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Category: messaging

How Do You Change Voters’ Minds? Have a Conversation

From New York Times, a must-read article on canvassing approaches.

Dave Fleischer — a short, bald, gay, Jewish 61-year-old with bulging biceps and a distaste for prejudice — knocked on the front door of a modest home in a middle-class neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles. It was an enthusiastic knuckle-thump, the kind that arouses suspicion from dogs in yards halfway down the block but, crucially, can also be heard by humans watching cable news at high volume.

If he had his way, Fleischer would knock on doors with a golf ball. “That’s what the Mormons use,” he said on this sunny, bird-chirping Saturday in February. Fleischer’s staff at the Los Angeles-based Leadership Lab — which goes door to door to reduce bias against L.G.B.T. people, with a current focus on transgender discrimination — didn’t take to the golf-ball suggestion, but Fleischer wanted me to know that he is “not opposed to stealing a good idea from the Mormons.”

A gray-haired Hispanic woman named Nancy cracked open the front door, though not enough to let her little dog eat our ankles. “We’re out talking to voters about an important issue — ” Fleischer began, only to have Nancy excuse herself and walk away. I wasn’t sure she would return; the last two voters he’d met pleaded busyness. But after shooing the dog into another room, Nancy appeared in her doorway again. She smiled shyly and asked Fleischer, the Leadership Lab’s director, how she could help him. Had he been completely honest, he might have said, “I’m here to make you less prejudiced. It could take awhile.” But instead he began with a simple question: If she were to vote on whether to “include gay and transgender people in nondiscrimination laws,” would she be in favor or opposed?

“In favor,” she assured him. Fleischer asked her to rate that support on a scale from zero to 10. “A 10,” she said. “I have friends who are gay.”

A typical canvassing conversation might have ended there. Nancy, it seemed, was a supporter — no need to worry about her. But Fleischer is wary of what he calls the “anti-discrimination declaration.” At the Leadership Lab’s two-hour pre-canvass training that morning, volunteers were warned about “fake 10s,” people who think of themselves as against discrimination — many of them Democrats — but who can nonetheless be swayed by emotion-based appeals that provoke prejudice and fear.

‘Treat it like the most normal thing in the world. Like, of course we’re on your doorstep on a Saturday talking about transgender issues!’

At the door, Fleischer asked Nancy if she knew any transgender people. She didn’t. He then did something few political consultants would advise: He introduced her to the opposition’s favorite argument. He handed her a small video player, on which she watched a Baptist minister in Houston make the case about bathrooms. Fleischer then returned to his scale, asking Nancy what number felt right for her now. “I know I’m in favor of gays, because I’ve worked with them and socialized with them,” she said. “I think they’re wonderful. But for transgenders? Give me a five.”

Nancy wasn’t the only person to significantly decrease her support after watching the video. Across the street, a man in his late 30s who said he was liberal and pro-L.G.B.T.-rights moved to a five from an eight, explaining that he was deeply worried about “the bathroom issue.” The man’s concern seemed informed by his experience in a New York City nightclub; he hinted at his discomfort standing at a urinal next to a drag queen. Nancy had no such seemingly relevant personal experiences, nor did she appear particularly concerned about bathroom safety. For her, the video seemed to clarify that Fleischer was specifically asking her about transgender people, a group she had no experience with and seemed to have little inherent empathy for. To get Nancy to a true 10 capable of withstanding opposition messaging, Fleischer needed to help her “tap into her own empathy and connect emotionally to transgender people.”

Fanned out across the neighborhood were more than three dozen Leadership Lab volunteers, many of them local college students, as well as progressive activists from around the country hoping to learn about changing voters’ minds. Over the last six years, Fleischer’s unorthodox canvassing technique has attracted the attention of social scientists, liberal groups and even presidential-campaign consultants. It has also attracted controversy. In 2014, Science published a study claiming to show that an approximately 20-minute conversation with a gay or lesbian canvasser trained by Fleischer’s team could turn a gay-marriage opponent into a supporter. But Science retracted the study five months later, after the lead author couldn’t produce his data and admitted to lying about aspects of the experiment’s design.

The fraudulent study called into question the validity of the Leadership Lab’s deep-canvassing approach. Had it all been wishful thinking? Maybe, as The Wall Street Journal suggested, Fleischer’s efforts merely “flattered the ideological sensibilities of liberals.” But this week, a new study published in Science by David Broockman, an assistant professor of political economy at Stanford, and Joshua Kalla, a graduate student in political science at Berkeley, appears to serve as vindication of Fleischer’s work. Leadership Lab-trained volunteers were found to be successful at reducing transgender prejudice in front-door conversations, the effects persisting months later in follow-up surveys.

