Anat Shenker-Osorio – The Magical Message Whisperer of Progressive Causes – Transcript
Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.
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Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.
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Eric: So let’s get onto the show.
Kirk: And we’re back. Welcome in. You found us. It’s Let’s Hear It. We’re glad to have you. Glad you found us. Glad to see you, Mr. Brown.
Eric: Thanks for being here, Mr. Brown, from an undisclosed location.
Kirk: On the road today as the entire country suffers under catastrophic cold, I’m where it’s warm, sunny, and clear, so I feel your pain, America, but, uh, we’re doing this on the road today. I hope it’s not, I hope the audio is not gonna be too bad.
Eric: Okay. A boiling Kirk Brown. Let’s see if the, if the torpor affects the level of wit and the enthusiasm with which you bring yourself to this conversation, though I doubt it.
Kirk: A boiling and somewhat relaxed Kirk Brown, though I will say this conversation had me standing right at attention.
Eric: Oh my God.
Kirk: This was moving at a million miles per hour. And this is welcome, this is welcome perspective on Let’s Hear It. So, set up what we’re about to hear because this is another good one. And in fact, I’ve got lots of great ideas about this conversation that we have to discuss.
Eric: Okay, so if for some reason you’re listening to this podcast and you think you don’t want to, I just, I’m begging you to listen to this conversation. It is. I’m not lying, Kirk. It, I learned more in the 41 minutes or so. We let it go along this time than I think I have in maybe the whole five years, it is such an object lesson in not just communications, not just messaging, but power building campaigns.
I mean, everything we do feels to me is kind of crushed into this conversation with Anat. And one more thing that I would say for all the comms folks out there, a lot of you know this stuff, but your colleagues need to hear it. The program folks, the CEOs, the boards, everyone in the nonprofit world needs to listen to this episode.
Anat Shenker-Osorio, she is the principal and the founder of ASO Communications. She is, and she would probably hate me for saying this, I would say the Frank Luntz of the left, she’s the magical message whisperer of progressive communications. She is honestly like deeply brilliant and funny and smart, and she curses, and so she’s engaged and engaging.
But wow, it was such an amazingly useful and interesting conversation.
Kirk: So head right over to ASO communications.com, check out all the offerings and all the overview of their work there. We’ll talk a little bit about that when we come back. And also immediately subscribe to the Words to Win podcast, the Words to Win By podcast that Anat is running.
And this, the, the big word that came up for me as you were going through this Eric, is the notion of embedded. We have to embed this expertise in every campaign context, in every organizational context. We’ve gotta figure out how to make folks like Anat fellow travelers for the work every step along the way because, um, their perspective is just so fantastic.
So let’s listen. I agree this was a mini PhD education and I’m touching on so many points, so this is Anat Shenker-Osorio on Let’s Hear It. We’ll listen, we’ll come back.
Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It. My guest today is Anat Shenker-Osorio, the principal and founder of ASO Communications and the host of the amazingly good podcast, Words to Win by, which just launched its third season last week. And she’s the author of Don’t Buy It, the Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy.
You’ve read her in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, you heard her on Ezra Klein, God knows where else. Anat is one of progressive communities’ leading lights on message development. And I mean this from the bottom of what’s left of my soul, I have seen her in action and I will tell you that I was not the same human being afterwards. And that’s the truth.
And as she describes it, and I’m really looking forward to this part, she delivers her findings packed in snark. Is there a Greater Communications podcast guest who walks the planet? I do not think so. Anat, thank you so much for coming on Let’s Hear It.
Anat: Oh, I may as well walk away now ’cause I’m not sure – that’s a high bar. I’m gonna have to high jump that bar.
Eric: Well, I’m, I promise to follow you around. I’ll be your, your herald before you come into a room. Okay. I can, I can deliver it.
Anat: Sounds great. Sold.
Eric: How did you get started in this work?
