Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception: don't think of George Lakoff

One of the lines in the movie is, "Don't think of an what are you thinking of?"

The whole premise of the movie is how to plant an idea so deftly, at a deeper level, that the subject takes ownership of the idea, such that it becomes self-sustaining.  That is an "inception."

Could Don't Think of An Elephant by George Lakoff have been on the mind of the writer and director?  Could the importance of getting framing right, so that a person has no choice but to come to their own conclusions in your favor, have been a lesson of this movie?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lakoff derides "disaster messaging"

George Lakoff
This is the start of George Lakoff's recent piece in the Huffington Post, called "Disaster Messaging":
Democrats are constantly resorting to disaster messaging. Here's a description the typical situation.
  • The Republicans outmessage the Democrats. The Democrats, having no effective response, face disaster: They lose politically, either in electoral support or failure on crucial legislation.
  • The Democrats then take polls and do focus groups. The pollsters discover that extremist Republicans control the most common ("mainstream") way of thinking and talking about the given issue.
  • The pollsters recommend that Democrats move to the right: adopt conservative Republican language and a less extreme version of conservative policy, along with weakened versions of some Democratic ideas.
  • The Democrats believe that, if they follow this advice, they can gain enough independent and Republican support to pass legislation that, at least, will be some improvement on the extreme Republican position.
  • Otherwise, the pollsters warn, Democrats will lose popular support -- and elections -- to the Republicans, because "mainstream" thought and language resides with the Republicans.
  • Believing the pollsters, the Democrats change their policy and their messaging, and move to the right.
  • The Republicans demand even more and refuse to support the Democrats.
Read the whole piece here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Corporate polluters

"Us v. the polluters," especially corporate polluters, seems to carry more weight with people than "save the environment."  Ben Smith of Politico has a link to the polling research, here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Titles are tools - your core message belongs there

The Immigration Policy Center sent out an e-mail yesterday promoting birthright citizenship and provided links to an accompanying blog post and fact check.  The body of the e-mail, the body of the post, and the body of the fact check make these points:

  • Citizenship is our birthright
  • Birthright citizenship is a cornerstone of American and Colonial history
  • The Constitution takes birthright citizenship as seriously as free speech, the right to bear arms, and a woman's right to vote
  • Birthright citizenship is simple and straightforward
  • Birthright citizenship recognizes the innocence of children
  • Birthright citizenship always has multiplied, and still does multiply, the number of law-abiding citizens in this country
But none of those points appears in the title of the blog post or the e-mail, or in the title or paragraph headers of the fact check.

Those points go to the core message that the IPC is trying to drive home, so the IPC should have put them in its bullet points, headers, and titles.

Those devices are tools.  Readers who skim your article will pick them up.  Readers who read deeper will be guided by and remember them.

Use your titles to communicate your core message.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rebut like Steve Jobs: don't let their frame on your stage

Steve Jobs on his way into the Oscars
Photo by Zadi Diaz.  Licensed via Creative Commons.

Rebut your opponent with your frame, not theirs.

The experience of hearing you should induce amnesia as to the other frame.  Do not remind your audience of the other frame, and never, ever repeat it verbatim.

To some, this is harder than it sounds.  To rebut, you must first lay out the opposition's argument, right?


Maybe it will help to see someone pull it off.  Take Steve Jobs of Apple, master of the techno sales speech.  Jobs is always pitching his consumer goods as the right choice over other technology, but he does not repeat anybody else's frame but his own.

Take a look at these three rebuttals in Jobs' recent keynote speech in San Francisco:

Rebuttal #1:
Apple supports two platforms: the App Store and HTML5.  The former is "a curated platform with over 225,000 apps - the most vibrant app community on the planet," and the latter is "a fully open, uncontrolled platform forged by widely respected standards bodies." 
Rebuttal #2:
95% of the 15,000 apps submitted to the App Store each week are approved within 7 days, with the unlucky 5% being turned down because their apps don't do what they promise, they flat don't work, or they're built with code that will break the app if we ever upgrade the phone.
Rebuttal #3:
iPhone vs. Android - iPhone has 3 times the smartphone market share of Android, and 2-1/2 times Android's share of U.S. mobile browser usage.
Do you know the opponents' arguments, and their supposed evidence, after having heard Jobs? No, you don't, and that's the sign of a clean re-frame.