Betsy Levy Paluck, an associate professor at Princeton who studies bias, believes the study will have broad implications for those in her field. “What do social scientists know about reducing prejudice in the world? In short, very little,” she writes in the same issue of Science, adding that the new study’s results “stand alone as a rigorous test of this type of prejudice-reduction intervention.”

Fleischer is planning more interventions. Though he has devoted much of his political and community-organizing career to L.G.B.T. issues, he believes this kind of canvassing could change people’s thinking on everything from abortion and gun rights to race-based prejudice. He also hopes it will usher in a new era of political persuasion. “Modern political campaigns have focused mostly on communicating with people who already agree with them and turning them out to vote,” Fleischer says. “But what we’ve learned by having real, in-depth conversations with people is that a broad swath of voters are actually open to changing their mind. And that’s exciting, because it offers the possibility that we could get past the current paralysis on a wide variety of controversial issues.”

It took a devastating loss at the ballot box for Fleischer to see the political wisdom in heart-to-hearts with strangers. In 2008, he was in Ohio mobilizing African-American and Latino voters for Barack Obama when California residents passed Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage in the state. Fleischer headed west to work with the Los Angeles L.G.B.T. Center, which houses the Leadership Lab, and proposed an unusual idea to his new colleagues: Canvassers should talk to Prop 8 supporters about why they had voted against same-sex marriage. Then they should try to change the voters’ minds.

The idea grew out of Fleischer’s own experience as a “Jewish, liberal gay kid” in Chillicothe, Ohio. He likes to say that he has been talking to people who disagree with him since he was 4. “If I would have only talked to people who agreed with me, I would have only talked to my mom and dad,” he told me. “Interacting with people different than me was a normal thing, and certainly not undesirable or scary. It’s almost the opposite of growing up today in the age of Facebook and political polarization, where it’s easy to always be among like-minded people, your self-isolation complete before you have your first beer.”

At first, Fleischer and his team tried cerebral arguments and appeals to fairness in their doorway conversations with same-sex-marriage opponents who didn’t express deep religious objections. “That failed miserably,” he said. Eventually, the canvassers tried eliciting more emotional experiences. They urged voters to talk about anyone they knew who was gay or lesbian — and, more important, to speak about their own marriages. “That changed everything,” Fleischer told me. “Most people consider marriage the most important and meaningful thing they ever did. Talking about marriage brought up deep emotion. If marriage was the most valuable thing in their own life, wouldn’t they also want their gay friends — or gay people — to experience it, too?”

Though Fleischer thought his new approach was working, he wanted to know whether the persuasion lasted. During a 2013 trip to New York City, he visited the Columbia Univer­sity political-science professor Donald Green, whose experiments on voter behavior — including his findings that canvassing is a more effective mobilization tool than telephone calls or direct mail — partly inspired a focus on building a ground game, a strategy mastered by the Obama campaign.


Clockwise from top left: The Leadership Lab canvassers Lesley Bonilla; Alan Chan; Sean, who asked not to be identified by last name; and Drew Frye.CreditDamon Casarez for The New York Times 

Green was skeptical that the canvassers were as persuasive as they thought they were. His previous research suggested that “people don’t change their mind very easily, and when they are persuaded to think differently, the effect is usually temporary,” he told me. But he also knew that political persuasion had not been studied often. “Remarkably, we don’t know very much about what forms of campaign communications are most persuasive,” he said. Green connected Fleischer with Michael LaCour, then a U.C.L.A. graduate student in political science and statistics, who said he could design a study to assess the long-term effectiveness of Leadership Lab canvassers at increasing support for same-sex marriage among voters in Los Angeles who had supported Prop 8. LaCour, joined late in the process by Green as a co-author, published the results in the December 2014 issue of Science. The study claimed to find that though both gay and straight canvassers were effective at the door, only voters contacted by gay canvassers remained persuaded nearly a year later.

The study made international news and seemed to confirm what many gays and lesbians believed in their guts: that knowing a gay person is a powerful antidote to anti-gay bias. It also seemed to bolster the “contact hypothesis” theory of prejudice reduction, which finds that personal contact decreases bias against a minority group. Previous research, though, including a study of teenagers in an Outward Bound program assigned to either mixed-race or all-white groups, suggested that lasting prejudice reduction happened after weeks of regular contact. LaCour appeared to be breaking new ground, showing that one brief but memorable interaction could reduce prejudice.

