This year April is march month: the Tax march on 4.15, the Science March on 4.22 and the People’s Climate March on 4.29. As a tactic, marching does create a highly visible sign of resistance. Large numbers of people have made it a priority to drop whatever they do on Saturdays and show up in the streets. That in itself is good, but even better if it clearly expresses a larger vision and the goals, strategies and tactics that keep the message alive beyond a day in the streets. Ideally, the words on our march signs should reflect the results of that strategic process too. And effective messaging requires a keen awareness of who the audiences are for our signs.
Now I know that when it comes to actually making signs for a march, self-expression, general feistiness and exuberance come to the fore. After all, seeing what other people have written is a major form of entertainment as your march slowly pokes along. The wittiest or the most outrageous may even garner mainstream media attention and certainly a place on social media. And it’s true that for folks who strongly disagree with the focus of a march in the first place, it doesn’t matter what your signs say. They won’t be moved.
But let’s back up a bit here and look at what strategic framing requires. Let’s consider who the audiences are for our march signs. First, it’s the D.C. politicians. Then it may well be the people who voted for Trump when Bernie was driven out. Add to that those who used to be Democrats but voted for Trump out of disgust with the party’s policies re trade, jobs, and its habit of cozying up to the 1%. To get real change, we must bring a great many more of these Americans on board our freedom train too.
The next step in our strategic framing process is being clear about our audience’s feelings. My thinking is that the politicians are feeling nervous right now. The other groups described above might be united in horror at something the new administration and Congress are doing, though they may not have made the transition to active resistance yet. What they may also be feeling right now is despair and hopelessness, as well as rage and helplessness. So feeding people’s rage and despair with an angry, negative, sarcastic, or ironic sign won’t give them (or us) anything new. What’s needed most is the story of what we want instead. Stories persuade.
So we need to start our framing process with a positive story. Let’s reconnect with a big, positive vision of our American future. Fleshing out the details of how our positive vision can solve a current problem comes next—be it Trump’s tax return scam, the attack on science, gutting environmental protections of every kind, or anything else. Then we need to describe the people who will to carry out these tasks and how they did it. Of course we can’t put all of this on a street sign for a march. But this story process prepares us to come up with short phrases that quickly evoke our message.
Now it’s time to marry our stories with words that are colloquially “American.” No abstract multisyllabic, Latinate words like those two. Our phrases must also be free of a lot of facts, stats, or historical references. They should be aspirational instead, a quality that communications research has shown works best. For example the word “rules” evokes a key part of the Ideal American Identity story, our being a country ruled by law, with fairness and equality of opportunity. So we can say things like “Restore/Bring back/ Save/Protect the rules that keep America clean/ safe/ pure/ protected from bank/Wall Street abuse/ etc.”
To help everyone find other American words to express our stories, the Metaphor Project offers two lists of memory joggers, The American Story Elements and American Metaphor Categories. These tools can help us recall suitable language, images, popular metaphors, and catch phrases we already know implicitly. Combining these with our positive solutions or demands in a brainstorming process can create “American truth bites” that take a variety of forms. Some may use tried and true variations of familiar phrases (“change course” instead of ”stay the course”), while others reframe familiar phrases more effectively (“Say gun safety, not gun control!” Instead of saying “no x,” which cognitive scientists tell us is heard as just “x,” we can say “Y [something we want], not x.”) We can also combine familiar elements from widely disparate sources to create a brand new idea (“marriage equality” or “community rights”). Then there’s creating new words and ideas by combining familiar elements in a single new word (“frankenfood” from Frankenstein + food).
Thinking about what we are saying and how it might sound to someone different from you is key. For example, RyanFakeCare or GOPFakeCare would have been a lot smarter framing than RyanCare or Trumpcare. Trump voters might have mistaken the latter for a real thing—Trump caring about them! That was truly dumb progressive framing. Mere labelling, venting, and being subtle, sarcastic, or ironic fails to create positive momentum in a dire political moment like this one. We need to be objective when we decide if our newly formed street messages can meet the following tests: can they go viral? Are they truly mainstream, not just progressive jargon, self-defeating in-group humor or insults? Are they concrete, not abstract? Do they evoke a familiar American story and point to a positive idea? VIP, do they have rhythm? Say them out loud to find out, before parading them on a sign. Even though signs carry written language, the brain reads them as spoken language. Watch out for clunkers. We must always try to “speak American” now, no matter how we do it! (See the postscripts below for a few more specific sign suggestions and a general note with link about applying all of the above ideas to our full range of concerns.)
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong and check out her TEDx talk too.
Postscript #1: Here are a few simple sign ideas for the marches coming up in April:
For the Tax March:
Show us the Tax Forms! (Evokes “show us the money”)!
Show us where your money goes, POTUS!
For the Science March:
Science keeps America free!
Protect American science from DC polluters!
American progress depends on American science!
America’s future depends on good science!
America’s economy depends on good science!
For the People’s Climate March:
See the suggestions in this blog above and my blog at this link: http://metaphorproject.org/say-clean-energy-jobs-now/
The strategic framing process I’ve described in this blog actually applies to any political messaging situation we find ourselves in now. That includes contacting, visiting, or demonstrating at our legislators’ offices, and general voter outreach. But, you might say, how does the advice given above to go positive fly, when what we want our legislators to do is vote against all the horrid bills the current Congress is bringing to the floor? The answer is the “X, not Y” formula. We need to keep on saying what we want instead, as well as what we are very much against. And we need to be “speaking American” when we do it. To see more about how to “speak American” across the full range of our concerns now and in the future, see my blog, “Getting Heard Beyond the Choir,” at metaphorproject.org/…