Anat: Well, I was fortunate enough to study linguistics a bunch as an undergrad and become exposed to a school of linguistics called Cognitive Linguistics, which we have a little bit of in the US, it’s a more dominant school in Europe. It’s a little bit like in psychology how analysis is taught much more in the European context, but we tend to teach more sort of cognitive behavioral in the US. Anyway, cognitive linguistics exposed me to folks, of course seminally like George Lakoff, but also to Eve Sweetser and others, and really made me understand that there are systematic ways to look at language. You know, all of social science is just a form of patterned recognition. And in linguistics, those patterns are gleaned from the use of language. And you could look at those patterns and be able to detect that certain expressions, common ways of saying things, oftentimes metaphors, were inhibitive to the kinds of conclusions we wanted people to draw.
So fast forward ahead when I was a baby advocate and doing things like working for then-Senator Russ Feingold (I’m from Wisconsin), working in all sorts of different kind of advocacy for repro. For education, for kind of the pan immigrant rights, working for the whole panoply of progressive causes. What I found, and I don’t think this is a big secret, but a lot of messaging is sort of done, finger held up in the wind, and we’re gonna call our campaign that because it sounds good to us, or you know, why did you pick that name? And people will say, ’cause the URL was available, which is one of my faves. And my response to that is generally, oh, then it must be a really popular phrase. It must be really compelling if nobody wanted it. So having been exposed to linguistics, I sort of knew that there were other ways of formulating language that were not just pure guesses or made on the basis of what happens to sound good to us, us being people who are already progressive and perhaps even more importantly already deeply politically engaged, rendering us different to our audiences in two critical ways. The latter, I actually would argue, is more critical than the former, and we can talk about that more.
So then fast forward, did a bunch of stuff, went to the Peace Corps, met a man, married him, came back to the States and went to graduate school and was fortunate enough to go to Berkeley.
Eric: Go bears!
Anat: Thank you. And study not just public policy with folks like Robert Reich, but also linguistics with Lakoff, who was not yet emeritus at that point. And after that I went to work for Lakoff at uh, the no longer existent Rockridge Institute in order to take. These academic ideas and theories and bring them out of academia into the world to try to apply them to actual political campaigns.
But fortunately for me, I had been on political campaigns, and so I really played, I would argue a translator, an interpreter role out of Academese, which, you know, I spoke, but was certainly not my primary or principal language into, oh, but if I’m on the doors, like it’s very interesting that this metaphor is dominant, but not helpful. I actually just need a thing to come outta my mouth after I knock on the door. So, translating into practicality and into solutions. Not just diagnosis and to round out what probably is a longer answer than you wanted for a while, engaged in the work of doing giant research projects and I think that that’s really the public policy side, what that exposed to me, me too, was really, really detailed understanding of quantitative methods, which is incredibly useful and important to my work at the end of the day. To quote Drew Weston, “Empiricism is the best cure for ego.” It’s extraordinary how genius we all think we are until we watch eight sequential focus groups of people reading what we’ve written and saying, who wrote this shit? This is some bullshit. Tends to puncture how smart you think you are.
So the ability to construct experiments, to test out, metaphor A seems problematic. Metaphor B seems much better. How do you actually formulate language out of those two metaphors and find a way to test them in order to make a determination of which actually is better?
After many years of doing these giant research projects and then presenting them to people and saying, this language doesn’t work, here’s proof, here’s proof, here’s proof, here’s proof. This language is much better. Here’s proof, here’s proof, here’s proof, i.e. violating my own advice, not to attempt to convince people with data. Very ironic. I figured out that all of the biases and heuristics and patterns that make it difficult for our target populations, voters in Michigan, you know, Latinos in Fresno, whatever you’re trying to do with whomever are just as present in our colleagues because we’re all just people with brains. And I finally figured out that it wasn’t enough to simply give people evidence and messaging guides, no matter how practical I tried to make them, you had to actually reconstruct for them how to do it. You had to show them how to do ads. You had to do events, you had to do logos and branding. And that’s really where I’ve morphed into myself, my colleagues, is constructing sort of the full-scale media production of a frame flip.
Eric: Well, it’s funny because you, you never struck me as particularly Lakoffian in that. Yeah, I think you’re, you’re kind of the offspring, the, the demon spawn of layoff in a sense, because, you know, he was so professorial and no matter what he said, I’m like, I don’t believe this guy because he’s too professorial. And it’s just like Rob Reiner is telling me to think or how to think it.
