Your Words Can Be Weapons — or an Olive Branch
The English language has always seemed to me a vast ocean of options wherein each choice could transform the tone of a story or add a layer of meaning to an idea. It’s become a well-known idiosyncrasy of mine: invariably using a 25-cent word where a 10-cent word would do. Growing up, I developed this trait by reading novels and famous speeches, noticing how a beautiful story could make me cry or, as I got older, how a great speech could elicit a soaring feeling starting somewhere in my chest. I came to understand something that has been reinforced with each passing year: the way we communicate with one another is the way we express our common values, forge meaningful connections, and establish the shared intentionality that is the cornerstone of progress.
As we head into the holidays, I see language as the potential unifier. For family members whose paths and perspectives may have diverged, coming together over the holidays requires carefully-chosen words, so as not to ruin the limited time we have with parents, siblings, aunts, or cousins. Herein lies our saving grace: we can train ourselves to communicate more thoughtfully. Believer that I am in the power of words, I have faith that doing so can not only bring people together, but can also incite culture change.
In my time at the CAA Foundation, I’ve found language to be of the utmost importance in a few major areas. Our team uses these strategies by feel constantly — what follows is my attempt to extricate them into their component parts, and to present them as lessons you can take with you to the dinner table:
LANGUAGE & CAUSES
CAA’s most basic function is making connections, and the CAA Foundation is no different: nonprofit organizations reach out to us in the hopes that we can link them to something or someone, from talent ambassadors to new partners to cohorts of volunteers. We cherish our relationships with these organizations, all of which are doing great work — but some make our job especially easy, by crafting messaging with their audience in mind. Here are some lessons from a few of our nonprofit partners who are doing it right:
Tell stories; don’t just provide facts. Every holiday season, CAA participates in Adopt-A-Family programs across our office locations. In Los Angeles, we partner with One Voice LA. Each department ‘adopts’ a certain number of families from One Voice’s client base and fundraises to fulfill the holiday wish lists of each family, from strollers to clothing to cookware to gift cards. What One Voice understands is that, while we might not meet these families in person, knowing their individual stories makes us feel connected to them and makes the program successful with our employees year after year. So One Voice provides us with a list of families that includes basic information on the family members, a family bio, and a detailed holiday wish list. Our Comedy Department doesn’t just adopt Families A and B, they adopt the Martin and Garcia families, for example, and are able to contextualize the impact of their donations.
Keep language as inclusive as possible. From its genesis, Represent.Us has had to be mindful of the messaging challenge inherent to its purpose: Represent.Us is fundamentally a political organization, working to pass powerful laws curbing political corruption — but they are nonpartisan, and their success depends on cultivating cooperation between people across the political spectrum. A willingness to hit at corrupt candidates regardless of political affiliation bolsters Represent.Us’s nonpartisan credentials, but they take it further than that; for example, ‘corruption’ is the central word to their platform, and it’s a word they found resonated with progressives and conservatives alike. Fighting corruption is a popular idea across the board, while a focus on ‘money in politics’ is less powerful with conservatives and criticisms of ‘the elite’ can be off-putting to city-dwelling Democrats. Represent.Us has scored city- and state-wide reforms in cities and states as liberal as San Francisco and as conservative as South Dakota.
Note for the non-profit folks: the main body of Represent.Us is a registered 501(c)4, but they have a 501(c)3 education-focused arm, as well.
Approach others with a values perspective. Our friends at the Annenberg Foundation are experts in non-profit messaging; in fact, improving communication to advance public well-being is their raison d’être. Annenberg’s Alchemy is a capacity building and leadership development program that assists small to midsize LA-based nonprofits, and at one of its Leadership Seminars, Annenberg laid out instructions on how a non-profit should develop their “case” for support. The lesson: frame your purpose in terms of why you exist, not what you do. One way to do this is to start by articulating a handful of “We believe that…” statements that characterize the mission. Then, only once you’ve made your fundamental beliefs clear and have established your values, you communicate your goals (outcomes to satisfy those values).
LANGUAGE & CAMPAIGNS
Civics has a place in my heart on par with the English language, so it was much to my delight when, in February of this year, we launched CAA Civics, a nonpartisan employee group dedicated to promoting citizenship and civic engagement. In accordance with this, we’ve had a steady stream of former and current policymakers come in for roundtables and panel discussions. Through a combination of these off-the-record conversations and an eye-opening book called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, I’ve made some observations, reformulated as recommendations below.
