How Words Change Minds: The Science of Storytelling by Nat Kendall-Taylor at TEDxMidAtlanticSalon (Transcript)

Nat Kendall-Taylor

Here is the full transcript of Nat Kendall-Taylor’s TEDx Talk on How Words Change Minds: The Science of Storytelling at TEDxMidAtlanticSalon conference.


I want to start with a warning today. I realize that beginning with a warning may not be the smartest thing to do, but I’m just going to go for it.

My warning is that although I’m here to talk to you about communications, I actually have zero training in communications, and I’ve never worked in PR. What I am is a psychological anthropologist. And what I study is the way that culture influences how we think, how we process information, how we make meaning of messages, and how we formulate and come to decisions.

And so, as a psychological anthropologist, one of my goals here today is to convince you, is to show you, that this is not true. That we should not be actively dissuading our friends and colleagues from going into anthropology, and that instead, studying culture and how people use it to think is an incredibly valuable tool in the real world, and for our purposes today, can be an incredibly important and effective thing in being a better communicator.

And so, as an anthropologist working in communications, I study two different things. First of all, I study public thinking, not public opinion, not the way that people answer a couple of polling questions here or there, or conduct themselves in a few focus groups in Cleveland or Kansas City – I’m from Cleveland, I can make that joke, that’s okay – but rather how people use culture in a deep and highly predictable way to think about complex social issues; issues like education or mental health, immigration or aging, climate change or race inequity.

So I am really excited to talk to you about how culture helps us be more effective communicators. The other thing that I’m going to talk to you about is how through the way that we present information we can get people to open up an access dramatically different ways of thinking, of feeling, and of acting about those social issues, and in a nutshell, that is what framing is: how variations in the way that we present information can lead people to dramatically different perceptual and behavioral outcomes.

And so I’m really, really – why not? – really excited to get the chance to geek out about framing today. And I’ll tell you right from the beginning that geeking out about framing is pretty much my all-time, absolute favorite thing to do, which I realize is kind of pathetic, and probably a little bit sad. But it does mean that at least one person in this room is going to have fun during this talk. That will be me, I will have fun. And so, what I want to do today is to convince you, is to argue that even though you do not think of yourselves all the time in this way and are not explicitly aware of it, you are all communicators.

And as communicators, framing matters a great deal to you. So what I want to do is give you two reasons why framing matters to you. And the first reason is, unfortunately, I’m in the position where I have to tell you that you all have a problem. And you should know there aren’t 11 more steps after this, it’s not that kind of a meeting, and it’s not that kind of a problem. What I mean is that you have a communications problem.

You have a problem of perception. And the problem looks something like this: That you all have been in positions, at one time or another, where you think you have the most perfect, awesome, slam-dunk – whatever sports metaphor you want to use – way of talking about what you do and why it matters. Heck, it works with two of your closest colleagues, what could go wrong when it goes out to normal people, people who don’t eat and breathe and sleep your issues all the time? And you find that when this idea that made so much sense to you goes outside of your immediate circle, it does one of two things. First of all, it lacks resonance. It doesn’t have grip, it goes in one ear and out the other.

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Secondly, probably more unfortunately because it happens more frequently, that thing which worked and was so brilliant in your own head goes out, and it has the exact opposite effect on the people you’re trying to persuade, on the people you’re trying to communicate with. And I’m not going to ask you to take my word for anything today, right? I’m going to show you evidence from the research that I do with my team that shows this. And I have a lot of pieces of examples, evidence of this you-say-they-think, this lost-in-translation effect. I’m going to show you one today that comes from some work that we’ve done to translate the science of early childhood development. People who are in this field, people who are developmental scientists, really want to talk about adversity and stress, and the effects that stress and adversity can have on young kids.

And they say things like this: that persistent stress can derail development and have negative long-term effects on health and well-being. And if you’re a developmental scientist, you replace negative with deleterious because that’s the way you talk. And so for folks who are in this field, this is true. There is an incredibly deep body of science across a number of disciplines which supports this point. Unfortunately, when you take this idea out, to normal people, to members of the general public, you get things that look and sound like this:

(Video) “Man: Life’s hard. Supposed to be hard. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you know? All the bad cliches you can think of. There’s been people that have come from absolutely nothing to make it, and in society’s eyes gained success”.

So just to make it really crystal-clear, that which you just heard was not the intended effect when this expert opened his or her mouth to deliver this message. I’m not trying to say that our friend Nietzsche here with “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – smart audience, there you go – is wrong or stupid in any way.

But there’s clearly something that’s going on here, there’s clearly a difference between the intention and the delivery of the message, and it’s actual perception and effect. And you all should have a good idea as to what that is, based on how I introduced myself as an anthropologist. So the thing that stands between the you-say and the they-think here is culture. Not the external, Indiana Jones artifact kind of culture, but rather culture in mind, culture as a set of shared patterns of thinking, as a set of shared assumptions and propositions that we have and carry around with us in our minds, and use every time that we are presented with information, every time that we engage with an issue.

And so, what this does, this realization that culture is always mediating our meaning and complicating our job as communicators, is it gives us – so this is both, kind of one of these paradoxical things that’s both utterly common sense, and completely game-changing – is that this gives us a really different way of looking at what has been the dominant way of thinking about public understanding and communication.