Broockman and Kalla were intrigued by LaCour’s findings and hoped to replicate it for an experiment measuring the Leadership Lab’s transgender canvassing. But the more they analyzed LaCour’s study design and results, the more problems they found. Yes, Leadership Lab volunteers had spoken to voters in Los Angeles about gay marriage. But when pressed, LaCour couldn’t produce any evidence that he had conducted the follow-up surveys of voters that would have been essential to measuring canvassing’s long-term influence. He also admitted to lying about having received funds for his study from several organizations, including the Ford Foundation.

A shocked and embarrassed Green requested that Science retract the study; soon after, Princeton rescinded a teaching offer to LaCour. News of the retraction stunned Fleischer, who worried that the Leadership Lab’s marriage canvassing would be tainted by association. He vowed to keep at it, but soon there was no need. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in 2015, Fleischer and his team could turn their focus to the next L.G.B.T. battlefield: transgender rights.

Though there is scant research on transgender prejudice, what is known suggests transgender people face “widespread prejudice and discrimination,” Aaron Norton and Gregory Herek wrote in their 2012 study of heterosexual attitudes toward transgender Americans. The year before, a survey of more than 6,000 transgender and gender-nonconforming people revealed that an astonishing 41 percent had tried to commit suicide.

To test whether transphobia could be overcome during a face-to-face encounter, Broockman and Kalla measured a 2015 canvassing effort in Miami by volunteers from the Leadership Lab and SAVE, a local L.G.B.T. organization. The groups feared a backlash against a recent ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on gender identity. The experiment divided voters into a “treatment” group engaged in a conversation intended to reduce transgender prejudice and a “placebo” group targeted with a conversation about recycling. Before the canvass conversations, both groups completed what they believed to be an unrelated online survey with dozens of social and political questions, including some designed to measure transgender prejudice. After the canvass, the groups filled out four follow-up surveys, up to three months later.

Broockman and Kalla found that the treatment group was “considerably more accepting of transgender people” and that a single, approximately 10-minute conversation with a stranger “can markedly reduce prejudice for at least three months.” Unlike LaCour’s invented finding that the messenger matters more than the message, Broockman and Kalla found that both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective. “It’s too bad that the takeaway was that only gay people could persuade people about gay marriage,” Broockman says about LaCour’s retracted study. “Everyone basically ignored the canvassing aspect, and that the message and the quality of the conversation at the door is what seems to matter.”

Broockman and Kalla point to Leadership Lab canvassers’ ability to engage voters in two prejudice-reduction behaviors at the door: “perspective taking” (the ability to empathize with another’s experience) and “active processing” (deep or effortful thinking). Both were on display during many of the canvass conversations I observed, including the one with Nancy, the woman who moved to a five from a 10 after watching the opposition video.

“Is this the first time you’ve thought about transgender people?” Fleischer asked her soon after she backtracked.

“Yeah, I would say so,” she said. “I know it exists, and I hear stories, and I see them on TV. But I don’t have any friends like I do my gay friends.”

Fleischer nodded and removed a picture of his friend Jackson from his wallet. “For me, I never had a transgender friend I was really close to until I was 56,” he said, handing Nancy the picture. “Jackson grew up as a girl, but he knew even when he was 5 or 6 that he was really a boy. It was only in his 20s that he started to tell his folks the truth, and he started making the transition to living as a man. He’s married to a woman now, and he’s so much happier. And he can grow a better beard than I can!”

‘What we’ve learned by having real, in-depth conversations with people is that a broad swath of voters are actually open to changing their mind.’

Nancy laughed. “That’s the thing — they’re happier when they come out, whenever everybody knows,” she said. She seemed to be connecting Jackson’s experience to that of her gay friends.

“Right, because otherwise you have the biggest secret in the world, and everyone thinks something about you that’s not true,” Fleischer said, before pivoting to a story about Jackson’s being demeaned by a waiter in a restaurant. “I don’t like seeing people mistreat Jackson. To me, protecting transgender people with these laws is just affirming that they’re human.” Fleischer then steered the conversation to Nancy’s experiences with discrimination. “You’ve probably had a time when people have judged you unfairly?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” Nancy said. Over the next few minutes, she recounted several instances of racism after moving to Los Angeles from Central America with her husband. Still, she didn’t appear emotional in retelling the experiences. Fleischer wasn’t surprised; people rarely feel safe enough at first to express deep hurt. It usually isn’t until Fleischer opens up about his own experience — including feeling different in his small, conservative Ohio town — that voters feel safe to “get vulnerable, too,” he says. Nancy had mostly dismissed Fleischer’s “how did that make you feel?” questions, but his personal story prompted a shift. As Fleischer returned to the discrimination she had faced, Nancy paused and said, “It felt terrible.” A few minutes later, when he asked her if she saw a connection between “your experience and how you want to treat transgender people,” she said she did. “I see transgender people as the same as I see myself,” Nancy told him. She ended a solid 10, a rating he was confident could survive opposition messaging.

