Consistent values-based communication. I believe everyone benefits when a mission-driven business or nonprofit focuses on words, messages, issues, and strategies that emphasize shared values. So when my 14-year old grandniece asked me “Why?” -- the question brought me up short.
With reflections from fireplace flickers competing with our lit screens, we had been sitting together on the couch comparing smartphone apps. Was her question stimulated by the contrast between the demonstration of her latest fave, FatFace, and my showing her the GoodGuide and Dirty Dozen apps before we headed out to the store? In any event, it was a good reminder not to fall into the trap of viewing the Why behind what we do as mission-driven communicators to be a self-evident truth.
Six Reasons Why Values-Based Communication Matters
So here, in only slightly more formal language, is how I explained why practicing values-based communication is important.
- Be a leader. Martin Luther King, Jr., (the subject of an earlier conversation with the same grandniece) is a perfect example of how a leader can build a movement by calling on values shared by diverse people. His famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” shows this well.
- Grab attention. Values-based communication is not the norm. In school and afterwards, especially in science, business, mathematics, policy, and data analysis, we are often trained to talk in the third person, about just the facts, and leave values out of our communication. But when we do, our messages are less likely to be absorbed and our motivations less likely to be understood. When we express our values confidently, our words about new behaviors or alternative solutions surprise and grab people’s attention, drawing them in and earning their trust.
- Find common ground. When we talk about values, we connect with people, we find common ground, and we build consensus. Like-minded people can disagree on the details of a new initiative or proposed legislation and how to achieve it. But those same people can find common ground when it framed in principles like liberty, opportunity, equality, family, and fairness. When it comes to our guiding values and principles, we can find consensus—and consensus at this level can open doors—and minds—to more fruitful discussions.
- Be relevant. When we speak of our values, we speak a common language that's relevant. Connecting to our audiences through words, images, symbols, and stories grounded in values helps make new ways accessible and relevant to people’s busy lives.
- Resonate. Values resonate in our hearts, minds—and gut. Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University, said when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins: “We do not find policies worth debating if they don’t touch on the emotional implications for ourselves, our families, or things we hold dear.” Values, in other words, work not only at the level of the mind, but they also inform the emotional workings of our “hearts,” expressed as gut instincts.
- Be honest. Stating our values clearly and consistently gives our words authenticity. When we talk about what we stand for—the values that guide our businesses, our lives and our work, the principles we live by and pass on to our children—our words are marked by authenticity. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff writes, “A position on issues should follow from one’s values, and the choice of issues and policies should symbolize those values.”
Effective message framing relies on consistently referenced shared values. If values-based businesses and mission-driven nonprofits do not communicate from their values, how will we bring about the change we want to see? Speeches, articles, and calls to action that are grounded in values infuse our work with power and meaning and ensure that our chorus of voices is consistent and honest. Expressing our values is the first step for those who see the world, not only for what it is but for what it could be.
Editor's Note: Originally published November 29, 2012. Edited and updated October 10, 2019.