Effective Advocacy: Language and Framing
Understanding the language and framing used by others, and choosing the language and framing that best work for your social change goals, are key to increasing your effectiveness as an advocate.
Choose Your Language
The language we use to inspire and persuade matters. What resonates with one citizen or decision maker will turn off someone else. And language can be used to help or harm.
As effective advocates, it’s important that we use language that
- avoids oppressing or exploiting others or making them invisible (it reflects respect and dignity for humans and nonhumans);
- is compassionate and respectful (it reflects compassion and integrity);
- avoids confusion (it is honest, transparent, and forthright);
- is customized according to the situation, goal, and people involved (it needs to be flexible and strategic);
- represents the underlying values of those we’re trying to reach (e.g., safety, justice, accountability, collective good);
- reflects evidence-based practices (we must pay attention to what works and what doesn’t);
- furthers our goals (we want people to shift their language use, their worldviews, and their choices).
Language has influence.
For example, some meteorologists are changing the way they talk about the weather impacts of the climate crisis by finding ways to separate potentially triggering terminology from their explanations.
Studies show that some people react more positively to the term “plant-based” than they do to vegetarian or vegan labels. Another study showed that renaming plant-based dishes to emphasize taste, origin, or other appealing terms increased sales of those items.
When we use terms like “owner” instead of “guardian” for our relationship with our animal companions, or we use “it” to refer to nonhuman animals, it can influence our mental models about the status and rights of those other beings.
It’s also important to be aware of and to call attention to euphemisms, which are often used to conceal or to otherwise mislead or to downplay harmful realities.
- Secret interrogation/torture sites = “black sites”
- Beating = “mild, non-injurious physical contact”
- Sleep deprivation = “sleep management”
- Sexual assault = “rectal hydration”
- Hypo/hyperthermia = “temperature manipulation”
- Suffocation/near drowning = “waterboarding”
- Torture = “enhanced interrogation techniques”
The meat and dairy industries use terminology such as “concentrated animal feeding operations” to describe the crammed, inhumane places in which they hold tens of thousands of animals in a single location. “Depopulation” is what they do to millions of farmed animals when they decide to conduct a mass killing for disease, economic, or similar reasons.
“Broilers” are the chickens raised to be eaten. A “gestation crate” is the tiny metal and concrete cage in which pregnant pigs are confined until they’re ready to give birth. And these animals are “harvested” to become food.
- Electric shocks = “negative reinforcement” or “noxious stimuli”
- Forced isolation = “single housing”
- Severe pain and distress = “stressful research protocols”
- Separating babies from their mothers and peers = “nursery rearing” or “limited socialization”
- Injuring/killing animals for military purposes = “live tissue training”
- Killing animals = “sacrifice”
Additionally, our language continues to transform in tandem with evolutions in our ethics and social norms. How we talk about people with disabilities, people in other marginalized groups, nonhuman animals, our natural world, and social change issues matters.
There are an increasing number of style guides offering recommendations for best practices in using language to advance the rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet.
Here are a few recommendations:
Animals and Media: A Style Guide for Giving Voice to the Voiceless by Animals and Media
The Conscious Style Guide by Karen Yin
Disability Language Style Guide by National Center on Disability and Journalism
GLAAD Media Reference Guide by GLAAD
A Progressive’s Style Guide by SumOfUs
Race Reporting Guide by Race Forward
Reporting and Indigenous Terminology by Native American Journalists Association
Choose Your Framing
“Every message—whether written, spoken, illustrated, or signed—is presented through a frame of some kind. Simply put, every communication is framed.” ~ FrameWorks Institute
George Lakoff describes frames as “the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality—and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.”
Understanding and using framing is helpful both for calling out actors and actions that cause harm, and for furthering our social change goals.
The FrameWorks Institute notes that “framing is the choices we make in what we say and how we say it:
What we emphasize
How and what we explain
What we leave unsaid.”
And as Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough of the Center for Story-based Strategy note, “you must be willing to accept that the facts of your case are not enough for you to win. Framing is a struggle over meaning.”
