Framing essentials: order matters

Communicating effectively isn’t just about what you say, or how you say it. It’s about when you say it too.

The order in which we come across ideas shapes how we respond to them and how we interpret the information that comes next. We’re more likely to remember things that come at the very beginning too – this is called the primacy effect – so it really matters what we lead with if we want to influence action and change 

Our choice of image, story or words affects whether people will be open to our ideas or reject them. If we lead with something that triggers unhelpful assumptions and beliefs, these will quickly dominate people’s thinking, and we can’t walk it back. We’ve lost them before we’ve really got started.  

But leading with the right thing can activate helpful ways of thinking that mean people are more likely to engage with our messages and ideas. Give it a try with these three tips. 

  1. Lead with values
    • It’s possible to find common ground in the opening line of our communications, even on complex and politicised social issues. We can do this by tapping into widely shared and cherished values. Start with values like shared responsibility and protecting each other to help people see that an issue is something that should concern all of us. It’s something that’s believable and uncontroversial, which means people are open to hearing more about it, and in turn may support policies and action for change. Our research identifies which values will be most productive for different issues 
    • For example, we found that a combination of compassion and justice were effective values for talking about poverty: “As a society, we believe in justice and compassion. But, right now, millions of people in our country are living in poverty. We share a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone in our country has a decent standard of living and the same chances in life, no matter who they are or where they come from.”
  2. Explain causes before mentioning effects
    • The way people think about the underlying causes of a problem shapes their attitudes and opinions about which solutions will work. That’s why we need to get our systems-level explanations in early – to focus people’s minds on systemic change, rather than better individual decisions, as a solution to social problems. If we don’t, people are likely to fill in the gaps themselves, based on their existing beliefs and assumptions. This will often mean blaming individual people’s choices and characteristics for their circumstances.
    • Try using a tested metaphor to help people understand how something works, and get this in early so you can build on it throughout your communications. 
    • Show how it happens before talking about who it happens to. It can be helpful to explain the cause of the problem before we mention any effects on particular communities or groups, whether the impact is racial, social or economic. If we don’t give an explanation grounded in policy choices or social conditions, people tend to fall back on stereotypes about those communities to explain the statistics. 
  3. Point people in the right direction
    • The early parts of our communications work like signposts. People are more likely to understand what comes next and find their way to our key ideas if we give clear signs that set them off in the direction we want them to go. It’s important that we start with the main points we want people to take away – the big ideas, not the detail, which can send people off down the wrong path. 
    • Don’t start with numbers. As you’ll see in our guide to framing numbers, they need framing with context and explanation if we want people to interpret them as we intend.