Principles

PRINCIPLES OF THE OPPORTUNITY STORY

LEAD WITH VALUES

Whether we’re rallying the base or persuading the undecided, shared values are almost always the place to start. That doesn’t mean being preachy or high-handed, but rather reminding audiences why our efforts matter and are worthy of believing in. 

Communications research shows that audiences are more receptive to unfamiliar arguments when they are framed by shared values. If we present only a litany of facts and rhetoric that conflict, or appear to conflict, with an audience’s core values, they will often disregard the facts. What’s more, many audiences are less familiar with the details of controversies and policies than we are, which means we can quickly lose them. It is therefore important to connect arguments to universal values that we all care about. 

For example, in talking about equal opportunity in higher education, diving straight into the details of affirmative action admission policies triggers for many the notion of “quotas” or “preferential treatment.” For others “affirmative action” is a jargon term that holds little meaning at all. Moving to the level of talking about issues and talking about access to higher education is slightly more engaging to audiences, but can also cause them to associate with values like personal success or competition. However, if we start the conversation with the value of equal opportunity for all and the importance of diversity to a 21st century education, we’ve engaged a different part of audiences’ minds and thinking. Starting at the aspirational level of shared values and a positive vision, we can then work through the conversation, leading audiences to why removing barriers to equal opportunity is important, and why affirmative action policies are necessary. 

On a range of issues, we recommend leading with values rooted in Opportunity, the ideal that everyone deserves a fair chance to achieve his or her full potential. Opportunity values include:

Equality – The benefits and burdens of society should not depend on what we look like or where we come from. Equality means celebrating our differences while challenging stereotypes and breaking down barriers.

Mobility – Where we start out in life should not determine where we end up. Inherent in mobility is the belief that everyone who works hard should be able to advance and participate fully in society.
Voice – We should all have a say in the decisions that affect us. Our voices must be heard in voting booths, at public forums, and across the media.

Redemption – We all grow and change over time and need a chance to start over when things go wrong.To foster redemption, we must provide conditions that allow people to develop, to rebuild, and to reclaim full responsibility for their lives.

Community – We share responsibility for each other and for the common good; the strength of our nation depends on the vibrancy and cohesiveness of our diverse population.

Security – We should all have the tools to meet our own basic needs and the needs of our families. Without economic and social security, it is impossible to access the other rights and responsibilities society has to offer.

These values are part of our human rights, the rights we all have simply by virtue of our humanity. As the founders of our nation recognized when they declared that we are all created equal, fulfilling our unalienable human rights is essential to realizing the American promise of opportunity for all. Read more about how to talk about these values on our website at www.opportunityagenda.org.

POINT AUDIENCES TOWARD CLEAR SOLUTIONS

Emphasizing solutions taps into Americans’ pride and counters “compassion fatigue,” in which people see a parade of social problems as impossible to solve. We have to be for something positive, not just against harms and threats. 

For example, Americans agree that racial profiling is wrong, but question whether anything can be done about it and therefore whether opposing it is worth their time or mental energy. Combining the condemnation of bad practices with a call for reforms like officer training, clear rules, and measures for accountability highlights a positive way forward and empowers audiences to act.

Similarly, many persuadable audiences believe that detaining and deporting immigrants for low-level crimes is not the best use of government resources. However, they also want solutions to what they consider to be a problem: undocumented workers. In this case, criticizing harsh immigration enforcement policies is not enough. That criticism must be paired with calls for federal immigration policy reform that provides a roadmap to citizenship for those who are here without official immigration status. 

EVOKE FAMILIAR THEMES

We all connect new information and ideas to familiar stories, metaphors, or concepts that we already under- stand. Effective framing directs people to stories that will help them understand the idea we’re introducing, tapping helpful themes and metaphors. For instance, using the value of opportunity connects people quickly to the long-held notion of America as a land of opportunity, a place where anyone can reach his or her full potential. Absent proper framing, audiences often default to unhelpful themes such as extreme individualism or ineffective government.

We need to choose and evoke metaphors carefully. We should ask what solutions each metaphor implies, and whom it suggests is responsible for addressing the problem at hand. Consider, for example, the metaphor of a “level playing field.” This metaphor reflects the notion of fairness, but also of competition between opposing teams. That can actually undermine support for a more equitable and inclusive health care or public education system, where we instead want to elevate the values of community, cooperation, and the common good. Meta- phors like toppling barriers to opportunity, investing in our future, and maintaining the public structures that keep us safe can tell a more helpful story. 

