Three expert tips to level up your advocacy writing

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The Canadian charitable sector is currently enjoying the most relaxed rules in over a decade regarding the resources we can put toward advocating for policy change. But after several years of strict limitations through the CRA “10% rule,” advocacy is a muscle that has atrophied in many of our organizations.

The end result is that for many of us, mostly out of necessity, we’ve prioritized treating the symptoms of bad policy over working to replace those policies with better ones.

However, there’s an increasing appetite in our sector to advocate for widespread policy changes to address the systemic inequities that our clients are bearing the brunt of, even if it is off the sides of our desks.

If you find yourself drawn toward this work, or you have already started but aren’t feeling very confident in your efforts, here are three specific strategies to help with your advocacy communications and messaging.

1. The “people do things” rule

One of my favourite communications gurus, Anat Shenker-Osorio, says, “When we do not make it clear from the outset that a problem is person-made, it is cognitively inconsistent to believe that it could be person-fixed.” She urges us to use an active voice in our writing rather than a passive one.

Consider the phrases “affordable housing is being lost,” and “funding was cut,” and how much more power there is in the phrases “elected officials caused evictions by ending rent control” and “breakfast program closes due to Minister’s choice to defund program.”

Putting it into practice: Don’t leave the “doers” out of your advocacy writing, it lets them off the hook and our proposed solutions make less sense. Make sure you are naming the source of the problem as specifically as possible.

Explore this further: The book Don’t Buy It: the trouble with talking nonsense about the economy by Anat Shenker-Osorio.

2. (Re)Framing the narrative

Another prominent communications wizard, George Lakoff, wrote “In politics, whoever frames the debate tends to win the battle.” By now we know that stories are powerful tools to change hearts and minds, but to make change, we can’t just tell stories, we need to change existing narratives.

Lakoff also says that putting a negative in front of our opponent’s message just gives them free airtime. Consider a classic NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) example: messaging within their frame could sound like “No, your property values will not go down if we build affordable housing here.” Reframed, it could sound like “We are a welcoming neighbourhood. We believe everyone deserves a home and that when this is the case, the whole community benefits.”

Putting it into practice: Do not accept your opponent’s framing of the story as the default. Reframe it to change the terms of the debate by redefining the issue with new values or exposing faulty assumptions. Say it right, and then say it over and over.

Explore this further: The book The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your values and frame the debate by George Lakoff.

3. Persuasive metaphors

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor,” wrote Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth.

Conceptual metaphors, or imagery, are a form of framing used to help us understand abstract or intangible ideas by describing them in terms of simpler things we can more readily grasp (like the metaphor of being able to “grasp” an idea).

For a very powerful example, consider the experiment where two groups were given the same statistics about crime in a fictional city, but a different metaphor for crime was used for each. Participants who read the description of crime as an opponent overwhelmingly favoured tougher law enforcement as the appropriate response. Meanwhile, participants who read the version comparing crime to a contagious virus favoured preventive programs to address crime. These two metaphors subconsciously triggered an understanding of crime based on the understanding of the things they were being compared to.

Putting it into practice: Use deliberately selected metaphors - they can be a persuasive communication tool, subtly seating issues within a set of assumptions that will favour the response you seek. Similar to framing, check your writing to make sure you have not used the other side’s metaphors as a default.

Explore this further: The books Don’t Buy It: the trouble with talking nonsense about the economy by Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff.

Put it all together: An effective advocacy letter

Writing a letter to your elected representative is an excellent first step in advocating for change. You can put together an effective letter in just four straightforward paragraphs:

  • First, identify if the issue falls under municipal, provincial, or federal mandates. Some issues are definitely provincial (ie. medical treatment access or social programming) where some may be all three depending on your angle (ie. affordable housing). Address your letter to the correct representative.
  • Open with your issue and request. (ie. I am writing to request that you vote against Bill X; I am writing to voice my concerns with your government’s recent funding cut to...) Remember the “People Do Things” Rule and name the source of the problem specifically.
  • Identify a value you share. Frame the issue around the deepest moral value possible. Try: Our values align when it comes to setting families up to succeed...; Protecting public access to quality education is really about protecting opportunities for the next generation, which is a value I know we share...
  • Personalize with a story/Describe the local impact. For example, say something such as: This Bill will have an immediate impact on your constituent, five-year old Anna, who...; Our 432 member families rely on this funding for....
  • Repeat your one clear ask. Use language such as: On behalf of X, I urge you to vote...; I would like to schedule a meeting to discuss further... Do not confuse your deep moral value framing such as defending family values or freedom as your ask. Your ask should be specific and easy to evaluate, such as voting a certain way on a specific Bill or scheduling a meeting.

Finally, check over all four paragraphs to make sure you have written in an active voice, that you have framed the issue on your terms, and that your metaphors are working for you. Ensure you have a single clear ask and most of all, stay respectful and focused on the issue – no personal attacks.

Advocacy writing is a muscle that gets stronger with use, so write, and write often! If you use these tips to write a letter to our government, send me an email, I’d love to hear about it.

Jennifer van Gennip is an Advocacy and Communications Strategist. She offers strategy and support for cause organizations to make sure they get heard. You’ll find more tips like these at www.jennifervangennip.com, or she can be reached by email at jennifer.vangennip@gmail.com and @jennvangennip on Twitter.

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