projects specifically on migration and poverty, but because the ‘Race-Class’ narrative …… and
“We cannot meet people where they are because where they are is unacceptable. The job of a good message is to make popular what we need said.”
Probably the most influential framing experiment of the past two years has been the
The best written explanation of their research is this Salon article which thankfully focuses on the
People are walking contradictions
“Because the persuadables are completely and totally capable of having progressive views on race, among other things, but also completely and totally capable of believing bullshit, when we are silent about race … we simply allow the other side to be the only message received.”
The difference between Race/Class, Race&Class, and Race-Class
“That is why I bring you a race-class narrative. … It is not a “race & class narrative.” It is a narrative that weaves together race and class and makes a causal connection between these two issues. It explicitly names the need for cross-racial solidarity in terms of joining together with people of other races, joining together across racial difference. Not some generic, Kumbaya, we-all-need-to-get-on-the-same-page, we-all-need-to-get-together, we-all-need-to-be-as-one. It actually names racial difference.”
There have been other projects along similar lines, and the cynical view I’ve heard of why Shenker-Osorio has dominated conversation is ‘she just markets herself better’. But I think that is one of the best things about it! So many great framing insights die a death after a single PDF and a couple of conference keynote speeches. Research
In contrast, Shenker-Osario has executed a proper promotional tour including multiple speaking events,
“The economy we have today was designed, and it can be redesigned to work for everyone.”
Know your elephants.
A warning of specific frames that can easily be unintentionally triggered by campaigners, but which could block support for tackling poverty:
people don’t believe poverty exists today, in this country.
people blame individuals for being in poverty, and believe they should try harder and work more. They don’t see the wider context.
“The game is rigged”
people think there will always be
poverty and nothing will ever change.
I find it really interesting that both the US-based FrameWorks Institute and the UK-based PIRC (Public Interest Research Centre)’s ‘Framing the Economy’ report in 2018 found very similar results to this question.
Building on the identification of specific frames to avoid triggering, the report also suggests a table of Do’s and Don’ts.
I would have liked more examples of how to do it when you are delivering real-life comms with real-life tradeoffs, but some of the Don’ts are really useful as they highlight rhetorical habits that it can be easy to slip into.
The report comes with a series of doodles to experiment with reframing poverty visually.
My favourite is ‘the economy locks people into poverty’. This tackles the problem of no single factor being the sole cause of poverty (“Well my rent has also shot up, but I don’t count as ‘poor’, why can’t they deal with it?”).
By portraying poverty as a tightening vice of various pressures, it both shows the shrinking breathing space to be able to plan your way out of poverty, as well as the constant threat that one small change could collapse your world entirely.
In May a conversation on “best practices necessary to frame narratives around migraiton in a healthier, more evidence-focused direction” was hosted on Apolitical, a learning platform for civil servants.
Know your elephants
The article dissects the populist story of migration:
“There are too many of them”
a story about numbers.
“They are taking our stuff”
a story about resources.
“They are not like us — and they don’t want to be”
a story about identity.
“We aren’t even allowed to talk about it — or they call us racist”
a frustration about voice and democracy.
Tools to help with the day job
How often do you bookmark an interesting webinar and not turn up, or turn up and vainly try to multitask? Apolitical wisely acknowledge this with a good follow-up page that includes the recording, resources, and even a link to an online skills course to boost civil servants’ confidence to actually use this framing advice.
Sunder’s article ends with five tips on how to talk about migration – I think his last two are the most useful:
Get beyond “they are good for us” – tell stories of the “new us” instead
Tell ordinary stories, not just extraordinary ones.
The international development sector has not been happy with the term ‘international development’ for years, but along with the terms ‘charity’ and ‘overseas aid’, it has been unable to discard the vocabulary because it is still busy defending the principles.
Along with members of the Progressive Development Forum, Health Poverty Action aimed to “create a new narrative – one that builds solidarity and demands social justice.”
As well as the usual step-by-step tips that have been honed by PIRC over the years, author Ralph Underhill adds the personal touch of ‘animal traps’ as a cute way of distinguishing between the specific framing pitfalls to avoid.
Read the full report here.
Don’t just repeat what they say.
Contaminated language trap!
Hiding in plain sight.
Rose tinted trap!
Positive associations that might not help.
If 2019 does end up being the turning point in the world’s efforts to tackle the climate emergency, then “Our House is on Fire” and “Tell the Truth” will deservedly join “I Have a Dream” in the history of rallying cries. However, arguably the impact of the School Strike for Climate and Extinction Rebellion has had less to do with particularly original framing, and more to do with the other factors in making large-scale change: such as strategic direct action, compelling messengers and decentralised organising structures.
This also shows the value of people who are unencumbered by the sector’s research and just get out there and test messages through action. There is no better proving ground for a messaging slogan than whether protesters adopt it for their placards.
Below I’ve summarised some insights on telling the truth on climate change and other issues: from some new thinkers, one institution that has existed for a couple of centuries, and some cultures from even longer ago than that.
Media outlets made two major breakthroughs in 2019. One was belatedly realising that most of the public only ever see the social media preview of an article, so they better be careful with headlines and headline images. The other was appreciating that there is no such thing as totally impartial, journalistic neutral language, and so being more proactive in using language that improves the public’s understanding. The Guardian was one of the first to do this through a change in their style guide on climate change, and many others have followed, or are taking it to other areas such as The Correspondent’s ‘Glossary of Othering Words‘
As popularised by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal has been praised for its framing of environmental action as something which will provide domestic jobs and economic stimulation, in a callback to President FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s.
Movements in the Global South have led this use of ‘progressive patriotic nostalgia’. The concept of swaraj is associated with Gandhi and ‘self-rule’, and so Indian environmentalists have been describing radical ecological democracy as ‘eco-swaraj’. The ancient Latin American and Indigenous concepts of ‘buen vivir’ and ‘sumak kawsay’ – which are about communal and regenerative balance with nature – have been rediscovered as 21st Century ways to reframe what a ‘good life’ means.
In the UK there has been a debate within progressive circles whether to piggyback on the popularity of the Green New Deal, to broaden it out to a ‘Global Green New Deal’, or to tailor it to British history as a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. This is a classic framing dilemma of balancing existing recognition vs research-tested resonance vs policy relevance. The fact that the opposition Labour Party has switched back and forth three times suggests this debate is not settled yet.
Note: To further complicate things, the concept of the Green New Deal was actually invented by UK campaigners in 2007, and ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ was coined by Tony Blair in 2001. It just goes to prove that ‘coming up with the phrase’ is just one part of the framing puzzle.
We need a #GreenIndustrialRevolution to tackle climate change and transform towns across the UK that have been held back for decades.— Rebecca Long-Bailey (@RLong_Bailey) May 13, 2019
But that won't happen by itself.
It'll take all of us, working together. So get involved with @UKLabour and let's take our future back. pic.twitter.com/OQhd9LyvRW
Probably my favourite single document of the past year, this project is a collaboration between Krizna Gomez of JustLabs (a social change collective with significant roots in Colombia) and Thomas Coombes (former Head of Brand at Amnesty International who made big waves by shifting framing internally).
It ticks most of my boxes:
• Well-written introduction to framing and narrative.
• Links what NGOs need to say differently with what they need to do differently to avoid hypocrisy and ‘build narrative muscle’.
• Actually tests its insights with groups in different countries trying out campaign prototypes.
• Beautiful illustration! If you are asking someone to read a 50-page PDF, please give our eyes something nice to accompany it.