Recent rash remarks and extreme ideas from the Romney/Ryan team have altered the political landscape. Before all that, polls had shown there were few undecided voters left. Now that’s not such a sure thing. There’s a new spotlight on character, on our shared ideals of American public morality, and on what kind of future we Americans really want together. How candidates talk about the issues matters more than ever. How the legions of “get-out-the-vote” volunteers do it may matter even more. That’s why we all need to remember how to “speak American” in those vital conversations this fall. “Speaking American” means using easily understand American political metaphors and images to carry your message, phrases like “play by the rules,” or “pay a fair share.” And to help you identify the ones right for you, here’s an emergency American Framing primer. It can work as a refresher or an intro, if it’s new to you.
Although you can’t always guess in advance what kind of people will be on the other end of your phone bank call or on the other side of the door, the first step in learning to speak American is thinking hard about your potential audience. You need to do this before you pick up the phone or approach a single door. Think about who those people might be, how they are feeling, and how they would talk about the issues right now. Pay particular attention to the second point: how they would talk. That’s a bit different from what their opinions might be. It’s about exactly what words, images, or metaphors they might use. Jot down a few of these specific words and phrases. (Stumped? Think about what G.O.P. candidates repeatedly say these days about “smaller government,” “government spending,” “regulatory relief,” “government going broke,” and “tax relief that creates jobs.” ) Your job is to stay calm when you hear these and have something useful to say later on.
Next, plan to acknowledge peoples’ feelings in an empathic way, at the beginning of your conversation. A great deal has been said in recent years about empathy being a progressive value. You can model empathy by giving the person you approach the feeling that you understand his or her concerns. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with their ideas about the solution to their worries. Establishing common ground over being worried about our country is your first goal, and these days, that shouldn’t be a hard job for any of us!
After you have adopted that stance, the next two steps in your preparation for actual contact should come easier: Commit to using simple, feeling-toned, story-telling language yourself. Avoid abstract, multisyllabic words, complex arguments, statistics, insider language, jargon, and long strings of talking points. Recent findings in the field of cognitive science have demonstrated definitively that those verbal tactics don’t work when you are actually in conversation with people. Moreover, simply negating the opponent’s sound bites fails too (as in “money is not speech,” for example), because you are just reinforcing the same “frames” people are used to hearing from our opponents, instead of countering them with something new. It turns out that the brain deals with the negative version only after it has already recognized the implied positive version.(1) By then it is too late; the reinforcing damage has been done. (To learn how to counter with something totally different, see my recent blog post, “Counter-frame it! How to Stop Using Their Words,” reposted on our website.)
The simple, feeling-toned story you are getting ready to tell should also be one that conveys ideal American values (which are actually progressive values) in a short but smart format, like a proverb or a sound bite. “Fair rules enforced fairly protect us all,” is an example of how to do that. To get ideas about which well known American cultural metaphors or story elements would best express your message, consult free Metaphor Project resources like the American Story Elements list and the American Metaphor Categories list posted on http://www.metaphorproject.org. (Look for these under the Resources link or just scroll down to the bottom of our home page to the quick links.)
Of course, there’s a lot more to effective American Framing than this; you can find out all about that on the site too. And Professor Lakoff is right in saying that you need to be clear about what your own moral values are first, and then about what ideas would convey them.(2) That’s all work that precedes getting down to the nitty-gritty of deciding exactly how you are going to say it. That final step requires saying it in language your audience can actually hear. It’s a big challenge, especially now, when the pressure mounts daily, and the situation is in radical flux. But with the right preparation and the right tools, we progressives can all speak American to the other Americans we meet this fall, whether on the phone, when the door opens, or everywhere else.
I hope this simple “first aid” version of how to do American Framing will help with all of that. So good luck to you all and to us all in this country we so fervently wish to save on November 6, 2012! Let’s hope that 2013 will be the year we Americans start to spiral up again, all together again.
Susan C. Strong is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, , and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How To Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.
- In the question and answer period after a talk given at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in early September, 2012, George Lakoff reported that recent cognitive science research had now proven this point.
- This statement is my summary of the gist of George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling’s newly published work, The Little Blue Book.