Find out more about what’s in a frame.
Here are some things to consider when deciding how to frame around your issue:
1. Know your audience.
Know their values, underlying needs, triggers, and lexicon, and customize accordingly.
2. Lead with values and solutions.
Connect with people through the common values that resonate with them, and show them the solution and its benefits.
While it may be tempting to frame issues in terms of values related to self-interest and economic worth, studies show that that kind of framing influences people to be less empathetic and less interested in the wellbeing of others. Focus instead on values such as freedom, justice, solidarity, and universal wellbeing.
3. Highlight the problem, but not to a degree that provokes a sense of helplessness.
People need to be informed, but not so much that they become defensive, feel disempowered, or experience compassion fatigue. Experiment with the most compelling and engaging information to find what sticks (which will vary according to the audience).
4. Be clear about the cause of the problem—and the solutions.
Show the root causes of the problem and how those causes are connected to our systems and institutions (rather than to individual fault or weakness) and then reveal the solutions.
5. Make the change seem possible.
People mostly want things to be “easy,” “normal,” and “natural.” Show how you can work together to solve the problem.
6. Make facts part of a story, but don’t use them on their own.
Frames are value-based, and humans largely make decisions driven by their values and emotions. Include facts, but put them in the context of the frame you’re using.
7. Highlight the intrinsic worth and commonalities of the people, animals, and/or planet you’re advocating for.
Show how much we all have in common, how our fates are connected, and the basic needs and rights that we share.
8. Choose your language and messaging carefully.
In addition to using language that resonates with your audience’s values, be aware of euphemisms and how they affect framing.
Also avoid jargon. Use language that isn’t difficult for the general public to understand.
Also frame your messaging so that you highlight the values and solutions.
See this message development worksheet from Berkeley Media Studies Group.
And look at this comparison of the traps and best practices for messaging framing from the Public Interest Research Centre:
Image from The Framing Nature Toolkit CC BY-SA 4.0 by the Public Interest Research Centre.
Image from The Framing Nature Toolkit CC BY-SA 4.0 by the Public Interest Research Centre.
Pax Fauna, an organization working on animal protection issues, has released a useful report on the importance of framing around the harms of animal farming.
9. Be aware of cultural and social mythologies.
In the US, among some people there are cultural mythologies—such as rugged individualism, the land of opportunity, the rule of law, and the American dream—which are often used to frame issues and arguments. Other countries and cultures have their own unique mythologies.
And there are widespread mythologies, such as that we need constant economic growth to increase wellbeing, or that nonhuman animals are here for us to use.
Be aware of how others use these frames, and consider how you can communicate around your issue with them.
10. Watch out for “blame frames.”
Frames related to personal responsibility, “bad choices,” and similar frames have been used to blame and vilify the oppressed and exploited—for example, by saying that people who are poor or jobless or houseless are that way through their own actions.
Frames can be used to justify injustice by blaming or discounting the victims, so strategize your framing to avoid this pitfall, and pay attention to who uses this kind of framing and how.
11. Avoid repeating harmful frames.
Studies have shown that when organizations publish a list of myths and corrections, people tend to remember the myths rather than the correct information. Likewise, when advocates repeat a harmful frame, people tend to remember that frame, rather than your message.
Reword the message to reflect your own frame, rather than repeating a harmful frame.
12. Use images effectively.
Photos, art, and other images can be powerful and effective. Be sure they complement your frame.
For example, are there active people in the images? Are the images inspiring? Do they tell the story of what you’re working for?
The images also need to resonate with the values of your audience. Climate Visuals has developed seven core principles, based on social research, for using images for climate change communication.
Those principles include showing “real” people, showing climate causes and impacts at scale and local to your target audience, and customizing based on your audience’s values.
Framing your issue and its messaging is a key component of successfully reaching your goals.
Framing in Race-Conscious, Antipoverty Advocacy: A Science-Based Guide to Delivering Your Most Persuasive Message by Clearinghouse Review
Framing Nature Toolkit by the Public Interest Research Centre
For more information about framing for social change, see: