April 2006: Talking Opportunity in America
By Susan Strong
To create change, we must frame our messages as part of the hopeful American story -a story about what America should be. Fortunately, telling this story isn't much of a stretch, because it authentically is our dream: a fair nation that consistently creates prosperity and protects opportunity for all. To best tell this story, we need to incorporate the words, images, and metaphors that evoke these ideal American values in our daily work. I call this 'speaking American.'
The Land of Opportunity
There is a persistent (if misguided) idea in our society that everyone already has the opportunity to succeed just by living in America. This idealized understanding of opportunity often combines in people's minds with the widely held belief in 'individual responsibility' ‚Äî the idea that in America it is up to individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In this frame, those who fail just aren't trying hard enough.
On the face of it, this combination of ideas looks like a tough one for us to reframe. But right now there is a widespread feeling that the country is going the wrong direction. Sad as it is, this situation is actually helpful for promoting expanded opportunity. Since more people are experiencing barriers to opportunity, more people are open to new ideas about how to expand opportunity. Now is the time to take control of the Opportunity Frame.
Play Fair: Sports Metaphors
Hard work is highly valued in America; it's the quickest and surest way to gain respect in this country. There is a strong sense that the American people's hard work has created our country's success. In the American story, hard work should also lead to individual success and advancement, so any conditions that block people from working as hard as they can are considered unfair. Anything that hampers people trying hard to better their lot is also viewed as unjust. The ideal American story dictates that everyone here should get a fair deal and a fair shot at success, but it's not fair or smart that people are denied the opportunity to work hard and get ahead by things like easily preventable illnesses, lack of the necessary basic education and skills, or even outright job discrimination based on race, ethnicity or gender.
If all this talk about fair play, fair deals, and fair shots has you thinking about the NBA finals, that's because Americans use a lot of sports metaphors to express deeply held ideas about what we value. In promoting the Opportunity frame, effective metaphors include those that emphasize teamwork (in which all Americans are on the same team) and fair play for all, while avoiding the imagery of competition between Americans--or between different groups of Americans--for scarce resources. Also effective are metaphors that invoke the tearing down the walls that block opportunity so that all Americans can work hard and contribute to the American team.
An American 'Can Do' Attitude
Americans are optimists. They hate failure and love success. If the messages we choose to employ focus consistently on how our country is headed in the wrong direction, we risk of alienating our audience. The American story contains some clear norms about how to make a comeback. We 'find out what works,' and we 'make it happen.' We are the ones who can 'change direction' and 'move ahead on a new path.' We know how to 'remove blocks' and 'improve conditions.' And we 'never give up.' We develop smart, innovative, effective, participatory, empowering solutions. We 'try harder,' and we 'build a better future for everyone.'
Using enduring American images, phrases, ideas and metaphors like these can make sure we evoke the best and most widely shared American values when we speak to mainstream audiences. 'Speaking American' in this way can help you connect with people in a way they'll easily understand, reframe the debate about opportunity, and change minds.
(This piece was published in the Opportunity Tool Kit by The Opportunity Agenda in April, 2006.)