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Change Strategy: Avoid Bad Words and Message Mistakes



Do you worry about saying bad words? I know sometimes I feel as if I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to avoid bad words and message mistakes. For change strategists, bad words are the ones that trigger bad frames — frames that run counter to the positive social change you want to see.

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it. —James Baldwin

Enabling, Freezing or Hot Frame?

Different frames have different effects on our thinking and our emotions. Some frames enable us to achieve our goals — enabling frames provide what Dennis Sparks referred to as “direction, clarity, and a steady flow of energy.” These frames are often supported by a simplifying metaphor that helps us think about a universal value we all share.

Other frames disable by freezing our mental status quo in place. Can you identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in an area where you seek change?


message-framing: empty picture-frames_jessica-ruscello-99566-unsplash

The frames I lose sleep over are what I call “hot frames” — counterproductive frames that can be triggered by a single word or phrase that carries emotional connections. Worse than freezing the status quo, these triggers fire directly into the emotional networks in our brains.

Avoid bad words

It was Frank Luntz who published one of the first research-based lists of words to avoid and explained the frames triggered by them. In addition to Luntz's list of Words That Work, he presented conservatives with “The 21 Political Words and Phrases You Should Never Say Again.”

A sampling from conservative political consultant Frank Luntz:

Never Say Instead say
Drilling for oil Energy Exploration
Tax Cuts Tax Relief
Inheritence tax, estate tax Death Tax
Global economy, globalization, or capitalism Free market economy


The hot frame of energy and climate semantics

An example of a hot emotional frame is the energy issue. Over the years, many people worked to establish the term Renewable Energy as a substitute for the traditional energy frame where Oil was the established standard and any other energy source was Alternative Energy. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal still frustrate regularly with their language, but in general as Google Search Trends indicates, this is a semantic battle that is being won by renewables.

The challenge now is the energy issue has become a polarized frame where your choice of the term ‘renewable energy’ immediately places you on the ‘environmentalist’ end of the spectrum. To ordinary people, those potentially persuadable people in the middle of the spectrum, the words ‘renewable energy’ have become emotional triggers — and the average person avoids emotional debates.

Cooling the debate

Neuroscientist and self-described liberal psychology professor Drew Westen has developed a list of energy and climate trigger words to avoid, and suggested research-tested substitutes for those who are working on the polarized issues.

A research-tested word sampling from neuroscientist Drew Westen:

Instead of this Try this...
Renewables Energy that will never run out, like the wind and sun
Carbon emissions, greenhouse gases, global warming, CO2 Pollution that destroys our lungs and atmosphere; changing weather conditions we can see with our own eyes
Conservation Making the most of the energy we have
Cap and trade Strict limits on pollution; making polluters pay and rewarding good corporate citizens


The video of Westen’s hour-long presentation to the Coastal Conservation League dives deeply into these concepts and his research methods. It’s well worth checking out.

What’s your change strategy?

There is comfort in having a list of rigorously tested words and phrases to support your change strategy. Unfortunately, such research is often not available. Thinking through the language and frames you are using is still invaluable. Consider:

  • Is your message framing grounded in shared values?
  • Do you have trigger words you need to avoid?
  • What alternative frames, metaphors, or words have you developed for the social change issue you’re working on?


“Reframe” how we think about things, Dennis Sparks
Wildfires Ignite Climate Debate. Then It Snows, New York Times, 3 March 2019
The Framing Wars, New York Times, 17 July 2005 [Classic]
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, Frank Luntz
The Political Brain, Energy and Climate Change, [VIDEO] Coastal Conservation League Address, Drew Westen


Editor's note: This post was originally published in May of 2014 and has been updated to include new information.


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