Earlier that morning, Leadership Lab volunteers sat on stackable chairs and watched video clips of front-door encounters on a projector screen. Fleischer’s team videotapes many of its conversations with voters, then “analyzes the tape like a football team might so we can figure out what’s working and what’s not,” explained a field organizer, Steve Deline.

Knocking on a stranger’s door is scary, and a lot of that morning’s training session was spent boosting the confidence of first-time canvassers. The leaders worked to keep the mood relaxed and optimistic. Fleischer does improv in his spare time, and the training sometimes felt like a well-oiled comedy routine. When the subject turned to potentially awkward initial encounters with voters, the Leadership Lab staff member Laura Gardiner and the longtime volunteer Nancy Williams (who is transgender) did some front-door role-playing.

“Hi, my name is Laura, and I’m with the Leadership Lab,” Gardiner told Williams, channeling a shy first-time canvasser. “Do you have a few minutes today to talk about transgender people?”

Williams played a busy voter. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to teach my hamster to speak Finnish today.”

Gardiner turned to the volunteers. “We want to avoid asking for permission,” she told them. “Just dive in. Treat it like the most normal thing in the world. Like, of course we’re on your doorstep on a Saturday talking about transgender issues!”

Moments later, Williams reminded the volunteers to be open and nonjudgmental. “We’re asking voters not to discriminate, to be less prejudiced, and we need to walk that walk,” she said. “That means not making assumptions based on the voter’s age, race or their religion. Some folks may have a crucifix on the door. That doesn’t tell you about the person inside.”

On this particular day, volunteers would be canvassing in a predominantly black neighborhood, so Gardiner reminded them to be sensitive to experiences of race-based discrimination. “What an African-American person has faced because of their race is not the same as the discrimination that I’ve faced for being bisexual, or that my friend has faced for being transgender,” she told the group. “But there is a similarity, because at the root there’s the feeling of being judged, of having someone make assumptions about you, and that does not feel good.”

But sometimes the gulf between the volunteer and the voter can seem insurmountable. After the first canvass I attended, the Leadership Lab project manager Ella Barrett seemed uncharacteristically sullen. When I asked how her day went, she shook her head and recounted a series of disheartening conversations with voters she couldn’t persuade. In one, a social worker (“a social worker!” Barrett marveled) announced that being transgender is a mental illness; in another, a man matter-of-factly said he hoped to develop a “straight pill” to change gay people.


Clockwise from top left: The Leadership Lab canvassers Gizella Czene, Andrew Pask, Nancy Williams and Roman Venalonzo.CreditDamon Casarez for The New York Times 

Though not all voters would engage emotionally, I was surprised by how many did. Canvassers often had to politely extricate themselves after 20 minutes — voters were sad to see them go. “If only I could have 10 minutes with Ted Cruz,” Fleischer said once. He was only half joking. Fleischer has an unwavering confidence in his ability to persuade most people to be “more empathetic and less prejudiced,” and his optimism is shared by progressive groups who train with him. The day before one canvass, representatives from an animal rights group told me they hoped to better understand how to help people connect emotionally to animal welfare.

Fleischer is especially interested in learning whether deep canvassing can affect people’s thinking on two issues — racial prejudice and abortion rights. Beginning in 2014, the Leadership Lab teamed up with Planned Parenthood to canvass in support of pro-choice policies. Though the abortion debate is less obviously rooted in prejudice than transgender discrimination, Fleischer and his canvassers noticed that many voters reacted negatively to a short video of a middle-aged woman recounting having an abortion when she was 22. People would often be “very judgmental” of the woman on the video or any woman who had had an abortion, Fleischer said. To combat that, canvassers tried to get voters to reflect about challenging decisions they had made in their own sex lives or relationships — or times they were judged harshly. Volunteers also encouraged people to talk about anyone they were close to who had an abortion.

