Brian Lamb: A good campaign isn't just factual - it speaks to our values and emotions

It is crucial to frame communications or run the risk of losing out to a different view, writes our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

Global warming advocate or climate change denier? Scroungers or strivers? These key opposites underlie attempts to frame public debate.

The US National Climate Assessment, published recently, included the latest scientific and, to most observers, overwhelming evidence supporting the case for climate change. Yet a slight revision in the Met Office figures on temperature averages (still rising, but not quite as fast as predicted) unleashed a torrent of climate change sceptics claiming that global warming had stopped.

Then we have the case of scroungers versus strivers, which has been the government's key way of framing the debate about the need for welfare reform. As a frame, it taps into a long tradition of dividing the deserving and undeserving poor. It has dominated the debate and linked to a powerful narrative about the benefits of work that has secured public support.

These debates point to how crucial it is to frame communications or run the risk of losing out to a different view. It used to be thought that simply stating the facts was enough for good communications to win arguments, but that is obviously not the case when scientific evidence for global warming is overwhelming, yet many people still think that it's a myth.

Convincing the public

In these debates, both sides have deployed acres of figures, but what counts in convincing the public is that your argument appeals to deeply rooted values and emotions that determine to some extent which facts are believed.

Frames present an overall way of simplifying and seeing the world, and can also tap into and trigger powerful emotions and values. Some commentators on political communication would go so far as to say that facts will not disrupt the way frames - and therefore our beliefs and views - are constructed.

Different ways of framing issues can make your 'facts' more believable or relevant to your audience. The debate about what actually constitutes poverty is not going to be settled by 'facts' but by a view on what a reasonable standard of living looks like - and framing is crucial to this.

For climate change, benefit reform or any other issue, there are some basic rules about how communications are framed that can help you win support and shape the way your campaigns can appeal to the widest audience.

First, frame the debate on your terms, not those of your opponents, and remember that facts do not necessarily speak for themselves.

Second, look for the compelling narrative in your campaign. People are moved not by abstractions of numbers but by human stories or a narrative that illustrates your point. Examples of benefit fraud or workers who cannot afford to heat their houses are, by themselves, more powerful than a whole series of 'facts'.

Third, watch your language. Think of how your choice of words appeals to those you are talking to, and mirror that. Don't use technical language when you can paint a picture that people will understand, using plain English.

Don't fight fact with fact but look to frame the debate - and remember that securing change is as much about appealing to values, passion and emotions. That should not be difficult for the sector.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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