Spitfire Strategies

Words Can Easily Sway a Conversation

Ever wonder why the phrase “gun control” makes you cringe when you say it out loud or read it in a news article? It’s because it automatically suggests a negative connotation of big government telling Americans what to do and doesn’t communicate anything about why gun regulation is important. Unless you’re the NRA, which spent nearly $28 million lobbying against gun reform in 2014, a term you might prefer is “gun safety” or even, “gun violence prevention.” You’ll never hear the NRA use either of those two phrases when talking about gun reform. They prefer the terms “gun rights” or “gun control.”

This is a prime example of why it’s incredibly important for organizations and their spokespeople to never, ever repeat the barrier. Repeating the barrier is when you use language that reinforces your audience’s prime reason for not acting on your message – their “barrier.” A barrier could be a preconceived notion that someone has developed from a previous experience or their background. In the gun safety debate, the main barrier for audiences is their belief that owning a gun is their right as an American. This is why the NRA prefers the term “gun rights.” It reinforces their messages.

As advocates, it can be tricky to avoid using negatively-charged phrases such as “gun control” when reporters are using it to discuss the issue, even in a neutral light. But we have to stop. Using words that play into your opponent’s narrative – even slightly – reinforces their argument no matter how powerful your messages are. This has also happened with the abortion issue. Opponents of abortion began using the phrase “pro-life” and to battle this, advocates started incorporating the “pro-choice” phrase. However, some advocates, such as Planned Parenthood Federation of America argue that these labels don’t reflect the complexity of the conversation about abortion. Planned Parenthood now uses language related to “women’s reproductive health” instead of the “pro-choice” narrative.

As advocates, it’s important to always be on the lookout for these phrases and remember to stay on message. This also means repeating your messages. Studies indicate people generally need to hear something ten times before it sinks in. It’s also more effective to hear the same thing ten times than ten different things ten times. When you’re tired of saying it, that’s when your audience is starting to hear it.

If you’re battling a tough and powerful opponent, it’s necessary to find innovative ways to break through the noise and give your same, powerful messages a refresh. Here are a few tips: 

  • Put it in perspective. In 2015, we’ve already had 294 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot during one incident). In 1,004 days, we saw 994 mass shootings. These are large numbers that can be hard for people to conceptualize. So, how can we put it in perspective? If you do the math, that’s nearly one mass shooting a day for almost three years.
  • Use social math. We all know that the BP oil spill released a lot of oil in the Gulf of Mexico – 4.9 million barrels to be exact. But it’s hard for us to wrap our head around what 4.9 million barrels actually looks like. It’s easier to understand if you tell someone 311 Olympic-size swimming pools could be filled with all that oil. Check out Spitfire’s guide, A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words, to create infographics using social math.
  • NEVER use myth vs. fact sheets. What better way to repeat the barrier than state it in big, bold letters? Stories of those who have been impacted by your issue are a much better alternative.

Lastly, we hope you’ll check out some inspiring nonprofits that are pushing hard for gun reform and maybe learn another lesson or two from them. Evolve is focusing their efforts on gun safety and using a bit of humor along the way. Everytown for Gun Safety – the group formed after Sandy Hook – is becoming a powerful movement with advocates and supporters who have lost loved ones, such as Andy Parker, father of slain journalist and Karley’s former classmate, Alison Parker.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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