Eager to know if his abortion canvassing was persuasive, Fleischer asked Broockman and Kalla to measure it. But the researchers found that the persuasion attempts had “zero effect,” Broockman said. Still, Fleischer isn’t ready to give up. “Because abortion is such a politically polarized issue,” he said, “it could just be that we have to get better at making voters trust us and open up.” But it could also be that the Leadership Lab’s transgender canvassing success is an anomaly. While a discussion of transgender rights can trigger deeply ingrained feelings about sex and gender roles, the issue is also a fairly recent political consideration for many people. Melissa Michelson, a political-science professor at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., who studies voter mobilization and public attitudes on L.G.B.T. issues, told me that changing people’s minds about transgender rights might simply come down to “which side gets to a voter’s door first to do the persuading.”

What’s the best way to convince a voter at the door? Though most political canvassing today is focused on mobilizing supporters, an increasing number of researchers, think tanks and campaign operatives have “turned their attention to persuasion in the last few years,” says Columbia’s Donald Green.

Jeremy Bird, a Hillary Clinton adviser who was the national field director for Obama’s 2012 re-election effort, told me that his team conducted a number of experiments to try to have a greater impact when canvassing. “We studied everything, from the kinds of conversations we should be having to the characteristics that made a voter persuadable,” he says. “We trained our volunteers to connect with voters at the door on a personal and values level, not to talk at them with scripted talking points. I think people don’t talk enough about the focus on persuasion we had, because the story line became, ‘Oh, they won because turnout was so high.’ ”

Becky Bond, a Bernie Sanders campaign adviser and an admirer of the Leadership Lab’s work, says that the Sanders campaign has focused on marshaling the enthusiasm of volunteers to persuade people. “I can’t think of a campaign that’s put more volunteers on the ground in a primary season to have quality, face-to-face conversations with voters,” she told me.

Still, the Leadership Lab is unusual in its focus on quality over quantity. A typical state or national campaign, even one with a ground-game focus, doesn’t want its volunteers spending 10 or 15 minutes at a door. “If you’re talking about having real, quality conversations with voters, you can’t bring that to scale without a really large number of people,” says Tim Saler, a Republican strategist at Grassroots Targeting, which works to mobilize and persuade voters. “Technology has helped a bit with the scale challenge, but there’s always the question: Do you knock on as many doors as possible, or do you knock on fewer doors and have potentially more fruitful interactions?”

There’s also a lot that can go wrong when fresh-faced canvassers descend on unfamiliar neighborhoods. In 2004, for example, some 3,500 orange-hat-wearing Howard Dean supporters (many bused in from around the country) managed to annoy Iowa voters days before the state’s Democratic caucus. “The curse of the orange hats,” read a headline in Salon. There are other potential problems. “Canvassers can get mugged, they can get lost, they can get attacked by wild geese,” Michelson told me. “You don’t know if they’re at McDonald’s on their iPhone, and you can’t always be sure what they’re saying to voters. That lack of control scares campaigns. It’s much easier to put all your volunteers in a cozy phone bank where everyone gets to hang out and eat pizza.”

Though Fleischer prefers talking to voters face to face, he isn’t opposed to sequestering volunteers in a phone bank to help L.G.B.T. activists in another state. In 2014, Fleischer and his team modified their canvassing work to persuade and mobilize voters by phone. Leadership Lab volunteers spoke with 3,330 residents in Pocatello, Idaho, a small, heavily Mormon city facing a ballot referendum that would have reversed a local nondiscrimination ordinance protecting gay and transgender people. The effort helped defeat the anti-L.G.B.T. ballot measure by a mere 80 votes.

After a long day of canvassing on that Saturday, tired but exuberant volunteers returned for a debriefing. One canvasser stood up and spoke of moving a man to a seven from a three. Another — a tattooed student who identifies as gender-nonconforming — proudly recalled persuading a voter “who clearly had no experience with anyone who identified as being outside the gender binary. He said I blew his mind, and that he would never forget the conversation we had!” Meg Riley, a 60-year-old Unitarian Universalist minister from Minnesota who volunteers with a racial-justice group, recounted her eventful day. Her second conversation, she said, was with a black man in his 50s who was a seven on the 10-point scale. The man’s daughter, though, would have none of it: She practically pushed him out of the way to tell Riley they were a 10. “I’m with Black Lives Matter, and I know a lot of trans people,” the woman told Riley. “We’re a 10! This family is a 10!”

Several of Riley’s conversations proved poignant. She told voters about her own transgender child, Jie, now an adult. She recounted that when Jie was 3, the toddler responded to a question about possible Christmas presents by asking: “Could Santa turn a girl into a boy?”

