Toxic words: Don't think of an elephant

Posted on August 24, 2015

Our current blog series looks at how social organisations are benefitting from the Clore Social Fellowship. 2011 Fellow Kate Stanley shares here how the NSPCC is challenging conventional communications, thanks to the time she spent with the FrameWorks Institute during her Fellowship.

What if all our talk of social problems is making the issues worse not better? For those of us striving to make the world a better place, it’s a mortifying thought. But that’s exactly what can happen if we don’t use top-class evidence to shape our communications.

The curse of knowledge, as described in Made to Stick, means that too often we  bamboozle the uninitiated. The desire to move people to action means we overwhelm them with a sense of a problem too big to tackle.  

In our quest to ‘myth-bust’ we can end up reinforcing the myths we are trying to demolish. Don’t believe me? If I say: “Don’t think of an elephant”, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? (Check out George Lakoff for more on this).

Through my 2011 Clore Social Fellowship, I got to know the Washington DC-based FrameWorks Institute to find out more about communications for social good. They combine robust, empirical research with political savvy to help organisations communicate in a way that avoids these traps – and actually helps advance our cause.  

I brought these ideas with me when I joined NSPCC as Head of Strategy in 2012 and since then we’ve been working with the Institute to understand more about how we should be talking about children’s issues.  Here are our top three tips:

  1. Explain how the social problem you’re concerned with works. We focus on explaining how abuse changes childhood. If people understand more about the drivers of abuse and how it changes lives – they are quick to get on board with solutions.

  1. Worry less about changing people’s minds. You’ll probably fail. Instead focus on identifying the productive ways of thinking (also known as ‘frames’ or ‘cultural models’) that are already in people’s heads and build on these. For example, we know that people generally already understand that parent’s behaviours are affected by stress – we can build on this to show how neglect can happen and, crucially, how it can be prevented.   

  1. Use metaphors to simplify complex ideas but don’t just make them up and assume they’ll work like you expect…test them. We use the idea of toxic stress to help explain how abuse affects children.

The Common Cause network has done much to challenge conventional approaches to communications. And at the NSPCC we started the ball rolling using the FrameWorks Institute approach but today, all kinds of organisations and - better still - sectors have started to use this kind of approach to their communications in order to make change for the better.

Our partners at Blackpool Better Start are using tried and tested metaphors to spread understanding of early child development across the community and the children’s workforce. NCB and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are soon to launch a project aiming to find a new, more productive language for talking about poverty in the UK. And Transform Justice (founded by 2010 Clore Social Fellow, Penelope Gibbs) is running a collaboration to change the debate on criminal justice.

Across these organisations each of us have found – or surely will find – that the old ways of myth-busting and scaring people to action die hard and change isn’t going to come easy. But we all want the prize: knowing that our talk isn’t toxic.


View / hide 1 comments

What a great thought provoking piece. I love productive ways of thinking approach.

> Posted by Vika on 15 Jun 2016 at 07:27

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Kate Stanley

Kate Stanley

Social policy champion

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