Messages tell stories and evoke frames

Messages are the words you use to convey a narrative to an audience. They evoke ideas and feelings. They are flexible and can be adapted to the context and audience.

Jeremy Porter has three useful rules for messages, which should be:

Clear — Free of jargon, devoid of technical language, and relevant.

Concise — Deliver key messages in 7-8 seconds. That might be all the airtime you get.

Consistent — Messages must be repeated if they are to sink in.

Aristotle argued that the most important mode of persuasion was to show good character through your speech. Bad faith reveals itself in clutter. Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig wanted the public to get off his back. He told them, “we must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation. I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content.” Similarly, the departing editor of BBC’s Newsnight wrote that the “large proportion of political interviews – maybe even most – are boring”. This justifies an increasingly adversarial style in political journalism, which justifies more evasion. As BBC journalist Evan Davies puts it:

“I think the worst of you. You play it as defensively as you can. Your strategy of being defensive is justified by me being aggressive and, worst of all, me being aggressive is justified by the obfuscation and nonsense of you being defensive. We’re now locked into the low road. Your strategy justifies mine. My strategy justifies yours.”

You probably don’t need to defend a war in which civilians are dying. But if you are an expert and you think your audience doesn’t need to — or can’t — understand your field, this is also bad faith. It will show up in your language as jargon. And when they hear it, your audience will know that you aren’t treating them with respect and direct their attention elsewhere.

Crafting a clear message will therefore be much easier if you believe in what you’re saying, and are genuinely committed to making yourself understood. But the English language has over two billion speakers sharing it, who are all vulnerable to “bad habits which spread by imitation”. This phrase, from George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’, comes with some good advice: “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” 

Respect your audience by showing them the exact object, feeling or idea you have in mind. Be clear. Once you’ve done this, you’ll need to think about how your words will be received.

Say what they really think

Frank Luntz sums up his decades of experience of testing and crafting messages as: “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” The key insight of his work is that once your words have been spoken, broadcast or published online they’re no longer yours – how they’re interpreted is almost completely out of your hands.

In the 1990s, Luntz explains, 55% of Americans though that undocumented migrants ‘should not be given’ care in hospital emergency rooms. Only 38% thought they should be ‘denied’ care in this context. Denial, he continues, implies someone losing a personal or social right. But not giving something is just opting out.

This shows how messages draw upon and reinforce frames. Dominic Cummings, who directed the official campaign for Britain to leave the EU, argues that in the years before the 2016 referendum many British people were preoccupied with three background phenomena.

  • An influx of immigration into Europe, with European and national governments seeming incapable of controlling it.
  • The long-run impact of the financial crisis of 2008 and the undermining of confidence in national governments.
  • The failure of the Euro – “They could see Greece literally on fire on TV screens”.

He argues that in people’s minds during this turbulent period in British history, the pronouncements of political, administrative and media elites simply didn’t have an equivalent impact to these three phenomena. They represented ‘what was really happening’ in contrast to the false narratives invoked by those in power.

His message – “take back control” – was powerful firstly because it was clear, concise and consistent, as Jeremy Porter recommends. It set the referendum choice within a frame that was shared by the people Cummings wanted to target. This was the fifth of the population who had doubts about the EU but were likely to vote for the status quo. 

Cummings emphasises how the message draws on audiences’ ‘loss aversion’ – a concept in behavioural economics where “the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.” And so, no matter how risky the consequences of voting to Leave the EU, the consequences of staying are made to appear yet more risky. 

The motivation to vote, which is activated by loss aversion, is doubled by the emotional impact of a narrative. This is set out powerfully in those three words “take back control”  – in leaving the EU, voters can choose to return to a better past, rather than be led into a dangerous future that the ruling elites simply could or would not recognise.

You can see loss aversion having the opposite effect in ineffective communications by the green movement. The climate change campaigner George Marshall writes that it’s especially hard to think about climate change, and that makes it a particularly difficult thing to communicate about.

“It lends itself to multiple interpretations of causality, timing, and impact. This leaves it extremely vulnerable to our innate disposition to select or adapt information so that it confirms our preexisting assumptions.”

In YouGov polling at the start of 2020, three quarters of respondents overall (74%) said they were concerned about climate change. This view held large majorities regardless of political or demographic characteristics. But barely one in ten have reduced the amount of meat they eat over the past year for the sake of the environment. And only 35% would support more taxes and increased government spending to combat climate change.

UK climate action group Extinction Rebellion seriously misjudged how its audience would respond to its messaging in its 2019 call to action

Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, said Mandela. History is calling from the future, a hundred years from now. Half a hundred years. Ten. Today. Calling the conscience of humanity to act with the fierce urgency of now. This is the time. Wherever we are standing is the place. We have just this one flickering instant to hold the winds of worlds in our hands, to vouchsafe the future. This is what destiny feels like. We have to be greater than we have ever been, dedicated, selfless, self-sacrificial.

A communicator following Orwell’s advice to let the meaning choose the word would not “vouchsafe the future” – it means to give in a condescending way. This flourish is potentially counter-productive, given the stereotype of climate change campaigners as middle-class do-gooders intent on curbing the habits of the working class. The call to “hold the winds of worlds in our hands” is not just meaningless but its literary tone is likely to alienate listeners. Meanwhile, the unexplained reference to Mandela indicates that this message is aimed at those already involved in left-wing politics.

The critical failing of Extinction Rebellion’s call to action is the use of passive voice – which means no one is  specifically called upon to take action. In general, the more uncertainty I express, the less responsive you’ll be. Know your words, know your subject, and know what your audiences are thinking and feeling.