In our last Inspire piece we looked at how to use framing to boost motivation for behavior change. Our conversation with Sandro Demaio of VicHealth and Mark Chenery of Common Cause Australia explored how they use framing, and they explained how elicitation interviews and public discourse analysis can provide an understanding of the actors involved in a particular issue and the appropriate messaging to motivate change. In this piece we want to share a few of Mark’s tips for successfully applying framing within messaging and communication.
Tip 1: Facts don’t convince people, stories do.
Inspire: What are some tips you would give practitioners trying to effectively frame their messages?
Mark: Well, the first thing to do is to understand the behavior you're trying to promote.
Inspire: Let's say we're trying to encourage using a new ingredient or more of an ingredient in the cooking of the family home—for example iron-rich foods, like dark green leafy vegetables.
Mark: Well, the first thing to do is recognize that facts don’t convince people, stories do. At Common Cause we believe the most persuasive stories include three key elements: a vision, a barrier, and an action.
- The vision is what sets the emotional hook for the story—it explains what is at stake and, therefore, why this matters. A strong vision is something your audience already values—you don’t need to sell them on it.
- The barrier creates the tension in the story. It explains what stands in the way of them achieving their vision.
- The action is the solution you’re offering them that will remove the barrier and allow them to achieve what they so strongly desire. In short, a good story evokes desire, frustration as well as hope.
By contrast, the approach that people often take is, well let's give people the facts. “Eat your greens to get these specific nutrients. Your body needs those nutrients. Therefore, ipso facto, you should be doing this.” Whereas, what drives human behavior more than anything else is emotions. We respond emotionally to stories, and if facts contradict how we feel about an issue or the story we have for that issue already, then the facts bounce off—we ignore the facts. We go and find our own facts that back up how we already feel. “Well, my mother did this, so that's what I should do because I turned out all right.” So fact-based communication doesn't persuade people because if they're already persuaded, they're already on board, and the facts they'll accept.
Inspire: Marketing approaches based on evoking emotion have been used by some in promoting nutrition and public health behaviors since the inception of social marketing decades ago. Could you explain the difference between marketing that uses emotion and using stories?
Mark: They are not necessarily different approaches. Stories that engage our deeply held values are just one way of tapping into emotions. In fact, anything that engages us emotionally must be activating some kind of story in our minds—that’s just how our brains work. There’s even some fascinating research that shows when people are shown animations of random shapes moving around on a computer screen bumping into each other they automatically start to create stories around the ‘square’ being aggressive and chasing the ‘triangle’ and so on. We’re wired to look for meaning in the world around us. Communications that help us make sense of the world around us by explaining the what, why, and how are really just tapping into our constant search for meaning.
Inspire: What would you be looking for or asking to find the “story” that resonates with people?
Mark: So, what I'd be looking for in that particular example would be, okay, so if we want to introduce leafy green vegetables into the diet…
- Who’s already doing that?
- How do they think about it?
- Why do they do that?
- What are leafy green vegetables?
- What do babies need?
- Why do people feed babies food?
- People who don't do it, what are they thinking?
- What's the logic that they're relying on?
- What are the people who don’t feed any leafy greens to their babies thinking—how do they think about the story?
- What are they trying to achieve?
- What's the barrier in their way, and what's the action that should be taken?
Understanding the very basic logic of how they think about the issue and then looking for how other people talk about it. Those are sort of different key elements of the story because ultimately what we're going to want to do is have easy story shortcuts to activate a frame in which not introducing green vegetables would be criminal because it's just the obvious thing that you should do in this situation. That would be the key thing: how do people—who think it's the most obvious correct thing to do—think about it? And I'm not talking about experts only. You would talk to some experts, but you talk to parents who actually do it and are really fanatical about it, in a good way.
Inspire: In the research that we have done, we have developed many techniques to identify the barriers to “good” practices—specifically those barriers that prevent people from taking action when they already know the positive practice, like eating dark green leafy vegetables. But we haven’t focused so much on creating stories around the practice. It sounds like you are looking for more than the barriers to a behavior. You create a story based on the context. Is that right? Could you speak a bit more on how you get to a story—what that looks like?
Mark: It sounds like you’re already clear on the barrier and the action required. The missing piece might be about putting your empathy hat on and understanding what vision might appeal best to your audience. And remember, this is your audience’s vision—not yours. So the first step is getting to know what your audience cares about most in their lives and tapping into that.
