How to communicate your campaign and influence people

How to ‘frame’ issues in a compelling way – appealing to people’s values while giving the “facts” some room to breathe.

George Orwell wrote consistently about the importance of language, especially political language. He thought it ought to be transparent, like a pane of glass. Allowing the reader to see through to the ideas it contained. Language which was not clear in expressing its key ideas was the enemy of good politics as politicians used it to obscure meaning not illuminate truth. Language can also corrupt thought he argued.

What would he think of today’s political discourse? Strivers vs. Scroungers; Spare Room Subsidy vs. Bedroom Tax; Rights vs. Responsibilities. All are attempts to frame a debate in ways which trigger associations and encapsulate and trigger a specific set of responses. While we would like to think of how we and others respond to political argument as the result of carefully considered weighing of thoughts and arguments the context for public debate is more about the alignment of values and emotions. In turn these are triggered by powerful metaphors, narrative and the ability to encapsulate ideas in simple and often binary opposites. It is this we see in the way political and campaign language is now used. For campaigners it therefore becomes crucial to understand what this means for the way we frame the arguments we use.

Facts on their own are not enough as Westen’s book The Political Brain, (2007) argued. The public’s reaction to political issues engages that part of our brains that govern emotional responses not just rationale calculation. As Westen notes:

“…when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, the marketplace that matters most…is the marketplace of emotions.”

Most campaigns, certainly at the level of public engagement operate in this territory.

This may be counterintuitive to campaigners brought up on the idea that what matters is the evidence. In the realm of campaigning and public debate that is not always true, at least not in the simple sense we normally understand it to be.

The same theme was also developed by another American political theorist and linguist George Lakoff who noted argued in Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your Values and Frame the Debate, (2004) he claimed that:

“Facts are all-important…But they must be framed appropriately if they are to be an effective part of public discourse. We have to know what a fact has to do with moral principles and political principles.”

If Lakoff and Western are right, and their argument is based on years of looking at the psychology and the use of language, then this has major implications for how campaigners need to communicate and frame their campaigns to have maximum impact.

This is no simple appeal for campaigns to turn up the volume with emotive appeals. What Western shows is while ‘facts’ may be important these will be trumped in many situations by people’s emotional response. Our emotions and values are tied together with our personal identity. Facts, which contradict or challenge our identity, are more likely to be actively fought against because they challenge our sense of self. Campaigners therefore have to be sensitive to the underlying values and motivations of those they aim to convince.

What becomes really important then is how we frame ideas and campaigns so that they can appeal to those values and give the “facts” some room to breathe. Framing is not as simple as just looking to a good argument – it’s the way in which we aim to set up and direct people’s attention to certain ways of looking at something, the values which have resonance to them within that view of the world and how we can most easily activate these. Without being aware of this as a process campaigners can have brilliant campaigns which will still fail to resonate with their target audiences.

So while Orwell was right that good political language should be transparent the author of the Road to Wigan Pier might also have accepted that unless we can also give compelling narratives of what is wrong in the world our campaigns will not have the traction they need and will fail however justified there moral purpose. Knowing how to communicate well and be literate in how framing works is a crucial as having the right facts for successful campaigns.

If you want to better frame your own campaign, join Brian for breakfast and practical workshop on 4 September. Brian also runs a popular session on framing your campaign as part of the Certificate in Campaigning – sign up for your place now!

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Brian Lamb Brian is chair of NCVO’s campaign advisory group and author of NCVO’s Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing.

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