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Forget Saying Climate Change: Words activate frames

By Pat Heffernan on 3/9/17 10:00 AM

 Climate change Storm damage Broken tree in woods, springtime.jpeg

When you believe in a cause, it becomes your baby, and one of the hardest things to do is let go of its name.

For decades now I have been writing, speaking and working with others to create change on issues — issues with names you’ve heard — like climate change, gender equality, protecting the natural environment, and universal access to educational and economic opportunities.

But just when it seems the pure volume of words will make them all but meaningless, I am struck again by the impact of words and their potential to be counter-productive. The way we talk affects the way people think. If you don’t use words well, then you're denying yourself potential supporters, sponsors, donors, and even values-driven paying customers.

Here’s why I stopped using the names of causes I believe in, and what to do instead.

Words Activate Frames

This is a topic I’ve written on before — here and there, for example. Yet today’s polarized public conversations and the release of a new edition of George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” stirred again what I know about the relevance and risks of word choice in message framing and communication for change.

Lakoff’s Framing Definitions and Concepts

For context, let’s look at a few framing basics.

  • Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. . . . Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.”
  • Facts are not, by themselves, persuasive. (This is sometimes called cognitive biases or confirmation bias.) Cognitive research reveals that people think in frames. Frames are not changed by the addition, correction, amendment or subtraction of a “fact.” Facts that aren’t aided by a conceptual framework are just discarded.
  • People use frames unconsciously to understand facts. Frames are in our brains and define our common sense. It is impossible to think or communicate without activating frames, and so which frame is activated is of crucial importance. Truths need to be framed appropriately to be seen as truths. Facts need a context.
  • Negating a frame reinforces the frame. Lakoff uses an example that is easy to understand. When Richard Nixon tried to defend himself by saying, “I am not a crook.” In fact, he repeated it, “I am not a crook. I have never been a crook. I don’t even know what a crook looks like.” We had ‘Nixon’ and we had ‘crook.’ We had Nixon and we had crook and everybody walked away from that thinking, yeah, that guy’s just completely a crook.

Words Change Meaning (and Gather Baggage)

So not only do you have to think of which words activate which frames, but you need to remember things change. While there are many examples of changes in the meaning of specific words over time, changemakers are more likely to be tripped up by the emotional baggage that a phrase can gather until suddenly it is automatically activating a polarizing frame. To avoid the negative meaning, advocates switch to a new phrase until it too begins triggering counterproductive reactions.

  • Think of how global warming became climate change, which became weird weather
  • Feminism became women’s rights, which became gender equality
  • Endangered species became habitat protection, which became?

I am not talking about using politically correct language. I am talking about changes in the meaning of words and the frame it activates for your listener. The speed of change for word meaning has accelerated in our media saturated world.

Keep Your Goal in Mind

I’m thinking it is a safe bet your ultimate goal is to communicate to be understood and to motivate a change in individual behaviors or business practices — health, environment, social justice — to benefit the public good.

Does continuing to hang onto the name of your cause advance that goal? As public opinion guru Frank Lutz would say: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear."

Choose the Right Frame

The key to choosing the right frame is to focus on your audience’s world view, their current beliefs and behaviors. Ask yourself: What does my audience value? How can I frame this issue in a positive way that resonates and builds on a shared basic value principle and avoids activating a polarizing or counter-productive frame?

Signs of Success

Examples of persuasion done well (without using controversial phrases or cause names) are beginning to accumulate. Let’s look at a few specifically around framing the climate change issue.

  1. A powerful, personal analogy from former Governor of California Schwarzenegger:

“There are two doors. Behind Door Number One is a completely sealed room, with a regular, gasoline-fueled car. Behind Door Number Two is an identical, completely sealed room, with an electric car. Both engines are running full blast.

I want you to pick a door to open, and enter the room and shut the door behind you. You have to stay in the room you choose for one hour. You cannot turn off the engine. You do not get a gas mask.

I’m guessing you chose Door Number Two, with the electric car, right? Door Number One is a fatal choice — who would ever want to breathe those fumes?

This is the choice the world is making right now.”

    2. The New York Times ran a story of the many ways in which Midwest farmers, teachers and legislators are “…Discussing Climate Change Without Saying ‘Climate Change’.” By focusing on shared values such as the importance of soil quality, or the benefits of science or new jobs — and avoiding the loaded phrase ‘climate change’ — people are successfully achieving their goal of mitigating environmental damage.

   3.“The Tactic Rural America Is Using to Deal With Climate Change: Red state rural America has a unique tactic” is another example from Inverse Science. Researchers at the University of North Dakota surveyed over 200 local governments in 11 states of the Great Plains region to learn about steps they’re taking to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to them. They found that while local officials have been addressing climate change in their communities over the past decade, many of these policy activities are specifically not framed that way.

Five Steps to Effective Word Choice for Change

Such success stories have encouraged and inspired me to abandon the names of favorite causes. Yes, it can be hard — but your potential supporters, sponsors, donors, and customers are waiting. Here is what to do:

  1. Focus on your goal — Who do you want to do what?
  2. Identify the synergies with your audience’s values
  3. Frame your communication around your audience’s values
  4. Keep current on evolving language to avoid words that trigger negative frames
  5. Rinse and repeat, consistently


20 words that once meant something very different (Ted)

I don’t give a **** if we agree about climate change. (Arnold Schwarzenegger, really)

In America’s Heartland, Discussing Climate Change Without Saying ‘Climate Change’ (NYTimes) 

The Tactic Rural America Is Using to Deal With Climate Change (Inverse Science)

Change Strategy: Avoid Bad Words and Message Mistakes (Change Conversations)

Changing Minds: On Storytelling, Donations and Sales (Change Conversations)

Changing Minds: Frames Matter More Than Facts (Change Conversations)

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind: The Facts on Why Facts Don't Matter (The Atlantic)


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