Framing Nature: Why Language Matters
Language is one of the most powerful tools in an animal advocate’s arsenal. Presented appropriately, conservation becomes a compelling goal for those who are not necessarily considering animal welfare in their daily lives. But what constitutes appropriate presentation? The Framing Nature Toolkit is a report addressed towards conservationists and animal advocates who seek to make better use of language to convince others of the value of their message.
Frames are how people organize their reality. They consist of related bits of information – characters, places, feelings, emotions, etc. – that may be invoked by the use of a particular word or image. Framing involves manipulating the language of arguments to agree with positive mental structures in other people. This technique fits neatly with the goals of conservationists.
An ever-present danger in animal advocacy is excluding groups of individuals through excessive polarization or esoteric language. For example, an argument that relies heavily on jargon words may appeal to biologists and conservationists, but is not as appealing to individuals who are not versed in animal science. Clear, simple messaging, appropriately chosen facts, and minimal decorative language are key to ensuring that jargon does not put off potential converts to the conservation cause.
A secondary concern for animal advocates is presenting nature in a way that is compelling but not undermining. The use of metaphors is a particularly tricky language structure to navigate, because metaphors have implicit meanings and entailments.
Entailments refer to the implications of metaphors – for example, if I talk about “wildlife management”, I am conjuring an image of nature as a commodity in the minds of my audience. The entailment of this metaphor is that people will begin to think of conservation as a transaction that they are obligated to participate in, rather than a moral good and a source of pleasure. According to this report, animal advocates should steer clear of frames that invoke associations to commerce, productivity, or transaction. If the goal of conservation is to bring forth genuine compassion and appreciation for nature, then advocates should instead employ frames that reference the intrinsic worth of wildlife.
Words with negative connotations are also off-putting and invoke harmful frames. Overemphasizing words such as “threat”, “dramatic decline”, and “catastrophe” may evoke strong emotions in the audience, but not necessarily the emotions that will stir them to action. Conservation should be motivated by hope and optimism, which is better achieved through inspiring and uplifting language. Promoting solidarity, rather than imposing crisis, should be the focus of persuasive appeals made by animal advocates.
Sequencing is another factor that influences the reception of a message. As a general rule, the beginning of your sentence or argument carries more weight than the end. For example, if I wanted to cite a credible source in my persuasive appeal, saying that “Prince William warns poachers are outrunning efforts to stop wildlife trade” shifts the focus to Prince William and his thoughts on wildlife trade. This detracts from the message I really want to push, which is that of wildlife trade. A better reordering of the sentence may look like this: “Together we can build on the decades of work we’ve done to stop the criminal ‘wildlife trade’, vows Prince William.” This sentence is an improvement, because it reduces the emphasis on Prince William, spotlights wildlife trade, and still lends credibility to my argument.
The report goes on to emphasize that framing is not only a matter of language. Imagery can also be selected to invoke appropriate frames. If an image or video is to be used in a conservation campaign, it helps to make it less abstract for the audience, by introducing a relatable human element. Choosing a diversity of individuals to appear in the image in conjunction with nature can reinforce a sense of oneness among the audience, encouraging them to partake in the enjoyment of nature as well.
The report offers a practical template for incorporating fresh, compelling frames into animal advocacy campaigns. The first step involves clarifying the intent of your message–who is it for? What do you want to get across? What are the established routes for conveying a message of this sort? Once your purpose has crystallized and you are aware of how similar views are traditionally presented, you can get creative and begin brainstorming ways to subvert the conventional presentation. In some cases, parody can work. If your issue is generally presented as something grave, sidestep the seriousness and inject humor into your presentation. The goal is to shift the frame while retaining the underlying message.
At this point, as an animal advocate, you may already be aware of your own goals. Now, it is time to understand your audience – what do they want to hear? What do they care about? Reconciling your goals with theirs is the best way to come to a compromise regarding conservation and animal advocacy. If you understand how you can “meet in the middle” over the topic of your concern, it becomes easier to execute the final step, which is carrying out the presentation in the medium of your choice.
The report also notes that framing is not only a persuasive device. It may also be used as a strategy to expand perspectives within an organization. The benefit of using alternative frames within an organization is it forces reflection and helps organizations gain clarity on their target goals.
Of course, applying frames appropriately requires refinement of this basic framework. Once you have developed a frame, it will be necessary to test it. To carry out a test, you must identify (1) your audience, (2) what you want to test, and (3) what you hope will result from the test. There are both low-budget and high-budget ways to test the effectiveness of a frame. Overall, it doesn’t matter which testing platform you rely on, so long as you are able to evaluate and reflect on your framing devices.
Engaging with dialogue appropriately will be important in the coming years, as both support for, and resistance to, wildlife conservation is mounting. In this climate of increased polarization, it will take creativity, sensitivity, and persuasive skills through techniques like framing in order to reinvigorate public enthusiasm for nature.