Riley’s devotion to Jie had a visible impact on several voters, including the mother of a 7-year-old girl. The woman eventually told Riley that she had voted against gay marriage in California, but that she now regretted that choice. “I made a mistake,” she said. On the issue of transgender rights, the woman seemed mostly supportive but stopped at a nine. She said she was trying to evolve on the issue, though. As Riley prepared to leave for the next house on the block, the woman called out. “Give me a few years, and I know I’ll be a 10!”

Effective message Framing

In order to change people’s mind on an issue, you have to change their perception of this issue. Your goal is to frame the issue so it’s about something the majority of people agree with and care about.This normally means appealing to their deepest values.

The Movement Advancement Project is an independent think tank that provides rigorous research, insight and analysis that help speed equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

MAP has developed a series of fascinating resources on how to create effective messaging. A must read for any campaigner.

Among those resources, one report focuses on how to frame effective messages, which is of special importance. Again, every campaigner should take the time to read it. We have nevertheless compiled a summary for those who want to have a glimpse of the content first:

“Ideas, and how they’re expressed, are at the center of all political conflict. In political battles, each side puts forward different but equally plausible ideas of what’s happening and what needs to happen.They try to present their ideas in a way that makes people care about them.They strategically pick the data, facts and information that best persuade people to see a situation their way.

Whether you realize it or not, when you talk about an issue, people interpret whatever you say in the context of their existing worldviews. People aren’t blank slates, and they won’t ponder your carefully laid-out facts in a vacuum. Instead, they use mental shortcuts to make sense of the world.They slot new information into larger mental constructs that they already know to be “true.”

The way this works is simple. We all rely on a set of internalized beliefs and values or frameworks, to interpret and give meaning to unfolding events.

We absorb new information by mentally fitting it into our existing belief systems.This allows us to process information quickly and get on with our lives. Note that we almost always fit the information into our belief systems, as opposed to changing our belief systems to fit the information.

Often we’re unaware of our patterns of reasoning. None of us can see or hear the frameworks that determine our core values, underlying principles, and moral worldview. They’re part of what cognitive scientists call the cognitive unconscious—structures in our brains that we can’t consciously access, but that affect the way we reason.

We make our biggest communications mistake when we only talk to our supporters and forget to talk to the people we need to move to our side.The art of framing is the art of defining an issue to get the broadest possible public support. We do this by tying frames as broadly as possible to people’s existing belief systems and worldviews.

[box] So how do you build a frame that takes opposing worldviews into account?

You appeal to common values.

Good frames will help people see the issue in new and compelling ways. For example, gun control may be about (1) gun safety (this country should care about reducing violence and gun deaths), or it may be about (2) the right to bear arms (this country is based on personal and constitutional freedoms)”

The report further details how frames should be differentiated between deep frames, issue-defining  frames, and surface messages:

“In summary, to change how people think, we need to take into account their existing belief systems and connect with those beliefs. First, we use deep frames to increase public support for our issues. Once the public is engaged and supportive, they’ll be more open to hearing about issues (issue-defining frames) and specific policies (surface messages).”


[box type=”bio”] The single most important concept in this is probably that we’re attempting to plug into existing belief systems, not rewire them.Trying to dismantle one worldview and replace it with another is far more difficult than reframing the issue so it fits within someone’s existing worldview.

The Story-based Strategy website also provides a useful definition of what a frame is:

“A frame is the over arching perspective or larger story that shapes the understanding of a message or action. Our frames invoke our story: who we are, what we want, and what values we share. You can think of framing literally as the edges of the television screen or the rims of the eyeglasses that define what and who is in the story and how they are presented. What is left out of the frame is as important as what you choose to put inside the frame. Effectively framing the action means that the change agents set the terms of the debate, and shift who has power in the story (i.e. the protagonists of the new story become the impacted constituencies who are mobilizing for change.”

Targeted messaging 101

Remember, targeting a group as broad as “the general public” is far too inexact and can be a recipe for campaign disaster.Your digital campaign should target a specific, primary audience and its motivators.

Although you should continue to test and adapt your messaging throughout your campaign, having clear agreement on who you’re talking to and what’s important to them will get you started in the right direction.

Here are some things to consider:


Describing your target audience in terms of a fictional character that represents them in general can help you gain a better understanding of the groups you’re engaging with, and helps you better plan your communication with them. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What sort of job might this person have, and in what industry? • What are their demographics? (age, income, location, etc.)
  • How do they find, consume, and share content?
  • What are their biggest challenges and how do they work to overcome them?
  • What goals might this person have?