And, and in that sense, you have, you have kind of popularized this notion like you go away and do the research so you know the answer. And that’s really important. And if people have confidence that you know the answer that you’ve, that you’ve tested it, like, you know, if Anat did the research on this, I feel like these messages are probably gonna work with this audience.
Now I gotta figure out how to use them in ways that make sense for my organization or my movement. I, is that a fair assessment of, of Lakoff to you?
Anat: I think, I think that in general, academia is really good at diagnosis and really bad at cure. And I really wanna say again, underscoring in general, I think the work of most social science is to understand the nature behind why certain things are ineffective. And I think that when we are trying to move from diagnosis to cure what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work, toward say this instead, I think that without a strong basis in campaigning, without a strong basis in what actually works out in the world, it’s very difficult to do.
And I, I wanna add something to that. It’s not just in the academy, within the sort of beltway way of doing research, and this is one of my extraordinary frustrations. This idea that we can conduct these tests in, by definition, a test tube environment. Anytime you’re doing what we call in-channel testing, which just references however you do it, to giving subjects something to watch, to read, to listen to, whatever, and asking them questions about it, you are paying people for their attention. And they’re not paying attention to other things because you have controlled their environment, and they know they’re being studied. So they’re watching the ad, they’re paid to complete the ad, and they know that they’re being asked about the ad. They know that you’re asking them whether or not you will vote, whether they like the ad, whether it changed their mind about immigrants or about people who are homeless or about, you know, whatever, abortion, whatever the thing is.
And so this idea that this hundred word script, which inside of this sterilized container proved itself to be magically delicious at whatever you decided to measure, which is its own giant problem, which we can get into, is actually going to work that way when you put it out into the world. And even if you are at the highest end, ’cause you’re a super PAC or you’re a presidential campaign, and so you can pay for TV time or you can pay for YouTube force view, pre-roll, the idea that people are actually paying attention to it, that’s ludicrous.
And everyone listening to this knows that, right? You have seven other tabs open, you’re making dinner, you’re trying to help your kid with your homework, you know, someone’s ringing the doorbell, whatever is going on. And so first of all, it’s just like an entirely artificial idea that the message can just prove itself persuasive within this in-channel testing.
And you don’t need to attend to the fact that if your words don’t spread, they don’t work. That if the bass, i.e. the choir, will not sing from the songbook, then the congregation’s never gonna hear the joyful noise. And this is where the notion that we just need to find the thing that the greatest number of people in this sample we’ve constructed find pleasing, or at least inoffensive, that the name of the game is, which of the seven messages we tested got the highest aggregate score among all of the voters, without respect to who those voters are and what their ideology is, undermines the entire idea of how a message spreads, which is that a message only spreads if the most loyal people are willing to repeat it.
And so that’s also a problem that doesn’t come from the academic side, it comes from the beltway side.
Eric: I think this also comes down to almost every presentation you, you go to or, or presented with, or speech you hear, or. Any other thing that we do in the nonprofit world or in philanthropy, we’re often being kind of trained to be a program officer at that foundation or trained to be a a staff member at this place.
They’re gonna tell us the 99 things that they do and the 47 ways that they do them. And you can remember nothing. And what I’m getting from you is if you’re not compelled to repeat that message, because it’s great. It speaks to you, it’s exciting, it’s something that you wanna say to somebody else, then it died.
Right? That’s what the baton metaphor is all about. Why do we – nd so how do you get folks, you know, your own clients to take that in? That we’re not trying to train people to be a staffer at our organization. We’re trying to help encourage them to move an idea, a movement along.
Anat: So whenever we’re engaged in a conversation with a potential client or any human that’s like, I am trying to talk about this extraordinarily arcane and complicated issue that has every detail ever and I happen to have just spent 25 years of my life researching the harms of internet voting, and I need people to understand why it is that voting online, it seems compelling and it seems practical and it seems great, but actually like it’s, it’s the way to blow up every, you know, whatever. I’m just picking that one ’cause it happens to be a very detailed issue or why, you know, this particular kind of congestion pricing is really, you know, the greatest thing that ever occurred. There are two questions that we always ask. They are, first of all, what is it you wish people believed? It’s the first question I ask everybody.