Be authentic. At the CAA Civics launch (an event we called Take Action Day), the newly-elected US Senator from California, Kamala Harris, sat with CAA’s Chief Innovation Officer, Michelle Kydd Lee. I’d been following Harris excitedly for some time, finding her to be a rare synthesis of radical candor and strategic restraint. Where many candidates are either too wooden or gaffe-prone, Harris shows that a politician can be fired up but still deliberate; she avoids mild platitudes, opting instead for frank exasperation. Even as Harris vigorously lays into broken systems, corrupt actions, and flawed ideologies, she’s always in control enough to steer clear of personal attacks, and she never stumbles sideways into language that is hurtful or divisive.
Emphasize commonalities. There is one aspect of human nature Haidt highlights which is antithetical to the global outlook of most progressives: parochial altruism, or the inclination to care more about the members of your group — especially those who have sacrificed for it — than about outsiders. It’s instinctive for us to support our in-group, so establishing shared identity is key for candidates who want to appeal to the broadest swath possible of their electorate. But how can a candidate find common ground with one subset of people without simultaneously alienating another subset? Look no further than Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia, often cited as the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. Manchin came in for a roundtable in August, and despite being a proud progressive from Portland, OR, I found myself immediately disarmed by him and his folksy responses to the audience’s hard-edged questioning. This is a politician who wins elections in coal country, who appeals to an electorate that broke +42.2 for Trump, who represents a state that has voted Republican in every presidential race since 2000… and even in this conversation he spoke with the voice of his constituents, bravely telling a room of eco-conscious Angelenos of the damage Obama-era environmental regulations did to WV’s economy. But Manchin has mastered the art of the pivot, and he gracefully brings each talking point back around to where we agree: we need an energy economy that employs as many people as possible, and we need to work together on a strategy that gets us there without leaving working class people behind. There may be a sizable, vocal portion of the left that are eager to primary Manchin with a more progressive candidate, but the party leadership stands firmly with him, and his ability to find common ground may be the secret as to why.
Activate moral instincts. Shortly following the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords in June, we held After Paris, a conversation with former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and current LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, moderated by CAA Foundation Co-Director Rachel Kropa. In it, Schwarzenegger and Garcetti called for a new narrative around climate change, one focused on human impacts. This evinces one of Haidt’s main points: we make snap judgments on any given issue based on our moral intuitions…strategic reasoning comes later. Once a person has taken a position, any reasoning they do will be reverse-engineered from their intuitive response; Haidt analogizes conscious reasoning to a press secretary who justifies any position taken by the president. The takeaway? We shouldn’t delineate the scientific evidence for climate change to persuade others to support policies that curb it; we should place the argument in a moral framework — in this case, the harm it does to our families, an externality that we instinctively feel is wrong.
“Why are skies clearer in Los Angeles today? Because mothers went to City Hall in the ’50s with gas masks and said that the smog was killing them and their children…You actually have to make this a human issue.” — Mayor Garcetti
Make it your goal to learn from people who disagree with you, not to manipulate them. About a year ago, just a few weeks after the 2016 election, Van Jones came in for a moderated conversation led by Speakers Agent Darnell Strom. Jones had been working on his CNN special “The Messy Truth,” a series of town hall specials aimed at improving the dialogue between people with different political beliefs. The timing made for an emotional talk, but Jones was refreshingly hopeful, characterizing left and right as two groups engaged in a sort of centuries-long waltz, each needing the other to temper their impulses and each contributing valuable insights to which the other should listen. Jones’ instinct, to try first to understand the ‘other side,’ is the right one, and Haidt reinforces this with his assertion that people only listen open-mindedly to opposing views if they have a sympathetic relationship to one another — meaning, a bond not borne of a desire to win some political argument. If we are open to the idea that everyone has something to teach us, and if we express this with open, kind communication, they might behave reciprocally. “The Messy Truth” showed this in spades through the warm, even tender conversations Jones had with people across the political spectrum.
When you’re with your loved ones in the coming weeks, apply these strategies when and where you can, and try to foster harmony and understanding. Perhaps the most powerful communicative strategy of all, in every silo, is knowing when not to speak. Remember to listen first, and when the time does come to speak, be sincere, be deliberate, and be kind.