FYI, the first rebuttal was to address a very public war about whether Adobe's Flash technology should be supported by the iPhone.  The audience didn't hear Jobs say "Adobe" or "Flash" once, and Jobs didn't set up the Adobe argument to rebut it.  Jobs just said what he needed people to hear so that if their "Apple = reasonable and accessible" heart switch wasn't already turned on, then it was after Jobs spoke.

Sure, Jobs referenced the fact that there are other frames out there besides his.  In the context of the third rebuttal, he said this:
There have been a lot of statistics floating around, market research, market share studies, and some of them are OK, and some of them are questionable, and I'd like to just give you two pieces of data that can help you make your own judgments about market share.
But he didn't repeat the other side's frame.  His slides didn't show their bullet points. Hearing Jobs, you don't know any statistics except the ones that tell Jobs' story.

In contrast, below I give three examples of the unfortunately common practice of repeating the enemy frame, followed by a "fix" - what I think they should have done instead:

Thinking about cardboard now?  Yes.
Fix: sell the "sizzle" of the good taste.

"We interrupt this movie to remind you where the exits are."
Fix: focus on what the law actually does.

"FoxNews makes our ears bleed - here's how you can shove an ice pick in yours."
Fix: create a version with bleeps or another gimmick where the offending words are.

Yes, the opposition may be annoying, they are certainly wrong, and you want to show the world how and why. Fine. Go to town.

Just remember Steve Jobs, and don't let their frame on your stage.

See also: Don't Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff

Friday, June 11, 2010

Framing request for journalists: use familiar words

Photo by Meg.  Licensed via Creative Commons.
When it's a story about soccer, people from outside the U.S. are called "natives" of their home country, and "expatriates."  In a variety of contexts, those two words are often used to describe Americans, too.  So the immigrants in the soccer story seem familiar to us, because we have read about them in words that often describe us.

But when it's a story about immigration law, people from outside the U.S. are almost never called "expatriates."  Trust me, I've been paying attention to this one.  And if you want to see for yourself, your search in Google News for the words "expatriates" and "immigration" in the same story will come up with fewer than 100 hits.

Journalists: if you use two different sets of vocabulary for the same group of people - immigrants - depending on whether the issue is about something we're all somewhat familiar with (sports/soccer) or something we're not all familiar with (immigration), that differentiation forces readers into a familiar frame of mind for the former and an unfamiliar frame of mind for the latter.

Here's a remedy: use familiar words more frequently.  There's no journalistic reason not to, and it will build a more familiar frame around immigrants when we talk about immigration law.  Here's how you can do it - find a place for "expatriate" in a story about immigration law - and use that word. Let me know in the comments if you don't think you can or should.

Having said that, I have to return to a point I've made before, which is that immigration-centric labels themselves should be discarded if unnecessary, no matter how "good" or familiar they are.  Case in point: in the soccer story linked above, the immigrants are also described as "Maury County resident," "soccer backers," or "Nashville's [first and last name]."

That's even better.  So here's a revised suggestion for the journalists: after "expatriate," say "Nashville's Juana Villegas," or whatever name it is of the person you're writing about.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Finding hidden treasure

Photo by Lip Jin Lee.  Licensed via Creative Commons.
According to the Heath Brothers, "sticky" messages can be either created or found. Getting your message into the right frame is easier if you keep your eyes and ears open, because someone else may already have the frame you need.

Podcasts are one good place to look for new frames.  Always on the prowl for a good pro-migrant frame that goes beyond the common - and often progressive - promigrant arguments, I hunted in iTunes for a conservative frame, starting with a simple word search for "immigration." Hidden among the many results were plenty of pro-migrant conservative frames.

