Effective Advocacy: Engage in Effective Communication
In your advocacy work, you’re going to spend a lot of time communicating with others, such as allies (and potential allies), opponents, stakeholders, decision makers, media, and the public.
Effective communication is a powerful tool for building relationships with and influencing others.(See the section on relational literacy.)
Here are some general guidelines for communication:
- Foster positive emotions.
- Customize the message so that it resonates with the underlying values and interests of whomever you’re communicating with.
- Use concrete, visual language.
- Tell powerful stories.
- Be inclusive (show the connections between people, animals, planet).
- Ensure your communications are accessible to a variety of folks (e.g., people with disabilities, people whose first language isn’t the language in which you’re communicating).
- Be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances so that you can strive for the best possible outcome.
- Include specific calls to action when appropriate.
When you’re communicating with others, whether it’s potential allies, decision makers, or the public, consider the importance of strategies such as these:
1. Start from where they are.
You want positive change now. But to be more effective, start your communications from where people are, rather than from where you want them to be.
It’s also important not to make assumptions about what people know or don’t know, so do research ahead of time when possible to learn about the views, values, and experiences of those you’ll be communicating with. Observe and listen to them.
2. Make sure it’s the right time.
To be open to your message, people need to be ready. They need the right time in the right setting with the right approach. If people are feeling triggered or defensive, or the primary topic or circumstance isn’t connected to your issue, then a better strategy might be to wait.
3. Look for common ground.
Most people care about justice, kindness, and suffering. Most people want love and security and liberty. Seek out what you have in common with those you’re trying to reach and build from there.
4. Share accurate, truthful information.
Providing accurate information is a key. Your credibility matters, so never mislead or exaggerate, and verify the facts that you share. If you don’t know the answer to a question or counterargument, offer to find out and get back to them. That builds credibility. Admitting mistakes when you’re in error also demonstrates your integrity.
5. Communicate without judging.
If you bring judgment to your interactions with others (even unconsciously), they’re likely to become defensive and shut down—or to escalate and react negatively. It’s important to remember that we’re all in different places in our acceptance of human and animal rights and wellbeing, and building positive relationships is essential.
6. Listen for the underlying need.
Whether you’re talking to potential allies, opponents, or decision makers, everyone will be expressing their underlying needs. When you pay attention to what people are saying (or not saying), and how they’re saying it, you can often discern their underlying needs and foundational motivations. Once you understand their needs, concerns, and desires, you can more effectively communicate with them and reduce their resistance to your area of concern.
7. Ask questions.
Using questions and statements such as “Tell me more” or “What makes you feel that way?” or “What brought you to that conclusion?” allows you to find out more about people’s beliefs and concerns. Asking them insightful questions can also show how you and they share commonalities in values or how they have inconsistences in their beliefs and actions and can also lead them to answering their own questions and to thinking more critically about the issue being discussed.
8. Inspire critical thinking.
Helping people understand the connections and complexities surrounding the issue can help spark critical thinking, which can lead to deeper understandings and even changes in behaviors and beliefs. Helping people think critically can also reduce their vulnerability to false and misleading information.
9. Have ready responses.
Do your homework ahead of time so that you’re ready for any question, challenge, or concern that arises. Have go-to resources that you can share with them. Knowing what questions or challenges they’re likely to have reduces the pressure on you and can help strengthen your position.
10. Acknowledge what others say without necessarily validating it.
People need to feel heard. You don’t have to agree with what they say, but you can let them know that you care about them and their concerns. Acknowledging that “I hear what you’re saying” or “I understand that you have a concern about that” can go a long way in building stronger relationships.
11. Pay attention to language and framing.
What you say and how you say it matters. The specific language people choose and how they choose to talk (or not talk) about issues influences how others perceive them. When advocates use “undocumented worker” instead of “illegal alien” or talk about “cows” instead of “beef,” you can affect others’ worldviews. Talking about taxes as an investment instead of as a burden, or highlighting the connection of the climate crisis to security and patriotism, is using framing.
(See more in our section on language and framing.)
12. Share personal stories.
Research shows that stories are often more motivating than are facts and statistics. Include personal stories of humans and nonhumans whenever possible. And sharing your own personal stories as a springboard to talk about issues can decrease defensiveness and build bridges, as well as educate.
13. Offer positive choices and solutions.
People need to be able to work FOR something, not just AGAINST something. They also need to know that they can make a difference. It’s important to emphasize meaningful solutions and to offer people concrete, realistic choices for effective action.
14. Focus on building relationships.
Focus on cultivating meaningful relationships with others, rather than on “winning” or getting your way. People get triggered if they feel like you’re trying to change them or tell them what to do. Having a respectful discussion in which the goal is mutual understanding can go a long way in cultivating trust and openness.
Use these strategies for communicating whether you’re writing, speaking, posting on social media, or engaging in other kinds of communication.