Julie Sweetland, sociolinguist

This language specialist and her team help advocacy groups navigate the murky waters of communication. Interview by Erin E.A. Ross

April 04, 2016

Julie Sweetland of the FrameWorks Institute

What makes one metaphor helpful, and another confusing?

In 1999, founders of the newly formed FrameWorks Institute in Washington, D.C., hoped to address just that. Their goal was to help nonprofits use clear metaphors to frame messages to the public. One of their first clients was the Climate Message Research Project, which asked FrameWorks to investigate a seemingly simple question: Why don’t people understand the causes of climate change?

FrameWorks researchers examined the language scientists were using to discuss climate change. In particular, they honed in on one phrase: “greenhouse gases.” The team wanted to know how the public’s preconceived biases about greenhouses influenced their understanding of greenhouse gases. What they found was surprising.

“It turns out that most people don’t understand how a greenhouse works,” explains Julie Sweetland, a linguist and vice president of strategy and innovation at FrameWorks. “If they did know about greenhouses, they weren’t things that made you warm. People thought of them as nice places that made plants grow.”

So FrameWorks developed a new metaphor: the heat-trapping blanket. “When fossil fuels like oil or natural gas are burned, they add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This forms a blanket, trapping heat inside and disrupting natural systems,” says Sweetland. It’s effective, she explains, because it relies on shared prior knowledge: everyone uses blankets.

In the years since FrameWorks developed this metaphor, it has spread rapidly. It’s been used by U.S. agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as zoos and aquariums across the country.

As the metaphor has grown, so has FrameWorks. Today the company employs a multidisciplinary staff of 20 social scientists. Their research has contributed to the dialogue on issues ranging from immigration and refugees to after-school education and community healthcare. In 2015 FrameWorks received a $1 million Macarthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions to continue its work.

SciCom’s Erin E.A. Ross sat down with Sweetland after her talk at the February 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., to discuss what goes into crafting the perfect metaphor.

Your background is in linguistics. How does that relate to the work you do at FrameWorks?

A rigorous understanding of language is essential to effective communication. We have three or four linguists on staff. We have a thing called the “metaphor kitchen” where we brainstorm different candidate metaphors. We want to map various aspects of an issue so we can explain complex or abstract concepts and make them concrete. We recruit what the public knows about, say, toasters or doors or cars, and use it to help them understand a social problem.

Linguists are often involved in that process of metaphor generation and refinement. It helps to have a keen verbal sensitivity to language in lots of different ways—for instance, thinking about alliteration or rhyme or word choice in a particular way.

You use the metaphor of “the swamp” to describe to your clients how meaning can get lost when communicating to the public. Can you talk a bit about that?

The swamp is a metaphor for public thinking. Public thinking is a messy terrain; it’s complicated and complex. It’s a vibrant ecology with lots of things in there. Some are helpful, and some will eat your messages.

Like an alligator.

Exactly. It’s important for any communicator to understand the terrain of the swamp of public thinking. People aren’t blank slates. They come with prior assumptions, default ways of thinking, and highly accessible ways of understanding an issue. Understanding which of those ways of thinking are hospitable to your message and which are hostile is really critical.

And you have anthropologists on staff to help map the swamp?

Yes, our anthropologists help us find where the public’s current understanding is. We take that anthropological understanding into the political science and sociology of frame development. How we frame the issue emphasizes what impacts of the issue we want to discuss.

Can you give me an example of how the swamp influenced the metaphors you cooked up in the kitchen?

A number of environmental advocacy groups have asked FrameWorks to look into climate change. Our anthropologists discovered that the public does not understand that carbon dioxide is the driver of climate change. They know about its role in human respiration and photosynthesis. We breathe it out, so how bad can it be, right? We realized that if advocates wanted to focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, they needed a way to talk about carbon dioxide that focused on its harmful role when there’s too much.  That’s the swamp.

"Public thinking is a messy terrain. It’s a vibrant ecology with lots of things in there. Some are helpful, and some will eat your messages."

And the metaphor?

