Love him or leave him, agree or disagree (…with his science or his conclusions or his politics…), George Lakoff has been enormously successful in getting lots of us thinking about how the brain processes words and language—about framing.

And while many of his specific frame recommendations over the years may have been too complicated or too lofty to put to work, his insistence more generally that language is never neutral and his pleas to proactively frame the debate and to link our values and moral convictions to policy solutions undoubtedly took us in the right direction.

Lakoff’s latest framing handbook is hot off the presses: The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (co-authored by Elisabeth Wehling). The book is most successful 1) as a reminder to never check your values and morals at the door when talking policy; and 2) as a thoughtful treatise on how we define our vision for the nation and how we talk about government in moral terms.

But despite promising sounding chapter titles like “A Phrasebook” and talking points under headings declaring “Here’s what to say,” the book left me hungry for clearer takeaways.

So, I’ve taken the liberty to distill the Little Blue Book into something even littler—a Flashcard (with longer explanations below.) My aim is to give busy people the “Cliff Notes” version—a pocket guide to Lakoff’s messaging lessons that actually fits in your pocket.

And in a subsequent post, I’ll distill Lakoff’s talking points for defining the role of government in moral terms.

First the basics:

Lakoff’s Little Blue Book

  • Never check your morals at the door—talk about them! (Always sandwich facts and figures in values.)
  • Don’t repeat the opposition’s language, even when arguing against it.
  • Words don’t mean the same thing to everybody. Explain big ideas—freedom, fairness, democracy—in terms of your moral vision.
  • Say it simply and bring it home—use plain language and tell stories about real people.
  • Start with solid ideas! Words are tools for connecting ideas to our moral values.
  • Practice, practice, practice—and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Lakoff 101 in a bit more depth—but still quite little

Oddly, a list of the “Most Important Things” from The Little Blue Book is available on the book’s blog (The Little Blue Blog) and in the publisher’s publicity materials, but not in the book itself, where you have to hunt for them (or guess at them). So, for the Flashcard and for the summary below, I mashed up the “official” top 10 list from the publisher with my own notes from the book—so this is my version of a Lakoff 101.

  • Never check your moral values at the door—talk about them! Lakoff likes to remind us that “All politics is moral, and morality trumps policy.” All of us have values and morals—the problem is not deciding what they are. The problem is that many of us fail to express the moral dimensions of our policy positions. We make the grave mistake of assuming our values and morals are simply implied or understood. Lakoff urges us to talk about the moral bases of our policy positions openly and regularly.
  • Always sandwich your facts and figures in values and morals. Facts have little meaning outside of frames, metaphors, and moral narratives. Always discuss facts (and policy) within moral frames, because people do not reason outside of those moral frames.
  • “Don’t repeat the opposition’s language or ideas, even when arguing against them.” Instead, use your own language, say what you believe, and express the moral underpinnings for your position. It is particularly important to start with your beliefs (and frames). What comes first provides the lens through which the rest will be viewed. (Remember: Evoking the negative frame reinforces it. Think: “I am not a crook.”)
  • Words don’t mean the same thing to everybody. Explain big ideas—freedom, fairness, democracy—in terms of your moral vision. Don’t take the meaning of big ideas or values for granted. Each comes in at least two versions depending on one’s political worldview. So when you talk about those ideas, make sure you are talking about YOUR version—and taking the time to explain what you mean.
  • Everybody is morally complex—by expressing our morals we find common ground. (See: biconceptual). All of us, but especially “Moderates,” “independents,” and “swing voters” will use conservative moral frames on some issues and progressive moral frames on others. Reinforce the morality you share with others by using YOUR moral language.
  • Say it simply—in plain terms. Stick to basic level words. In cognitive science that means words that tend to be short and concrete (e.g. chair rather than furniture; water or air vs. environment.) Basic level words are more easily remembered. They also tend to more readily bring clear, familiar imagery to mind. They also tend to evoke body reactions (in brain science “motor programs”). Think of the physical reaction we have to the word cat vs. the more abstract concept of animal. Simple words are more potent. (Think: Can I see it, touch it, smell or hear it? Could I draw a picture or pantomime it?)
  • Bring it home—tell stories about real people. People want to know how policies affect their own lives. Share stories about real people and don’t be afraid to talk about yourself and your own motivations. “Share the stories that inspire you to work for this country,” or for your community.
  • Start with solid ideas! Words are good tools connecting ideas to our moral values. Lakoff reminds us that it’s not just words that matter. “If you think you have a language problem, you really have an idea problem,” he insists. Ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas. Words, messages, and language are tools to use to better connect your ideas to your values and morals. To get language right, you have to understand the thoughts and ideas it conjures up.
  • Practice, practice, practice—and repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s often difficult for policy wonks to express values and morals. But if we don’t define central political frames in terms of our own morals and values, they’ll be defined for us. Practice helps us feel comfortable saying it out loud. “Repetition strengthens frames. Repeat your own moral frames over and over, every hour of every day of every year.”

There are the key lessons in a nutshell. Stay tuned for a distilled take on Lakoff on talking about government.

And for the record, Sightline’s work is not directed at Democrats in particular as Lakoff and Wehling’s book clearly is (don’t forget, I’ve issued talking points based on the work of Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Ronald Reagan, Michael Bloomberg, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But there are some general messaging lessons and useful language from The Little Blue Book that I think are worth sharing with our audiences working toward sustainability policy solutions.

August 9, 2012