For instance, there was this libertarian Mormon podcast. One particular discussion about immigrants, which starts at the 21-minute mark of this episode, hammers home freedom of contract:
Why should I have to ask the government permission to contract with this guy from outside the country?
That's just one of the various conservative frames I found on that search, and I may post the others I found in the days to come, but the point is that frames can be found.

Try this: pick a topic, head to iTunes, and find at least one frame that is new to you.  Tell me in the comments what you uncovered.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"You're wrong" is not a frame

A few weeks ago, the Democrats fought back against the Frank Luntz-written "bailout" frame that Senator Mitch McConnell tried to apply to the proposed changes to the financial system - see the video above.

But did the Democrats reframe - did they proactively send out their own message? No. The Democrats just pointed out Luntz's framing and the fact that McConnell was using it. Some journalists acknowledged that the GOP talking points, as applied to the financial reform proposal of the Democrats, were too laughable to repeat verbatim (the video features a couple of those journalists; see also David Weigel of the Washington Post).  The GOP frame fizzled somewhat as a result.

But that was an unlikely victory, because the Democrats' "you're wrong" rebuttal was not a frame that drove the debate in their direction, either. And people know this, including Mike Konczal:
When it came to the House vote, where you had no Republicans voting for it and an endless drum-banging about this “bailout bill”, I heard a lot of “that’s not in the bill” rather than a defense of what they were voting for. Pointing out that the Republicans are distorting things and expecting that to be the end of the argument is so John Kerry, so 2004. We need to come up with our own positive arguments and narratives for why these reform works.
Do the Democrats even have a frame for financial reform?  The White House seems to be using the "you're Main Street; they're Wall Street" frame, but it's buried as story #3 on a rotating featured story graphic on, at least today (here's how the main page looked this morning). The Democratic Party doesn't even have financial reform as an issue on its web page - not even under the Agenda item "Economic Stewardship" (I've captured here how the front page of the site looked this morning). Two issues that are highlighted by both the White House and the Democratic Party web sites are (1) the benefits of health reform, and (2) the Elena Kagan nomination to the Supreme Court.  At least they're consistent in focusing on those two messages.

Still, one thing Luntz got right in his memo is that Americans desperately want financial reform. The White House and the Democratic Party, however, haven't made it a priority to communicate their proactive message to the American people - their frame - on that issue.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Is "net neutrality" too geeky?

Photo by Julia Roy.  Licensed via Creative Commons.
Renay San Miguel of TechNewsWorld laments two overtones that he says have been imbued into the term "net neutrality": geekiness and government intrusion.

He says he favor a "freedom" frame, but at the same time, he seems content to stick with geekiness and only once refer to freedom in his suggested replacements for the term "net neutrality" (note that I've bolded geeky terms and italicized his one freedom term): advice for any representative or senator willing to pick up the mantle of "Net neutrality": Avoid that now-cliche like ... well, you know ... a botnet-enabled plague.

The words are now not only fraught with political baggage that can be used in a Drudge Report headline denoting overbearing government interference or a Huffington Post piece about big business messing with your downloads; they also just sound too damn geeky for anybody's good. Ideological stereotypes, like pirated movie files, flow freely in the media canals of the Internet, so why play into that anymore? Call it "Net equality," "high-speed freedom," "I can't drive 55 (Mbps)," whatever. Just stay away from the chamber of commerce-style (or in this case, government-approved) labels.
The wikipedia entry for the concept of net(work) neutrality has a few different frames:
  • freedom ("no restrictions on content, sites, or platforms")
  • equality/fairness ("if a given user pays for a certain level of Internet access, and another user pays for the same level of access, that the two users should be able to connect to each other")
  • competition (net neutrality fights practices that "remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services")
  • inclusion (fights "against the fragmentation of the net whenever this becomes excluding to other participants")
  • consumerism ("Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire...Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer")
  • openness ("Open application...Open devices...Open services...Open networks")
  • choice ("access the lawful Internet content of their applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement...connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network")
  • control ("Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet")
The better frames listed above are those that are consumer-focused and not technology-focused, so in a sense I agree with Renay San Miguel when he says the frame should be less "geek" and more "freedom."  The frame needs to trigger that heart switch of being wronged when a merchant gives you bad customer service or something less than what you thought you would get.

