3. Five Mistakes in Persuasion

First: Don’t repeat the opponents’ frame.

In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, Professor George Lakoff provides the most basic principle of framing: “Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.”

Right wing groups spend millions of dollars on message framing. They commission polls, dial groups and focus groups to test words and phrases, and distribute their poll-tested advice to candidates, interest groups and activists. Then right wingers persistently repeat that language, e.g., class warfare, death tax, job creators, nanny state, pro-life, tax relief, union boss, and values voter.

Listen for the right-wing framing and do not repeat those phrases. Throughout this book, we suggest progressive language to substitute. But in addition, go beyond the words and reframe the ideas; change the debate to something larger or more crucial where progressives hold the advantage.

For example, right wingers want to talk about “border security,” asserting that it’s an emergency. Instead of pointing out the truth, that the number of so-called “migrants” is far below the record pace set during the George W. Bush Administration, argue that the real problem is that we need a comprehensive reform of the federal immigration system—which Americans agree with but our opponents won’t even acknowledge.

When conservatives bring up yet another measure to lower taxes for wealthy special interest groups, don’t limit the debate to that narrow legislation. Instead, point out the need to rein in a wide range of unfair subsidies and tax breaks enjoyed by the rich and powerful—a subject where Americans overwhelmingly side with us.

When the oil and gas industry pushes for more and bigger pipelines, don’t allow the discussion to be limited to a simplistic question of yes or no. Climate change is real; we can and must address it now. For our children and grandchildren and the future security of our nation, we need to focus on developing renewable energy. These are arguments that cannot be effectively denied.

The easiest and best way to reframe our opponents’ arguments is by introducing proactive legislation at the federal, state and local levels, which address the same issues as the right-wing talking points. The answer to supposed voter fraud is a comprehensive progressive bill to make voting both secure and more accessible. The response to gun violence is not everyone walking around armed, but our own bill that keeps guns out of the wrong hands. The solution to high prescription drug prices is not “the market,” but our own innovative legislation.

In short, progressives need to drive bold, proactive agendas in states and localities, especially in the ones controlled by conservatives, because that’s the best way to reframe the debate. Don’t fight on our opponents’ chosen grounds. Both legislatively and linguistically, the best defense is a good offense.

Second: Don’t use language that triggers a negative emotional response.

If you want to persuade, don’t tell listeners they are wrong. If you do, they will respond emotionally, and you’ve lost them. For example, if you’re speaking to someone who believes the speed limit is too high, water service costs too much, or voter fraud is rampant, don’t directly disagree. Instead, find a point where you do agree, e.g., traffic safety is essential, utilities must be affordable, and our elections must be free, fair and accessible to all qualified voters.

Beyond that kind of direct disagreement, you can also trigger a negative emotional response by evoking the wrong picture in people’s heads.

As you surely know, due to decades of messaging by conservatives and complicity by some Democrats, there is a strong stigma attached to the word “welfare.” Don’t use the term because it will elicit an emotional reaction in many moderate-to-conservative leaning voters. They will think of so-called welfare queens, people who are perceived as lazy and/or cheaters.

Avoid talking about giving benefits or granting rights, which implies special treatment. Instead, say that we should not deny protections, which implies that everyone is entitled. You can also talk about treating people fairly or protecting equal opportunity for all.

Using language that elicits positive emotions is not really all that hard. Without expensive focus groups, liberals of the ‘60s and ‘70s brilliantly framed programs as the Peace Corps, Head Start, Model Cities, Fair Housing, Equal Employment Opportunity, and the Clean Air Act. In recent years, progressives have found success with positive frames like clean cars, clean elections, clean power, environmental justice, fair pay, fair share health care, health care for all, high road economics, living wage and smart growth.

Look before you leap; think before you speak.

Third: Avoid the passive voice, unless you’re trying to cover up.

Richard Nixon and his press secretary were famously ridiculed for saying “mistakes were made.” And yet, the same phrase has been used by Democrats and Republicans ever since.