Get a deep understanding of what motivates an individual in your audience and the group as a whole to take action.

Using this understanding, try to align your campaign goals around what these audiences care about.

Key Messaging

Establish a single, clear message you want to get across to an audience, and treat it as a core tenet of each part of your campaign.

Next, craft a few “bylines” or sub-messages that can include specific wording you’d like to incorporate into your marketing collateral. These should be specialized for certain channels, like Facebook or email, as well as specific segments of your audience.

To succeed, movements must overcome the tension between rationality and emotion

By Georges Lakey, on Wavingnonviolence.org


When it comes to action, we are pulled by two tendencies that seem compatible but in practice are often in tension. We want our movements to be rational – that is, to strategize well, use resources efficiently, and stay nimble. Yet, on the other hand, we may also want the products of emotion: to experience solidarity, to let empathy connect us with those who haven’t joined us, and to tap the righteous anger that goes with caring about injustice.

In my lifetime social movements have increasingly turned to trainers to increase their learning curve and make actions more effective. However, a movement’s wish to draw on the power of both rationality and emotion poses a challenge for trainers, who are influenced by middle-class bias and traditional education. Class and the academy push trainers to privilege rationality and ignore the wellspring of emotion.

Fortunately, action reasserts the need for both, and training is learning to respond. The movement story in the United States shows the tension, and begins with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The civil rights movement didn’t solve this for everyone

The civil rights movement made more breakthroughs than today’s activists have yet caught up with, but that movement’s practice is not a complete answer for us today. I was a trainer in the civil rights movement and saw brilliant use of role play and other experiential tools for preparing to take on white segregationists and brutal police. The tools were helpful in bringing emotions like fear and anger to the surface and, by normalizing them, making them easier to manage.

The fullest positive use of emotion, however, was in the South where black church culture was strongest. Black preachers sought to be charismatic and many were expert in surfacing emotion, mobilizing what they called soul force for the nonviolent struggle. We see this in the film “Selma.”

Some civil rights activists at the time saw the charismatic leadership model as problematic, and in any case the black preacher tradition is not available for most of today’s movements. A practical organizational alternative for mobilizing emotion, however, was unclear. After the civil rights movement faded a few of its members joined others to form in 1971 the Movement for a New Society, or MNS.

In the early days we in MNS discovered “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” a breakthrough book by the best-known initiator of popular education, Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. Popular education takes sides in the class struggle and honors the wisdom of oppressed people, assisting them through dialogue to name their experience, connect the dots and encourage each other to take action. The tools reassure people who have been told they can’t think well, partly through the facilitator asking questions and showing respect, and partly through the experience of thinking out loud and noticing that others in the group are paying attention.

Our trainers enthusiastically used Freire’s approach, finding that it did elicit more fully the rationality of a group. When MNS combined popular education with the action training born in the civil rights movement, our trainers became in demand around the United States and elsewhere. MNS helped the nonviolent anti-nuclear power movement win its remarkable victory in the late 1970s.

However, a curious phenomenon began popping up in MNS workshops: emotional revolts of participants that most often were expressed at the facilitator team, but also at each other. The workshops’ empowerment tools focused on the rational dimension of the participants. In these mini-revolutions, the group’s emotional life was demanding more attention.

A group in Starhawk’s attic yearns for solidarity

The 1999 Battle of Seattle over corporate-led globalization led to a series of mass confrontations with power holders in the United States and elsewhere. Nonviolent trainers went from city to city, facilitating workshops at each convergence. After a few years, leading activist Starhawk and I called trainers together to take stock of how we were doing. We met in her attic in San Francisco.

Trainers reported multiple successes at working in the midst of chaos, as well as limitations. They also raised strategic questions about the value of mass confrontations that had no concrete or achievable goals.

We turned to skill-sharing, which was fun, and comparisons of analytical frameworks. Suddenly the amicable bunch of trainers turned crabby. We found fault with each others’ comments, but especially distrusted the person who happened, by rotation, to be occupying the facilitator’s chair at the time. Participants urged solutions to our unhappiness: “Let’s go into pairs.” “We need a break.” “We should never have left that earlier point of disagreement.” “Maybe a group song would help.”

Nothing worked. I was as lost as anyone while a storm raged within the group. The facilitator looked flattened. One of the participants lost it, dramatically. Then a respected group member expressed vulnerability. Suddenly, the sun came out, we hugged whoever was near us, we laughed and paused for tea.