So San Miguel's framing instinct may be on the right track, but judging from his three suggestions for a replacement term, I think he needs to work on his stickiness instinct.

My fellow framers: leave your suggestion in the comments.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Who's the lead and who's supporting?

According to Entertainment Weekly, the framing of who is a "lead" actor among the Modern Family cast is still up in the air, with the cast working along the lines of the following frames:
  • age (adult actors v. children actors)
  • résumé clout (favors Ed O'Neill)
  • "traditional" family roles (favors Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell)
Which actors would you submit for the "lead" role of Modern Family, and on what basis?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sell your body to the polluters

Photo by Todd Sanders. Licensed via Creative Commons.

"Cap-and rebate" would be a more sensible, persuasive frame for the President than his existing "cap-and-trade" proposal, according to this suggestion by Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter:
Banks remain loathed, which means that financial regulation, including a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, should be within reach if Obama can elevate his game on framing issues persuasively—and win over a couple of GOP senators, which is doable. Energy is just a few tweaks away from being a political winner. Changing cap-and-trade to the far more sensible cap-and-rebate (in which polluters' fees go straight back to the public as checks) could make it very popular—and confirm the role of clean energy in rebuilding the economy.
I'm not so sure Alter should be giving the President framing tips.  It sounds like his idea - giving the public cash every time a company exceeds a pollution cap - is an even clearer demonstration of the whole "pay to pollute" concept, in which the capped corporation gets a chance to release its illicit discharge in exchange for cash.  If the public gets the cash, it thus takes on the role of the oldest profession, and receiving "dirty checks" in the mail would remind John and Jane Q. Public that they had sold their bodies (i.e. their health) to the highest bidder.

But maybe Alter is right after all.  Reinforcing the frame of pollution as vice - and painting the public an immoral, self-destructive participant in that vice - could spark an outbreak of emotionally evisceral outrage about pollution that comes in handy for a politician pushing clean energy.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


pickles & olives, then pickles, then olives
Photo by Sandy Kemsley.  Licensed by Creative Commons.
In a story about immigration bureaucracy reform, doesn't the following sentence make a redundant reference to the legal status of the students? legislation, in the form of the Dream Act, will allow better access to universities for promising illegal students who are working toward legalization.
Why the word "illegal?"  If the students are working toward legalization, isn't it understood that they have an immigration status problem?

This is a perfect example of the point I made in my previous post, and a demonstration of the erroneous but common tendency of journalists to define people with immigration problems with labels that refer to their immigration status more frequently than they define people with other legal problems with labels that refer to their alleged violations.

The sentence in the story above could have been reworded as I've indicated below and been just as accurate, without the person-defining word "illegal" (or "undocumented" or any similar variation): legislation, in the form of the Dream Act, will allow better access to universities for promising students who are working toward legalization.
If you must, end it with "toward their own legalization."  But once these people are defined as students in this sentence, that is all the labeling and the defining needed there.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The nouns of lawbreaking and how the immigration beat overuses labels like "illegal"

Defining the person by a label
Photo by Bill H-D. Licensed under Creative Commons.

How do we frame people who break the law? From my observation, reporting on immigration law violations tends to define the person who is on the wrong side of that law much more than reporting on people who are on the wrong side of any other law.

For example, a January Tennessean cover story on business tax amnesty described the people who had violated the law as, "companies," "people," "businesspeople," and "owners." Barely used were terms that turned the lawless behavior into a noun or adjective that defined the offender, like "scofflaws" and "noncompliant businesses." The term "illegal" doesn't appear once.

I point this out because of two stories in the Tennessean today.

The first is a story about a driver who crashed a stolen car onto the steps of City Hall yesterday. The AP story refers to the person as the "driver" five times (including in the headline) and uses no other description. WSMV's report uses the word "man" once, "driver" four times (including in the headline), and "car thief" only once.