For that, we looked around for words that described things that were normal and expected, versus words that meant “too much.” We also wanted those words to be a good linguistic pair that emphasizes the contrast—something like quantity vs. quality, or nurture vs. nature. They share the same syllables, structure, alliteration, that sort of thing. But they also capture something, so they have become really sticky concepts.

A linguist and I looked through different types of thesauruses and came up with a lot of things that could work. First, we tried “regular versus rogue carbon dioxide,” which captures the issue. But we realized that if you say “rogue carbon,” you’ve got a phonotactics problem. The “g” and the “c” blend together, right? “Rogue Carbon.” Then we came up with “regular vs. rampant carbon dioxide.” It’s still got alliteration, but it’s also easy to say.

People don’t use the word “rampant” a lot, so it gets their attention. But it’s common enough that they know it, and know it’s bad. Kids running rampant in the streets, those kinds of things. So linguistics informed the development of that specific reframing strategy.

How do you test these metaphors to see whether they work?

We have a multi-step process. As you already know, we start in the metaphor kitchen. From the kitchen we sometimes take them into “smell tests” where we ask the experts if this metaphor seems like it’s capturing what they want to communicate.

That usually helps us remove a few from the pool. Then we’ll take about ten to twelve out on the streets. We do rapid, short interviews with folks and code across those interviews to see the effects on public thinking. From there we eliminate some and improve others. Then we take about four to six of them into a large-scale quantitative test where we look to see how those metaphors affect the ways people understand the issue. Finally, we take them into my favorite method: persistence trials.

Tell me more about those.

It’s a bit like the children’s game of telephone. Our researchers teach the metaphor conversationally to two ordinary people and leave the room. Then that pair talks to a new pair of folks about it. The first generation leaves the room, and the second generation of people teaches it to a third pair, and then they teach it back to us. We’re looking for what we call stickiness. Is it memorable? Do people use the language we came up with?

People want to run with metaphors. They’ll come up with associations, they’ll extend the metaphor, and that’s what we want to happen. When they run with it, are they going in the direction you want them to go? Or are they going back to default ways of thinking and making weird associations? By the time we come out with a recommendation, we feel really confident that it’s a highly effective way to get people to grasp the fundamentals of an issue.

Not all of your metaphors turn out well. Can you give me an example of one that wasn’t successful? I heard something about a deer fighting a panda?

Oh, deer vs. panda! That happened when we were asked [by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University] to help translate the concept of resilience in children. Why do some children have positive outcomes in the face of significant adversity? It doesn’t happen often, but there are resilient individuals who thrive. The science tells us a few different things. Some children are very sensitive to environments. So when they get really positive environments, they just soak it up and they thrive. But even a mildly negative environment really affects them, and they’ll have poor outcomes. Other children are less sensitive to environments. That made us think about deer. Deer can live in lots of different environments and thrive in lots of different places, but pandas have a very specialized environment and can only thrive in one sort of place.

OK, that makes sense.

Yeah… but there were problems. People did not like thinking about these cute animals in the context of kids in tough circumstances. People on the streets were kind of mad at us when we tried this metaphor, comparing their kids to deer. It’s now a bit of a joke around our office. “Make sure it’s not a deer vs. panda!”

You’ve also done research on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.) You found that very few people knew what STEM education was. If they did know about STEM, they overemphasized the science. How did you frame STEM to help emphasize technology, engineering, and mathematics?

To emphasize the common foundations across all STEM disciplines, we developed the metaphor of a braided rope. STEM skills are like a rope: each of the disciplines are woven together. These ropes are the tools kids need to meet the challenges of the modern world, but the rope is only as strong as each strand. They support and reinforce one another. We found that gets the concept through.

When discuss framing in your workshops and with your clients, do you use your own techniques? How do you frame framing?

Many years ago we came up with a few different metaphors for framing. One is a simple ocular metaphor: a picture frame. What’s inside the frame, and what isn’t? We decided to focus on landscape for a more tactical way of thinking about communications. The frame is terrain you’re navigating, like the swamp [laughs]. But no one has funded us to frame framing, so we haven’t been able to test that.


© 2016 Erin E.A. Ross. Erin has created this online frame for her work: www.erineaross.com.