And then I say, okay, let’s pretend that you did that. You made people believe that thing. What is it you need them to do upon believing that? And generally everything falls apart between one or both of those questions because most people, and it’s funny that I’m talking to somebody from philanthropy land, they don’t have – dreaded phrase ready – a theory of change. They simply don’t have any notion and they truly believe to some degree that their job vis-a-vis communication is raising awareness. One of my colleagues, Holly Minch, says, if your goal is raising awareness, you have no goal. Raising awareness, not a goal. I would add, if you think your audience is the general public, you don’t have an audience because even Beyonce’s public is not even for Beyonce. The general public is not her audience. And I hate to tell you, you are not Beyonce. I don’t know who you are and you are not Beyonce. So those are the two things that like if you can burn into your brain and ask yourself, what is it I wish people believed and what do I need them to do?
If you can’t figure that out, then you need to spend time on that before you get anywhere near what the message is. If you know that, you’re like, I need to get 50,000 people to come to this thing by this date? Okay, let’s talk. Or I need to get a hundred thousand people to vote in this way on this date? Okay, let’s talk.
And so this phenomenon that you’re describing where people are just kind of narrating what it is they’re doing. I mean, maybe they do have an answer and the answer is, I need my colleagues, or I need my bosses to think that I am, like, well occupied and that my salary is well merited. You know, maybe that is, that’s not a theory of change. It’s a theory of stasis, and if that’s what you’re trying to do with your communication, then God bless, you’ve probably achieved it.
Eric: Well, and not that was the fastest 17 minutes of my life. We’re gonna take a very quick break and we’ll be back with Anat Shenker-Osorio right after this.
Eric: You’re listening to Let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Kirk Brown and Eric Brown. We are delighted to welcome our newest sponsor, the Stupski Foundation. Thank you for your support. You can find Let’s Hear It online at letshearitcast.com, on LinkedIn, and even on Instagram. If you’re enjoying the show, please rate us on Apple Podcasts so more people can find us. Thanks for listening and now, back to the show.
Eric: And we are back with Anat Shenker-Osorio, the principle and founder of ASO Communications and host of Words to Win By, a podcast that just launched its third season last week. And it’s great.
Hey, why don’t we just talk about, about the podcast a little bit? Why’d you start it? What is it? Why should people listen?
Anat: In the ever evolving onion layers I described one for, you know, how long I was doing research projects, and then I’d present the answers. I’d be like, see, this is good messaging.
This is, this is not working. I’m leaving. Now I’m to go do another research project. Wait, what do you mean? You’re still saying exactly the same thing one year later, two years. Why did nothing change? I also found myself my number one communication rule. I tell people, if you forget everything else that I am going to tell you today, you can only remember one thing, it’s say what you’re for, say what you’re for, say what you’re for. And yet I would do presentation after presentation that would be like, do not say this stupid thing. And I was like, oh. It turns out that I’m not doing a lot of saying what I’m for. I am doing a lot of admonishing and while I’m enjoying myself, and there is a certain degree to which, especially people in funding in philanthropy, they seem to appreciate the linguistic dominatrix aspect.
I guess they, they would like to be verbally spanked. I have found a lot of enjoyment of, of people getting verbally spanked. It’s an interest, you know, that’s its own, that’s a different podcast. Different podcast.
Eric: Yeah. You know, there’s a podcast for everything, I’m told.
Anat: A hundred percent. So I challenged myself to make a podcast where every single episode is about a campaign that we won somewhere in the world and how we did it.
So it’s a scripted podcast. It’s a narrative podcast, much more like this American Life than an interview show. We make all the episodes beforehand and then we release them. You know, one of our very first, our first episode was about Jacinda Ardern becoming Prime Minister of New Zealand. I was fortunate enough to live in Australia and work in New Zealand on a campaign that had six weeks, because Andrew Little, who was the head of the Labor Party, decided to drop out, and suddenly Jacinda was the candidate.
