“Conservatives create moral messages. The Democrats create policy messages, and policy messages either go over people’s heads or bore them.”
That’s George Lakoff talking (to NPR). The well-known messaging expert and linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says that Obama missed an opportunity to frame health care reform as a moral imperative. Instead, the president focused on 24 points of policy.
On the flip side, opponents of Obama’s health care law simply say it’s bad. Then they say repeatedly how it’s bad in a bunch of different ways: job-killing, reckless, expensive, unsustainable, “an economic and fiscal disaster of unprecedented proportions” (according to House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier). Opponents barely have to say anything about the substance of the law. They don’t bother with nuance, or gray areas, or details, or even numbers to back up their claims.
Their language goes for the gut and the heart, not just the mind. The result: the message is simple, powerful, and easy to remember.
More from Lakoff:
“What the conservatives did—what they’re still doing—is using a moral message about freedom and about life. They’re still screaming ‘death panels’ and those are moral messages,” he says.
The health care law’s supporters, on the other hand, are still talking about policy, when they could be talking about freedom and life, too, he says. “If you are sick and you have cancer and you are not insured, you are not free—and your life is threatened. It is very clear this is about freedom and life.”
The most effective pro-reform communications have illustrated in concrete terms how the new law affects real people. This was a strategy proposed by Seattle’s Bob Crittenden, a family practice physician and medical school professor, who is also executive director of the Herndon Alliance, a group that’s helped shape the message for dozens of other groups that support the law. Crittenden has advised messengers to make the legislation less complicated by “put[ting] the provisions of the health care bill into personal terms, through stories and real things; how it really affects people.” Concrete, visual, and personal—this is compelling stuff.
As NPR reports, the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act (titled Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act) is expected to pass the House easily but die in the Senate.
But the messaging lessons live on. They apply to health care and myriad other issues facing our families and communities these days. Lesson number one: Own the moral high ground! Don’t shy away from values messages and moral language. And, two: Make it personal. Cut the laundry list of policy provisions down to a few really central ideas and then, with stories and vivid examples, show (not just tell) people how these central ideas connect to their own lives—their kids, their grandparents, their neighborhood. It’s a powerful combination, no matter what policy you’re talking about.
Image courtesy Chelle, MorgueFile.