So for a long time, and still too this day, people have thought of public understanding in this way: as an empty receptacle, as a blank slate, as an empty fishbowl, and have thought that we as communicators can assume that we are our audiences, and take the things that make so much sense to us, and literally drop them into this unfettered space where they get to do their thing. And we know, based on what I’ve just told you about culture, that this is neither correct, nor is it productive as a way to think about communications.

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Instead, we have to understand that culture always complicates our job as communicators, and if we can go a step further and understand how people use culture to think about our issues, we can be dramatically more effective in our roles as messengers, in our roles as communicators.

And so, the second reason why framing matters to all of you in this room is because understanding is frame dependent. Now, that’s a mildly academicese way of saying that the choices that you make as communicators matter. Sometimes the little things: the pronouns that you use, the verbs that you choose; sometimes the big things, the values that you use to explain why your issue matters; those things matter. Those things have frequently dramatic impacts on what people are willing to do, and how people are willing to act and engage on your issues.

And again, I don’t want you to take my word for it. I’m going to give you a quick example that shows you that understanding is frame dependent. And this example comes not from the United States, but from the Canadian province of Alberta. And a quick geography lesson, Alberta is one of the tall, skinny ones in the middle of the country. Kind of all you need to know – it’s very cold – for this example.

And so there’s a group of experts and advocates in Alberta who are working to change policy and practice around addiction. They’re working to take what we know from science, and use it to implement better policies and practices around addiction in this province. And they’ve been having a great deal of difficulty doing this. A lot of their problem comes from the fact that there is zero support to do anything different when it comes to addiction in this province. And so, they came to us, and they asked us to conduct some work to figure out how to engage members of the public more productively, to move understanding, and specifically, to increase support for a set of evidence-based policies.

And so, as good framing geeks and dweebs, we do what good framing geeks and dweebs do, we ran an experiment. And in this experiment we tested three different values messages. You see, the values messages along the horizontal axis of this graph right now. So some people – this is a large experiment, 6,000 people, which believe it or not is not the entire population of Alberta, it’s a representative sample, not an exhaustive sample. Each of these 6,000 people is randomly assigned to one of these messages.

So if some folks got the value of interdependence, which, in this case, is the sense that we need to do a better job of dealing with addiction in this province because we’re all connected: what influences one of us influences all of us. Other folks got this value of ingenuity, which is an innovation value, that we are a province of problem-solvers – you kind of swing your arm when you do this one – there’s never been a problem that we haven’t been able to solve with some good old Albertan grit and roll-up-your-sleeves problem-solvingness – that was my Albertan accent, if you caught that, very important.

And other folks, last but not least, got this value of empathy, which is the sense that we need to do a better job of dealing with addiction in this province because people who deal with addiction are people too. They could be our mother, brother, father, sister, neighbor, whomever, and as individuals, we need to show these folks compassion. So what you’re going to see on this next click is what I think are three beautiful, blue bars appearing on this screen, and what those blue bars are going to show you is the extent, the degree to which hearing these different values changes people’s support for these evidence-based policies.

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So can anyone do a good drumroll? Please, play along, thank you. So you should see three blue bars and notice two things. So first of all, two of these values, interdependence and ingenuity, make people, to a statistically significant degree, more supportive of these evidence-based policies. That is good news when we run these experiments, and when we get results like that, we stand up, we do a little framing dance – I won’t do it right now, don’t worry – we sit back down and we look towards the right-hand side of the screen. The value of empathy is actually depressing people’s support for these policies.

Now, the kicker is that in a subsequent piece of analysis, where we looked at all of the fields external-facing materials, guess which value we found to be in place over 90% of the time? Empathy. Thank you. Not a rhetorical question. And so, what this field has been doing for a very long time is endorsing a value which actually drives support down for the very policies that they are advocating.

So this example does two things: it clearly shows you that understanding is frame-dependent and frames matter. It also shows you that these questions, you know, which values to use, how to communicate, are empirical questions. We don’t have to guess or use our guts, we can use social science. I think it’s pretty cool that frames are able to move people’s understanding and their policy support, but what about more intrinsic, subconscious thinking? What about implicit bias? Can frames make people less subconsciously biased against particular groups of people? So we set out to answer this question through a project on re-framing aging in which we were specifically interested in: can frames make people less implicitly biased against older adults?

And we found two things. First of all, Americans do not like older people. Older Americans don’t like older people. High degree of implicit bias, and it’s a level of implicit bias that parallels other biases that people study, whether that’s gender, religion, sexuality, race; this is not cool news, not a good finding. But it does get cool when you look at what happens when we gave people a message that compared ageing to a process of building and gaining momentum. And when we did this, we found that we could actually reduce people’s implicit bias by almost a third. Through a frame, we could make people less ageist at an implicit level. And you can tell that I think this is pretty cool, and it’s definitely evidence that frames matter, and it’s definitely evidence that understanding is frame dependent.

So I want to leave you with a quote, one of my new favorite quotes. This is from Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, and Illich says that neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a more powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story. So if we’re going to drive social change, we need to develop, we need to test, and we need to commit to telling new stories. And with that, I will thank you very much, and encourage you all to frame on.

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