She was relatively unknown. She was a back bencher, and there were six weeks to reprint all the posters that had Andrew Little’s name and face and recreate a thing from scratch. Try to imagine that, and the campaign slogan was “Let’s Do This.” And it was just the most decidedly positive. She almost never spoke about her opposition.
She basically just lived the notion. Of what I call messaging from inevitability, which is Obama did as well. The more farfetched a proposition your thing seems to be, the more important it is to speak about it. As a matter, not of if, but when, that this is what’s going to happen, right, Obama, yes, we can not, it’s really actually improbable because I’m a junior senator from Illinois that most people had never heard of before running against Hillary freaking Clinton. And also I’m a black man in this very racist country, so probably this is never gonna work. You know, it’s just a very decided: yes we can. So the podcast really was born of me wanting to challenge myself and, at a meta level, to show, not tell that progressive ideas are extraordinarily popular and can win.
Because what we see over and over again is that social proof is one of the most persuasive tools in our arsenal. Social proof is what I call the middle school theory of messaging. It’s how people do the thing they think people like them do. And so when people believe that marriage equality is super popular and super cool and what everyone thinks, then everyone thinks that, and instead the left has a tendency, not just in the US, I’m fortunate enough to get to work lots of places, but we like to present ourselves frequently as the losing team and our propositions as tickets to the Titanic, which most people are not eager to purchase.
So yeah, that’s what the podcast is. It is a, here’s how we actually win, ’cause here’s how we actually won.
Eric: I have to say that if you’re a lazy but brilliant university professor, you can just teach your class by letting people listen to the podcast and then talk about it, ’cause you, you are quite right.
You are laying out, here’s how you win, here’s how you think about communications and messaging and movements and politics. And it’s brilliant and I love it. And thank you for it. And, uh, so there, I’ve, I’ve given my gift to the university, lazy, but brilliant university professors out there, or college professors or movement builders, all of it, they’re object lessons in how you put these great ideas that you have that nobody wants to do into practice.
So congratulations and thank you.
Anat: Thank you. I’m super excited about the new season.
Eric: So you, you talked a little bit about how progressive messages can work, although you have also spoken, I think, quite accurately about how much harder it is to look to the future and to project hope than it is to look to the past and try to, whatever, put a halo on a time that probably didn’t exist and it certainly doesn’t exist for many people today. So it’s easy to sow difference, it’s easy to stoke people’s anger and to build a 25 to 30% base around that, because there’s 30% of the population is afraid of the future. Can you talk a little bit about how you are trying to turn that around, notwithstanding the fact that you have now three seasons of great examples, but talk about it for folks who are running campaigns right now or who are working in areas in which it is very easy to dismiss or to distract their message, uh, in favor of these kind of backward looking, anger stoking approaches.
Anat: Yeah. So I wanna put a finer point on what you’re saying ’cause it’s absolutely spot on. If you want people to come to your cause, you need to be attractive. That’s pretty much kind of rule one. And I don’t mean in the conventional sense of having like symmetrical features and like good hair and makeup, although great. Cool. Like you do you.
Eric: Or being Beyonce.
Anat: Or being Beyonce, you know, like if that’s available to you, shoot, even better. Taylor Swift. Go, go, go, go. Shakira, great. For us mortals, you want people to wanna come to your cause. And just like a magnet attracts people, it also has a polarity. And this is not incidental, it is essential. You are going to repel some people.
And if you are repelling no one, then you are attracting no one, or at least not attracting them enough to have them truly with you, truly absorbed into your cause and willing, as we said before, to act as your choir, which means that no one is going to hear what you’re saying because breaking a signal through the noise in modern life is very hard.
The right has nostalgia. They can construct this vision out of Nick at Night reruns, which even if you know you weren’t around for them, you have some level of awareness of a make-believe America, in which father knew best, and you know, you survive well on one income, and come home and you know, dinner’s on the table and antics ensue.