Only then did I realize we’d experienced an emotional process that sometimes shows up in groups. We started with our “honeymoon” period when everyone was making nice, then began the raw conflict when people showed more of themselves while peacemakers tried the impossible: to find rational solutions to our pain. Finally, we experienced the breakthrough into community and became, to use organizational development jargon, a “high-performance team.”

I remembered that a group generates a storm when its members want to experience acceptance for the deeper layers of themselves, including differences that they have been, up until then, keeping under wraps. In short, they want closeness, because human beings happen to be social animals.

The rational model suggests that group members could state differences and negotiate common ground in order to gain the solidarity needed for action. True enough, for low-risk, low-stakes action. However, movements often have high stakes that require members to endure fatigue and high stress, execute detailed teamwork, take big risks and draw deep support from their comrades. Nearly everyone has seen this in movies, including sports and war movies, in which a team or platoon that includes members who could never get along back home have together gained a win.

Movements often state goals that require this level of struggle to achieve, and so attract participants who expect to find the support to “go there” — but do not find it. Middle-class control trumps effectiveness in those movements, having only its rationality to offer. In Starhawk’s attic those present would not have asked, in so many words, for that bonding — it would have seemed corny or naïve. Instead, we created it emotionally, by storming.

The good news is that facilitators can be trained to recognize the early signs of a storm brewing and techniques for supporting the storm when it comes. The bad news is that facilitators rarely seek that training, or the other techniques for assisting groups to access their unconscious resources. As with traditional education, popular education did not go there.

Trainers invent direct education to support solidarity-based action

The group of activists who founded Training for Change in the 1990s developed over time a training practice that could make the most of what happened in Starhawk’s attic, and harnessed other group dynamics that support empowered action. Training for Change trainers knew the tools of the civil rights movement and the popular education used by MNS, so we started there. However, we also turned to the resource of emotion, incorporating insights on group dynamics reflected in, among other places, Starhawk’s book “Dreaming the Dark” and psychologist Arnold Mindell’s book “Sitting in the Fire.” My book “Facilitating Group Learning” summarizes a decade of discoveries about both the rational and emotional life of the group, and shares methods that work best across many cultural boundaries. Significantly, this was the action training approach that attracted the widest range of groups, from religious organizations to anarchists to nonprofits to labor unions.

Direct education gets push-back from those who limit learning to the conscious, rational realm, including those who believe that social change happens through wielding abstract academic language like “code-switching” or “intersectionality.”

Our experience is that, when groups bring forth real-world conflicts in the training room, participants get the chance to go to a deeper place and experience the behaviors that abstract words were invented to represent. Supporting conflict in the moment even helps some participants to un-hook from the class-formed attachment to words and become more present to what’s really happening. Actions that flow from such a process are more likely to have an impact on the real world of injustice, because those actions come from experience rather than words.

But what about ‘triggers?’

Conflict-friendly pedagogy contradicts a current assumption in anti-oppression circles that the goal in, for example, achieving racial justice is protectionThat assumption gives the facilitator the job of outlining rules to prevent conflict. In some classrooms professors are asked to give “trigger alerts” when material is coming that might in some way be experienced as oppressive.

I believe this trend is anti-liberation. It further empowers power holders, asking authorities (in this case, teachers) to take even more responsibility to monitor and control. It disempowers those who have suffered oppression, by assuming they can’t stand up for themselves when an insult appears. It excuses facilitators from the task of supporting participants to develop the muscles to fight for their own liberation.

The vision implicit in the current trend is to produce hot-house plants who can bloom only with shelter, called a “safe place.” That vision leaves me indignant: my gay and working-class self has grown in personal power in the real world where micro-aggressions abound. In fact, living in the real world helps motivate me to fight for broader change rather than retreat into yet another version of privilege where I will be insulated from the real world.

This well-meaning vision is, because of its classist roots, a version of the gated community.

Trauma survivors need and deserve support. Checking with the facilitator ahead of time might devise options that empower. Depending on the person’s own degree of healing, a particular workshop may or may not work for them. That may especially be true of train-the-trainer workshops, because new trainers need to unlearn reactivity and stay present with aggression that surfaces in a learning group.

The origin of direct education, with its roots in the civil rights movement and its use among oppressed groups that do stand up, insists on a distinction between safety and comfort. In a workshop the facilitator assists members of a group to be both safe and uncomfortable, because discomfort is where the greatest learning and growth are.

Needless to say, today’s movements need the steepest learning curve they can generate.