The Hallmarks of a Winning Message

Anat Shenker-Osario
Founder and Principal of ASO Communications
Communications Consultant

Hello my name is Anat Shenker-Osario and I’m a communications consultant based in California. I use tools from cognition and linguistics to understand why certain messages resonate and others don’t, and I’m lucky enough to have studies how people reason and come to judgments about human rights

So a few things I would share about how making the language of justice and freedom and the entire human rights endeavour more successful. 
There are certain hallmarks to a winning message we’ve seen in empirical testing work over and over again.

The first is that winning messages begin rooted in a shared value, not a problem. All too often, progressive messaging and human rights messaging in particular, understandably so, begins rooted in some sort of problem. What I like to call ‘advocates telling listeners, “boy have I got a problem for you!”‘ It turns out, that aside from advocates themselves and our hardcore members who are already really wedded and enthusiastic about our cause, most average people don’t want more problems – they’ve got plenty of their own. So instead we need to begin our messages rooted in a shared value. For example, ‘No matter our differences most of us want pretty similar things’ or ‘Most of us seek to treat others the way we want to be treated’ or ‘No matter what we look like or where we come from most of us work hard for our families and try to leave things better off for those to come’.

After that shared value, a successful message then moves to naming the problem with an explicit villain. This is the second lesson that we see over and over again. That all too often we say vague things like ‘inequality is worsening’, ‘homes were lost’, ‘villages were destroyed’. When we don’t make it clear that a problem is person-fixed, when we do not name an agent, it becomes cognitively inconsistent to believe that it could be person-fixed. When it seems like the problem is origin unknown, then we can’t really direct people to tackle it. So the second step in the message, after that shared value, is to have a statement that actually calls out villains. ‘But today’, for example, ‘a handful of wealthy and well connected people, divide us from each other, while they hoard the goods for themselves’. Or ‘But today, a handful of corporations hold down our wages and make it impossible for any of our families to make ends meet.’ You have to get explicit about the origin of the problem.

Then finally, what a good message does, is it returns to the desired solution, involves the listener in the action by using things like direct address, ‘you’, and it makes the desired outcome – it states the desired outcome as what we will achieve as opposed to the policy. What I mean by that is the difference between say, for example, ‘we will raise wages’ and ‘everyone will get paid enough to provide for family’, or the difference between, ‘paid family leave’ and ‘you’re there the first day your new born smiles’. A successful message ends with a call to action that actually names the outcome as what people desire, not the policy that produces those desires. So, for example, ‘by joining together, we can make this a place for freedom and justice for all of us, no exceptions’, or ‘by joining together, we can make sure that every family can make ends meet and raise their kids in peace, no exceptions’. That kind of thing. So those are the hallmarks of a winning message, and with that, I hope, you’re able to give greater impact to the incredible work that you do to speak directly to people, and to engage more people in our cause.