And boys will be boys and there’s a white picket fence and all those things. And so that is a sense of comfort. That is a sense of familiarity. That is a sense for many people of. A world that I know my place, I know who I’m supposed to be. I know what I’m supposed to be. I can predict what’s gonna happen.
And for people who are fundamentally what we call neophobic, they have fear, they have intolerance of ambiguity, which more conservative people are the data, show it. This is one of the closest correlates in terms of psychological underpinnings. People think that left/right is, you know, heightened capacity for empathy on the left. Ha ha ha. They’ve spent no time with us. If they think that’s the case, it’s actually where you fall in this tolerance of ambiguity scale is, is the number one predictor of political proclivity. So they get to construct their beautiful tomorrow out of a make believe yesterday.
We have a much harder task. We have to construct our beautiful tomorrow out of a pure leap of faith of a thing that has never existed and therefore cannot be pointed to in any kind of concrete way. This idea that we can have robust, prosperous, shared, multiracial democracy that is equitable, that is sustainable. You know, I sometimes joke that there’s actually only one campaign message and it’s we can have nice things, which is sort of what Jacinda ran the first time.
We have so much money in the United States. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s disgusting, right? Like, especially within a global context. All of us could just have nice things. There would be more than enough to spare for all of us to have everything we could have ever possibly wanted. And Jeff Bezos could probably still have his stupid-ass penis rocket.
But so what we have to do is present a proposition to people and make clear that the reason why we do not presently have nice things is because of our opposition. Whereas they tell us the reason we can’t have nice things is because of those people. Those people being immigrants, those people being black people, those people being queer people, those people being, you know, coastal elites, those people being you fill in the blank. It’s an ever-rotating cast of characters because the right literally has one narrative everywhere. It’s extraordinary how they use the same thing over and over again and have forever and ever.
So our job is to paint a beautiful tomorrow. It’s a tough job. And to cast a villain and to make clear that that villain is this wealthy and powerful few, in the US case, the MAGA Republicans, who are taking away not just our freedoms, but everything that our families need in order to rule for the wealthy white few and that joining together, refusing to take the bait, refusing to take the bait of xenophobia, of transphobia, of homophobia, of sexism, of, you name it, whatever they’re trafficking in, usually all of the above is how the many can in fact defeat the money.
The way that we do this, because like I said, it’s an imaginative leap of faith ’cause we don’t have a like a “remember when we had that?” We never had that. It’s by using a messaging architecture I call we did, we can, we will. So this is where we point to advances that we have had. We don’t make believe that they were ever like the full magically delicious thing that we want.
But last year, 2023. By the end of the year, there were 400 separate labor actions, many of them strikes, many of them protests over the course of the year. That means that everyday working people from delivery drivers to script writers, to waiters, to stockers are making. So there are examples. That’s just one that I offer of times when people have in fact come together and gotten more. And so we use those as proof points that we can do it again.
Eric: Well, this is interesting because at the same time, the very folks who would benefit most from many progressive policies, for example, you know, better employment opportunities and living wage, and you name it, are the folks, are the folks who are representing that gauzy, nostalgia, driven by grievance movement that is gumming up the works and threatens our democracy.
Robert Frank wrote about this in What’s the Matter With Kansas and various other places. Do you have your own hypothesis about whether, or even if it’s possible to engage any portion of that world or is, or they lost to us for this generation and we’ll have to try and find a way to pick them up some other time?
Anat: Generally speaking, when we do our research and we define base persuadable, or sometimes I call them conflicted, and opposition, when we define them with respect to issue and not partisan identity, and the distinction matters, we find it tends to be 20/20/60. 20% is our base, 20% is their base, 60% of people hold conflicting views. Their 20%? They’re lost.
Eric: Dead to us. You cannot have them.
Anat: You could yell and can scream, want like, yeah, you don’t want them at your party. As my colleague, Linde Lake often says, we’re happy and if they dislike what you’re saying, God bless you. Good job. That’s a sign that you’re saying the right thing. If people who fundamentally disagree with every one of your precepts and values like what you’re saying, what are you saying?