Inspire: That’s such an important point about seeking the audience’s vision. Might you translate how you would do this using an example of a feeding issue we saw in Indonesia? Many families give their very young kids unhealthy snack foods from local kiosks. It’s a convenient way to pacify them, and the kids get hooked on these processed foods from a young age. So, for our example, let’s say our audience is primarily mothers who will be making the feeding choices for their young children. A lot of these women are concerned about giving these foods to their little ones—they know they are unhealthy. But these mothers are busy and have to juggle caring for their children with other work. And the biggest issue is that the children pester their mothers for snacks until the mother gives in. One barrier is time and convenience, but it is also that mothers don’t want to say “no” to their children.
Mark: Well, the first thing I’d be asking is whether this really is a messaging challenge? You can use messaging to boost motivation, but not to change the context of people’s lives. I’m not familiar with the situation in Indonesia, but I know that here in Australia women spend a lot more time doing unpaid care work than men even when they work full time. So is the problem lack of motivation? Or is the problem lack of time because of the demands put on them and lack of support from their partners and inadequate government services to support parents? Alternatively, is the problem that unhealthy food manufacturers are given free reign to pack their products full of fat, sugar and salt with no minimum nutritional standards or clear labelling to help busy people quickly choose between competing options? Perhaps our target audience should be partners of busy mothers? Or maybe the government who could set higher standards for how food is produced, marketed and sold?
Having said all that, if we accept that mothers are the appropriate audience and the ones who’s behaviour we need to change, then perhaps the vision is something around raising your kids to see through the dirty tricks of unhealthy food brands and the action might be getting their kids to be ‘food detectives’ and check the ingredients of products to see if they are being tricked into eating unhealthy food or not. That way, at least, the focus is not on whether to say “yes” or “no,” but about educating children and setting them up for a healthy life. Also, by making the story about unhealthy external influences we’re not contributing to a broader narrative that says to busy mothers “you are to blame.”
Tip 2: Avoid negative frames and stick to your story
Inspire: Okay, so once we’re starting to see what that helpful story might look like for our leafy greens example, do we just focus in on that message with the people who might be persuadable?
Mark: You can be more impactful by at the very least understanding what the unhelpful things are when people don't want to give leafy greens to their kids. We need to understand what they think and why. Then all the narratives that you hear them saying become really useful information because that's the stuff we don't want to tap into. We don't even want to negate it or do myth-busting, right? So if they said something like, “I don't give leafy green vegetables because they're dangerous,” which would reflect that they are thinking, “I've heard they've got toxins that are bad for babies.” If this is what the person is thinking, then just by talking about how safe they are—“Leafy greens don't have toxins”—all you would be doing is reminding them: “But my mother-in-law said they did have toxins, and who are you? I don't know if I believe you. I just don't wanna take any risks.” Now the focus would be on those toxins.
Inspire: So, in other words you'd just never go near that, you'd stick to some other aspect.
Mark: You have to stick to something. You have to know what your story is. So you know, if I'm not going to talk about the toxin stuff, what is it when people do want leafy greens for the kids? Why do they do it? I go straight to that. So, let's say for argument's sake someone says, “I've heard the leafy greens are toxic.” My response would be, “There's a lot of outdated information about it.” I wouldn't repeat the method. “What we know is that many families feed their children leafy greens because they see the way it makes them stronger, and less likely to be sick.” I activate a story of, “Well that sounds really good. That's exactly what I want for my child.” And we pivot straight away from that toxic stuff.
Inspire: It is so helpful to hear the depth of information you gather before you’re able to find the right story and avoid those unhelpful frames. It makes me think there may be much more that the nutrition community needs to be doing before landing on our messaging for policy advocacy and SBCC campaigns. Any last tips for our readers?
Tip 3: Repeat and reinforce your story wherever possible
Mark: What we're really doing is strengthening stories inside people's brains by repeating those stories as often as possible so that those neurons fire together, and then they wire together, and then they become easier to activate. It’s all about having as coherent and consistent a story as possible, told by as many actors as possible, so that the person at the end of the day—our audience—hears that story repeated over, and over, and over, and over again through different words and using different examples. This is why a simple story is good because then we can all be telling that same story every time, whether we're talking about leafy greens or we're talking about breastmilk or we're talking about whatever. And then over time that becomes the dominant story because we've strengthened it to the point where it becomes stronger than the other stories out there. So we've got this dominant story at the moment and what we're doing is we're not telling the counter story, so it grows weaker over time because it's sort of like a muscle that hasn't been activated. It grows weaker, and we're telling our story until it becomes a dominant story. We're not trying to wipe out the other story. We're not trying to debunk it because all we would be doing is strengthening it by talking about it. It's about strengthening our stories and allowing the other stories to wither away by not repeating them and the ideas that form those stories.
Inspire: Thank you so much, Mark. You’ve really given us a lot to think about in these last two Inspire pieces.
If you haven’t seen the first framing piece from Mark and Sandro, check it out here.