The second carries this headline: "Lipscomb University recruiter bonuses broke federal law." Note that no person broke the law; it was the bonuses who did it. And that frame carries beyond the headline to this statement in the story itself: "Unfortunately, the incentives also broke federal law." The words "unethical recruiters" appear in the story, but only as background for why the law was created. (No surprise, then, that after the article concludes with "Lipscomb did not suffer any penalties for the incident, and all the recruiters were allowed to keep their bonuses," the normally venomous Tennessean commenters chimed in with "Yawn. Non story" and "Just another non-story from The Thin-essean.")

When the law is immigration, however, defining the person by the legal violation is much more prevalent. Just look at the story today in the Tennessean on the 100,000-500,000-strong immigration march yesterday in D.C.: people with immigration law problems are described only three times, and with the exact same words: "illegal immigrants."

In theory or in isolation, that use of the modifier "illegal" to construct and repeat the term "illegal immigrants" might seem to make sense, but not when businesses that violate tax laws are called - without any legal modifier - "companies," "people," "businesspeople," and "owners;" not when a man who violates property and vehicular laws is called a "driver" with no accompanying adjective; and not when the people who commit recruiting violations at a Nashville university are merely called "recruiters."  Those stories all explain the violation without legally defining the violator.

Legal tags like "undocumented" or "illegal" are unnecessary.  The right practice is not to choose which is the least offensive or the most accurate of the two.  The right practice is to stay away - from these labels or any variant.

It's not that reporters on immigration should do anything different that their colleagues working other legal beats. Avoiding labels like "undocumented" or "illegal" is standard media practice in every other context. Deviating from that practice at the immigration desk is probably an unconscious act, but as a result, it is both unwarranted and unprofessional.  It has become a scarlet letter.  I'll leave it for you to decide who's wearing it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Health care framing could have made GM bailout more popular: BusinessWeek

In February, BusinessWeek devoted its cover story to the business messaging of President Obama. In a key interview question, the President displayed a tendency toward bloated framing:
If you had to distill your economic message into a single declarative sentence, what would it be?
That having broken the back of this recession, our goal now is to build a new foundation for long-term, sustainable economic growth, and that that requires innovation. It requires a smart energy policy. It requires a health-care system that is not a drag on business. And it requires an education system that is producing the most productive workers in the world.
The magazine's subsequent podcast about the cover story featured this unsolicited advice to the White House about framing the GM bailout:
The messaging on the other side has been very strong, whereas the messaging out of the White House has not been.
It comes back to this inability to get across a cohesive message. And let's talk about GM for a minute. You know, one of the ways that I think the administration could have been more successful in the past year was to realize that words like, "regulation" - "bailout," they don't play very well. There was an opportunity with GM to make it all about health care, and say, "Folks, the reason we have to go in here and save these jobs and save these companies is that, they can't afford to insure people anymore. Look at the pension program. Look at the costs they pay for their employees." And just by shifting that lens a little bit at the front, I actually think they could have had a smoother way to the bailout.
"Shifting that lens a little bit at the front" - that's framing.

So if the author's theory is that the widely unpopular bailouts could have been made more popular under a health care frame, he's assuming there's a heart switch for easing the burden of corporate America that doesn't also trip the corporate-giveaway or self-defense switches that would tend toward voter backlash.

What are you thoughts on BusinessWeek's framing advice to the President who just beat the odds against passing health care reform?

Friday, March 19, 2010

This is the Heart Switch blog

Framing is what this blog is about - finding the part of your audience's heart that already agrees with you and switching it on.

In politics, George Lakoff is the expert framer on the left, and Frank Luntz is the expert framer on the right. Luntz's side has been more effective, but maybe that's because the right is willing to follow his advice more faithfully than the left is willing to learn from Lakoff.

My pet peeve? When people stray from George Lakoff's advice in the title of his book Don't Think of an Elephant - in other words, don't adopt your opponents' frame. You can't rebut by starting with the imagery they're using against you. Violators of this rule include the Coffee Party that chose a name meant to conjure up the Tea Party it opposes, and political talk shows that think they're rebutting opponents' arguments when they repeat them verbatim, like Liberadio in my home town.