And that’s the problem again, with the pursuit of the milquetoast passage that we talked about earlier. So. When we layer on partisan identity, it gets more complicated because people vote on the basis of identity and then they develop post hoc rationalizations for why it makes absolutely perfect sense that their team blue or team red, but in fact, that’s exactly what those are.
Those are explained rationalizations for emotional behavior because most of human behavior is fundamentally tribal. And so once upon a time in American history, it was the case I’m speaking under FDR, where if you were working class, you were a Democrat. You didn’t vote democratic, you were. A. Democrat. It was, you know, the football team that you loved. It was the family that you were part of. It was an integral part of your identity because what the Democrats stood for and with was labor and what the Republicans stood for and with was capital. And everybody knew that that’s how it was. Fast forward in time, and of course this reached its apotheosis under Clinton because of neoliberalism.
What Democrats attempted to do was to say it could be the party of capital and labor by quote unquote growing the economy and a rising tide will lift all boats, thereby eliminating the notion that there is a conflict. And the fact of the matter is that you cannot be the party of Jeff Bezos and the party of the Amazon Union, because those two entities are in fundamental conflict.
And so what has happened is that working class identity now got rejiggered into racial identity or religious identity because people are still voting on the basis of what they perceive to be their tribal group. But that primary class identity, it went away. And so now despite all of the hand-wringing that we see, you know, like I don’t know how the New York Times would maintain an op-ed page without this hand-wringing because this seems to be like its own beat.
But you know, how can Democrats recapture the working class? How can they recapture the working class, by which of course they mean white people. Because somehow, you know, that’s what working class means, which is obviously ridiculous. I hope the sarcasm is coming through the podcast, please.
So instead, you know, there’s all these arguments that like, oh, it’s ’cause we’re too woke. Oh, it’s ’cause we’re too coastal. Oh, it’s ’cause of PC. You know, it changes name, but it’s always the same admonition. All of that is stuff in nonsense. There’s no such identity as coastal elite. There is an identity as Evangelical Christian. People self-identify as evangelical Christian, and that is an identity that gets reinforced on a habitual basis at least once a week in church, if not multiple times.
There is an identity in the United States as black. There is an identity, as much as we would like to pretend that there isn’t, as white, that has different levels of meaning. I think one of the most fascinating pieces of research that came out of Brexit, if you’ll bear with me, is that people who self-identified as English were much more likely to be pro Brexit than people who self-identified as British.
And we find a similar pattern in people who tell us that their white identity is really critical to them are unsurprisingly much more likely to be right wing than white people for whom you know white identity isn’t, they report, integral to kind of their conception of self. And so if we understand that people make social decisions and certainly political decisions on the base of affiliation and identity, then we need to construct for them a home where they feel that they actually belong, where they feel that their needs are met, where they feel that they can be themselves, and the places within our movement that we do that, the women’s movement, the movement for Black lives, the labor movement, especially as we’ve seen in its more recent resurgence. Those are places where people have symbology.
I think when you look and you know, there’s a podcast episode on this, the campaign to legalize abortion in Argentina. One of the most essential features of that campaign was the use of the green bandana. That green bandana for people who are unfamiliar with Argentine history is an outgrowth of what was the white bandana that the mothers and grandmothers would wear when they were protesting the dictatorship in the Plaza de Mayo, the madres, right? That were protesting the desaparecidos. So the movement adopted this idea of a handkerchief, but they, instead of white, made it green. You couldn’t be in Buenos Aires over the course of the year that this fight was being fought and not see that green bandana. That green bandana was such hot shit. It was the new iPhone plus the new hottest album, plus plus. You know, like you couldn’t get one. And when you are wandering around and you see people who kind of look like you because they’re your demographic, they’re your age group, they’re kind of sporting what you are sporting, and they’re all wearing this bandana, what that signals to you is, oh. I guess a, my kind of a person thinks that. The red MAGA hat occupies the same place on the other side.
And so we have to understand that as much as the movement gets admonished for not always carrying water and being attendant to the party, the party is also not carrying water and attendant to the movement.
And on the right, the party is the movement and the movement is the party. There’s no daylight between those two things. And so I realize I may be wandering a field from your question, but it’s about making people feel a sense of belonging within a community that wants them to be who they wanna be, to have the freedom that they dream of for their children. And when we have made that sales pitch, we have won.