To many people, the passive voice seems like a great way to avoid responsibility. E.g., “the deadline was missed,” “the wrong email was sent,” or as Justin Timberlake’s agent said, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance.”

But speaking that way is a lousy way to present your case for social change. For example:

Don’t say . . . Say . . .

Five-thousand people lost their jobs at Walmart.

One-hundred Sam’s Club stores were closed.

One-hundred demonstrators were arrested.

The new law ends health insurance for 50,000.


Walmart fired 5,000 loyal hardworking employees to increase profits for the owners.

Walmart closed 100 Sam’s Club stores, laying off thousands of hardworking employees.

At the instruction of the mayor, police illegally arrested 100 peaceful protesters.

The legislature and governor took away healthcare coverage from 50,000 citizens of our state.

Why . . .

When you’re speaking about politics or policy, it is essential to show how you and your side are different from the opponents. It’s not enough to convey “I am on your side,” you have to demonstrate that the political opponents are against their side.

Whenever possible, be proactive in both language and deed.

Fourth: Don’t use wonky or insider language.

All too often, progressives assume the person we’re talking to knows what we know and thinks the way we do. So, we tend to use the same language to communicate with nonpolitical people that we use to talk with each other. Yet, persuadable Americans aren’t like us. They’re the least interested in politics and least aware of the facts behind public policy. Persuadables simply don’t speak our language.

In talking to our less-politically aware fellow citizens, progressive policymakers and advocates tend to make two errors.

First, progressives often use insider language instead of plain English. Policymakers and advocates tend to speak the technical language of lobbying and carry on a never-ending conversation about bills from the past, measures under consideration and current law. You probably realize that most Americans don’t know anything about CBO scoring or Third Reader or the Rules Committee. But average voters also don’t know an amendment from a filibuster. Insiders tend to use abbreviations freely, like ENDA for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or TABOR when talking about a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. They refer to SB 234, PAYGO rules, the ag community and the Hyde amendment. This is a tough habit to break.

Insider jargon serves a useful purpose. It is shorthand that allows those who understand to communicate more efficiently. But it is also a means to be exclusive, to separate members from nonmembers of the club. That’s exactly why such language is pernicious; you can’t expect persuadable voters to understand a language that was designed, in part, to exclude them.

Second, progressives often use ideological language even though persuadables are the opposite of ideologues. You should not complain of corporate greed because persuadable Americans don’t have a problem with corporations. You should not say capitalism or any ism because most Americans don’t relate to ideology. Don’t say neo- or crypto- anything! Like technical policy language, ideological language is a form of shorthand. But to persuadable voters, this just sounds like the speaker isn’t one of them.

You need to accept persuadable voters as they are, not as you wish they were. They don’t know what you know. Use their language and you will be better understood and more likely to be accepted as one of them.

Fifth: Don’t overuse facts and statistics.

Progressives embrace facts—the more, the better. That’s important in governing but less effective in public persuasion. Advocates will pack a speech with alarming facts and figures like: “30 million Americans are uninsured;” or “one in five children live in poverty;” or “32 million Americans have been victims of racial profiling.” When you speak this way, you are assuming that listeners would be persuaded—and policy would change—if only everybody knew what you know.

But that’s not how it works. Politics is not a battle of information; it is a battle of ideas. Facts, by themselves, don’t persuade. Statistics, especially, must be used sparingly or listeners will just go away confused. Your argument should be built upon ideas and values that the persuadable voters already hold dear.

If you’re addressing an audience, a few well-placed facts will help illustrate why the progressive solution is essential, while too many facts will diminish the effectiveness of your argument. If you’re speaking one-on-one or in a small group, let your listeners ask for more facts. When people do that, they’re helping you persuade them.

Stories are usually more persuasive than statistics. Humans are much more comfortable and familiar with learning lessons from stories. The Bible is full of stories. As children, we learn from fairy tales and mythology. Much of the news is delivered through anecdotes. Our hearts are always ready to embrace a hero or turn against a villain.