Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD, is CEO at the FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, DC.
He uses social science to better understand culture and cognition and drive social change on a wide range of issues. Nat leads a team that investigates ways to apply innovative framing research to social issues and partners with nonprofit organisations to put the findings into practice.
An expert in psychological anthropology and communications science, Nat publishes widely in the popular and professional press and lectures frequently in the United States and abroad.
He is a senior fellow at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a visiting professor at the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine, and a fellow at the British-American Project.
CEO of the FrameWorks Institute, Nat Kendall-Taylor, discusses the science of framing and how best to translate evidence-based research into effective communications for mass audiences and policymakers
The FrameWorks Institute has been around for 20 years and they currently have a staff of around 25 professionals, comprised largely of PhD-level social scientists. Nat describes the team as a motley crew of disenchanted academics. Interestingly, they really don’t have folks in the team who come from a communications background, which is a bit ironic considering they focus on communications.
Nat describes FrameWorks as a non-profit, communications, social science research think tank. They are mission-driven to use social science research to support the communications capacity of the non-profit sector.
They do this by focusing on three areas:
1) they study, and are interested in, how people think about complicated social and scientific issues — it’s not about what people say or how they answer polling questions but, rather, it’s about how people use common cultural ways of understanding to make meaning of complicated social issues;
2) they look at ‘framing’ and explore how presenting information in different ways influences how people think, feel and are willing to act — this is the science of framing; and
3) they take results from this research and partner with organisations that are active in key sectors and they use these findings to improve these organisations’ communications.
There’s an overarching observation Nat makes clear early on: don’t assume that you are your audience. Nat notes that it is extremely common for people who are communicating about specific issues to make the erroneous assumption that they are their audiences.
Data and evidence don’t necessarily make for effective communications. Nat asks, how many times have we seen presentations that start with data, have another piece of data, then include some charts and graphs about data, and then conclude with yet more data.
We assume that this data layering speaks to our audience the way it does to us. But this is by no means the case. Different people may need different elements in order to be convinced. Always keep in mind that you are not your audience. One needs to draw a distinction between data and various other aspects that activate common, widely-shared values.
We also have a tendency to think of misperception as being analogous to people being wrong, or incorrect or simply unable to understand. This is dangerous. It’s not necessarily that people are wrong but, oftentimes, that people simply have developed different ways of thinking about certain issues or understanding the world around them.
We hear how there’s a need to tweak the message to local cultures. The holy grail would be a single message that simply works all over the world — one size fits all. But in reality, while you may have a point you want to make to everyone in the world, how you make that specific point is going to have to be honed and made particular to given regions and countries, cultures and subcultures. You need to acknowledge the role that culture plays in how people think and process information.
Nat then sheds light on FrameWorks’ fascinating partnership with Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child and its director, Prof Jack Shonkoff. This collaboration stretches back further than a decade.
We hear how FrameWorks helped the Center to translate complex research on early childhood development into highly effective messaging that helps a mass audience understand its meaning and helps increase awareness, change attitudes and drive forward positive behaviours.
We hear of the development of specific phrases, such as ‘brain architecture’, ‘toxic stress’, and ‘serve and return interaction’, that were created to help research findings from the field of early childhood development reach and impact a broad, international audience.
While these phrases seem fairly straightforward and sensible, Nat notes the work that went into developing these concepts took a great deal of effort and extensive development and testing; followed by extensive pushing and pulling between academics around how best to incorporate them. Nat expands on these key steps, providing rich insight into the nuts and bolts of this process.
Nat’s key takeaway: firstly, it’s important to realise that you are not your audience. As a mantra, if you can repeat that, you’ll fall into fewer traps and you’ll make better decisions as a communicator. And the second piece revolves around the role of ‘framing’ in the process of change-making. Keep in mind that what you know is important, but there’s the bit about how you say what you know — the significance of framing. Realise that it’s not just about ‘what’ you know, but it’s about ‘how’ you communicate it in order to have impact with your information.
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