TELL AN AFFIRMATIVE STORY

We’re all faced with misleading, inaccurate, and untruthful statements about our issues. And we certainly can’t allow misinformation to go unchallenged. But the best way to counter false information is to tell our affirmative story in ways that overcome the other side’s falsehoods. By contrast, we should avoid myth-busting, or restating the false argument and then explaining why it’s wrong. Research and experience show that this only results in deepening the myth in our audiences’ minds. The better approach is to proactively tell our own story. 

INSTEAD OF: 

There’s a myth that affirmative action results in unqualified students being admitted to schools they’re not prepared for, but let me explain why that’s just a myth.

TRY: 

Affirmative action helps to maintain visibly open pathways to opportunity for well-qualified students from a range of backgrounds. We know it works, because of the improved success of all students who’ve benefitted from diverse classrooms and campuses.

Myth: Immigrants don’t pay taxes.

Fact: All immigrants pay taxes, whether income, property, sales, or other.

Immigrants are significant contributors to our economy, both as consumers and taxpayers, through sales, property, income, and other taxes. 

TELL STORIES IN A BROADER CONTEXT

Many stories focus on the plights of individuals. It’s an easy and often compelling way to make a point about a certain issues. But research shows that an exclusive focus on such stories inadvertently suggests to audiences that people should solve the bulk of their problems themselves, without outside intervention or support. Instead of an inclusive health care system, for instance, an individual approach suggests we should have individual health savings accounts, or simply diet and exercise more. By contrast, placing human stories in a broader context—patients who challenged their insurance company, a doctor who sees her patient having to forgo treatment—connects our audience to systemic problems and solutions.

So we need to tell real stories designed to convey systemic problems and societal and policy solutions—for example, telling the story of health care workers or job trainers working to expand opportunity for all, or showing similarly situated yet diverse groups of people (e.g., farm workers, students, domestic workers, asthma patients) facing vastly different opportunities because of different policies or societal responses. The more we can connect the dots—between individual stories and the big-picture solution, and between all of our groups and issues—the better we can create broad-based, long-term narratives that point audiences toward the range of solutions that will support our overarching vision for the future. 

Here are some tips on types of individual stories that support systemic solutions:

The Enlightened Insider – someone who has spent time within the system that you want to change, recognized its faults, and is willing to speak about this. For example, this person could be a former immigration agent who can speak to the flaws in policy and their impact on immigrants and citizens alike, or a real estate agent who’s seen housing discrimination up close and on a mass scale.

Affected Change Agent – someone directly affected by the flawed system and who took action to change it. It’s important that this person’s success was related to changing a system, a policy, an entire way of thinking—and not just successful for their own individual gain. For example, she may have been a public housing tenant who organized and motivated a group of neighbors to demand better oversight of the property, or a parent who mobilized the PTA to challenge overly harsh disciplinary policies.

Experts – someone to provide the big picture, the statistics, and studies that show how this issue affects the whole community, and who can make the point that the issue must be solved at the policy, not individual, level. These spokespeople (researchers, advocates, policymakers, and others) frequently offer a transition from problem to solution.

SHOW HOW WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER

In messaging, we should also emphasize that the issues we’re discussing affect all of us. They are about our shared destiny, and the forces—good and bad—that connect us. Doing this opens up new conversations and moves us toward hope and away from harmful framing of social justice issues in terms of extreme individualism, competition, and blame. This might mean, for example, showing how fair treatment of immigrants is about protecting due process for everyone.

BUILD SHARED NARRATIVES

Narratives are broad stories that transcend any individual argument, statistic, or legislative battle, to tap into our most deeply held values and assumptions. A narrative tells the story of an issue in a way that is immediately accessible to target audiences, and points them toward the solutions we want to promote. Once established in the public consciousness, a narrative can have profound impact on the policy process. For instance, the “free market” narrative (markets are rational and should not be tampered with) has been employed by conservatives to great effect in debates over taxes, financial regulation, and social services, providing a simple explanation that applies across issue areas. In debates over the death penalty, a narrative around innocence (that using capital punishment risks executing innocent people in the name of the state) has helped to roll back the death penalty in a growing number of states. Other powerful narratives have included “family values” and “big government,” as well as “civil rights” and the “New Deal.” See how the immigration movement worked to create a shared narrative.