I'm following the national health care debate because I find it astounding that at last census count nearly 50 million Americans were living without health insurance. I'm also following the health care debate because it's a fascinating case study in the power of strategic communications.
The debate is highly polarized. Folks on the right are talking about health care reform as a"government-run system." Their goal is to evoke images of bureaucracy, inefficiency and huge delays in getting to doctors. Not a welcome state of affairs. Folks on the left are framing health care reform as a "public-option." Their goal is to evoke images of inclusivity, democracy and most important - one option among many.
What's interesting about this debate is that neither frame has won - yet. However, like all battles for our minds. The winner will take all.
Regardless of where you currently stand on health care reform, you can be certain that the words we use to talk about this issue will have wide-ranging effects.
- First, the words we use to talk about health care reform will constrain our ability to generate additional options or solutions.
- Second, the words we use about health care reform will engender an emotional response. This will stymie our ability to use reason and read the fine print!
If you've ever felt dissonance between your experience of the world and how you are perceived by others, you know what I mean.
As a little black girl growing up with a white mother, I lived in constant state of anxiety about being "too white." According to my classmates and some teachers, my actions and abilities did not align with my skin color. And this constrained me greatly. I dumbed down my speech. I raised my hand less in class. I tried to fit in. It took years of therapy and education to realize that this (racist and ridiculous) definition of "blackness" was subjective. That it was just a frame (albeit a powerful one) for looking at the world. I could create my own version of reality.
If you want to earn a win for your cause, you have to take note of how others are talking about your issue and do your research to understand why certain frames resonate more than others.
You also have to be savvy and brave enough to realize that there is no objective reality, there are just different ways at looking at the same thing. Once you understand this, you can you do the creative and empirical work you need to do to develop a new language for your issue...and then words won't hurt you.