Change the story, change the world

This is a guest post by Kate Stanley of FrameWorks Institute.

Winning over hearts and minds is possibly the hardest thing we can do. Often, when we’re trying to create social change, it’s something we must do on a massive scale. Enacting greener policies or reducing school exclusions each require a large number of people to change their minds.

And yet we may sometimes feel we’re speaking a different language to the people we want to win over. How can we win the support we need, when our message is so often misunderstood or ignored?

When our message reaches someone, they already have patterns of thinking about the world that they apply to help them interpret our message. Often they will interpret our message in ways we didn’t intend.

By choosing what we say and how we say it in a way that’s mindful of those existing patterns of thinking, we can win hearts and minds to achieve the change we want. We call this ‘reframing’.

I spoke to Olly Buston for the MiniMasterclass series by Future Advocacy to share the lessons I’ve learned on ‘reframing’ to win hearts and minds. The MiniMasterclass is out today, so I’m illustrating my tips in this blog with some examples of effective re-framing.

Know what you’re up against

Since 1999 FrameWorks has conducted research into how people think about child development in over 10 countries. There are some differences between cultures but some powerful themes emerge again and again.  

People tend to think that how a child’s life turns out is the result of the drive and willpower of the child and their parents. People also tend to think that child development is natural and automatic.

The consequence of these patterns of thinking is an exclusive focus on parental responsibility for children and a belief that wider support is not needed to enable children to thrive.   

We developed a series of metaphors that we have shown shift these dominant patterns of thinking and help people to see that children thrive when parents are supported. For example, using the metaphor of ‘brain architecture’ helps people to see that building a brain is an active process like building a house, and that sturdy foundations are important and lots of different people have a part of play.  NSPCC use this metaphor and others as part of their Sharing the Brain Story programme that equips families and communities with tools to help babies thrive. 

Once we know how the public thinks about an issue—in this case, with child development as an automatic process helped only by willpower—we can figure out how to communicate in a way that will shift their thinking and boost support for change.

Stand for something

When we try to rebut an argument, we trigger a frame and reinforce it.  A few years back, public health authorities in the US produced a leaflet encouraging people to have a flu jab. It took the classic ‘myth-busting’ approach you see today in campaigns for having a Covid vaccine. A rigorous research trial found people who read the leaflet strengthened their belief in the myths—and even (falsely) attributed the myths to the public health authority trying to bust them. 

What does this tell us?  If you focus on what you’re against, you risk reinforcing unhelpful ideas. Instead, talk about what you’re for: what you want to see happen.

Too often, conversations about children’s mental health focus narrowly on the symptoms, not on the social drivers of mental ill health such as poverty. This means the solutions recommended by experts which tackle the causes of mental ill health get less attention.

To really change the children’s mental health field, it’s not enough to reject a focus on symptoms. We need to offer an alternative. At FrameWorks we did just that, creating a toolkit for Emerging Minds that offered a positive alternative frame to work within.

Our research found it’s important to outline clearly how societal issues shape mental health—for example, explain that financial instability can create stress which can limit parents’ ability to support their children. Then we can use this as a springboard to talk about solutions, with an audience that’s newly been brought onboard to the idea of large-scale, systemic change. Focussing on solutions also helps remind people that change for the better is possible.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

In our work on childhood obesity with Impact on Urban Health, we found a dominant narrative of individual responsibility, reinforced by individual-level solutions such as cooking lessons, exercise classes or food education. This is despite the fact that evidence shows these things actually don’t work very well.

The conversation needed to shift to a new story—one focused on the potential to improve children’s health. We recommend talking about environments rather than individuals, options instead of choices, and to emphasise change at the local, regional and national level. 

It’s easy for people to default back to the way they’re used to thinking about childhood obesity—these are enduring patterns of thinking after all—so we need to make sure they hear the new frames over and over again. An effort to shift thinking like this works best if many organisations are joined up in using it. 

Take a look at Sustain’s recent report on trade deals, where they talk about a “flood” of unhealthy food and a market “swamped” with non-nutritious options—a fantastic metaphor for communicating the role of food environments. Or here’s a tweet from Bite Back 2030, where Youth Board member Dev says advertising gives junk food a “starring role” in young people’s minds.

When everyone joins together to change the story, we can shift even deeply embedded beliefs. Change the story, change the world.

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