As Robin Wall Kimmer writes, “To be heard, you must speak the language of the one you want to listen.” Your messages need to reach different audiences, galvanize a shared interest in your solution, and help move them towards action.
If there is widespread understanding of a problem and a shared interest in your solution, your messaging strategy can be straightforward. But you may be trying to reach audiences with divergent values and concerns, which means you’ll need to develop a set of core messages that do a lot of heavy lifting.
Typically, housing and community development practitioners bring out lots of research, statistics, and facts. Unfortunately, this information often falls flat because it runs into what Dr. Tiffany Manuel describes as “The Traps.”19 These traps include:
- Backfires: The data and research lacks resonance because people feel disconnected from the issue or disagree with the solutions, or the information reinforces negative stereotypes.
- Backpacks: People cannot process the information because they are focused on solutions that do not meaningfully address the root causes of the issue.
- Bedtime Stories: People view the issue through old stories or experiences, so the information triggers antiquated ideas about the problem and solution, regardless of what it actually says.
To counter these traps, Dr. Manuel lays out ten core principles of strategic casemaking:
- Explain the we and why before the what or how many by speaking to the aspirations and motivations of the people you’re talking to.
- Navigate the dominant narratives by reframing conversations toward more productive spaces rather than trying to talk people out of their ideas.
- Tell the story of us by including the people whose support you need, the lived experiences of the people who will benefit, and the system you are trying to change.
- Anchor and credential solutions instead of burying your listeners in a barrage of facts about the problems.
- Make the system and equity issues visible by explaining what the systems do, why they are essential to people’s lives, and how change will be better for everyone.
- Build a shared stake by positioning the issue as our collective responsibility.
- Clarify the strategic horizon or catalytic moment to build momentum by connecting your cause to bigger issues in your community.
- Break down the consequences of inaction.
- Connect to the value proposition by linking the issue you are trying to solve with problems other people are trying to solve.
- Use a results framework to provide clarity about your goals and how you will measure success.
- Does the material you already have push you into any of the traps? If so, how?
- What are the different metaphors and stories that will resonate with your different audiences?
- Taking into account your audiences and the 10 principles of strategic casemaking, draft two to three different messages that make your case.
- Which of these messages are most likely to align your prospective partners and constituencies? You may want to reach out to different organizations to test your ideas.
When crafting and framing your messages, keep in mind Daniel Kahneman’s principles from his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.20 Kahneman frames our thought patterns as two systems: thinking fast, which is quick, instinctive, and emotional, and thinking slow, which is more measured, analytical, and deliberative. Compelling data and thoughtful strategies can be eviscerated if your overall framing triggers a fast-thinking negative response, while half-baked ideas can take off if people react quickly and positively to a specific element of your message.
Ideally, your messages should aim to slow people down, so they can really absorb what you are trying to convey. Humor, surprise, unconventional stories or storytellers, visual representation, and experiential learning are communication tools that engage people’s slow-thinking minds and help them connect to your message in new ways.