Eric: Uh, well that’s an amazing way to go out ’cause we’re just about running outta time. And this notion that you mentioned earlier about inevitability, about creating a sense of inevitability feels like it goes hand in hand with that, that I belong to something and it’s gonna happen and I don’t have to apologize for it and it’s coming.
I really do think that that’s an incredibly powerful way of thinking about, about our work. But I wanna leave you with, uh, one more question, which, uh, pretty simple one, which is what are you looking forward to this year? What’s exciting? I mean, it’s gonna be a crazy year. It’s 2024, but where, where are the glimmers of hope? And uh, when you get up with a smile, what caused it.
Anat: Yeah. I mean, is it cheating to talk about things outside the us?
Eric: Uh, it’s, no. You, you’re allowed, we’re all readying our visas, is that what you’re saying?
Anat: No, no. I don’t mean that. I mean like actual campaigns that I’m working on outside the US.
I mean, there are lots of places where it’s challenging and, you know, I, I don’t wanna undermine or undercut what’s going on in other places. But in Ireland in 2022, they achieved a landmark victory granting legal status to every undocumented person, you know, who applies and like, goes through the process.
And that campaign was 10 years in the making and I think that, you know, I mentioned Argentina earlier, despite the absolutely horrifying election that they just had, and Milei who is just, you know, a terrifying monster with a chainsaw. The wave of abortion legislation that is happening in Latin America, can’t say the same for North America, is extraordinarily promising.
And I think that there is a movement toward leftwing, liberatory, inclusive populism, and it gets no play and no attention. People don’t look at it. They don’t look at Colombia, they don’t look at Brazil. They don’t look at the fact that, you know what gives me hope, actually, here, here, I’m going to land here and it’s going to be dynastic.
I’m gonna pull it off. I would much rather win elections than polls. And I think that it is really critical for us to continue to remind ourselves that since 2018, the track record in the United States among center left politicians, the Democratic party, which, you know, I’m calling center left ’cause it’s what we’ve got, if it were a European context, would be a right wing party, but tale for another time. We just keep winning. We win in the even years and we win in the odd years. And I am not saying that’s a clean sweep. By no stretch of the imagination, it is a clean sweep. But in 2018, the increase in voter turnout from the previous midterm election, 2014, was the largest increase in voter turnout for a midterm that we have had since women were granted the vote. Meaning since we changed the denominator on the equation. That increase from 14 to 18, which by the way, we sustained in 2022, in 15 key states where Democrats won, that’s unheard of in 2022, even more so because we were in the incumbency. We win when we engender defiance out of people and a demand that it is we the people who will take matters into our own hands, and when our freedoms are on the line, we will act as a check on that.
And so it is that winning track record. 2018, 2020, 2022 and the, the special elections in the odd years. That’s what sustains me.
Eric: I’m glad about that. And, and it’s good news. And I, I’m an optimist. I know you’ve said you’re an optimist, and, uh, I’m hoping for the best. And thanks to folks like you, I think that there’s something to be, to hope for.
So just thank you again. Anat Shenker-Osorio, the principal and founder of ASO Communications and the host of Words to Win by, which just launched its third season, last week. Anat, thank you so very much for talking to us today.
Anat: Thank you for having me.
Kirk: And we’re back. So, you know, the most important thing I took away from this is that Anat’s from Wisconsin and all the intelligent people are from the Midwest.
All the common sense, all the thoughtfulness and the hard work and the willingness to collaborate and work with others. It’s, it’s all what comes outta the Midwest. So Anat’s from Wisconsin, let’s start there. All fine. She’s from Wisconsin. That’s the answer.
Eric: Everyone should just move to Wisconsin.
Kirk: So ASO Communications, go to the website, these great glimpses of how Anat approaches the work.
Love this phrase, don’t take the temperature, change it. And so, you know, this grounding that Anat talks about, starting from cognitive linguistics saying all social science is a form of pattern recognition, bringing the discipline and the research methodologies that help document how that works, how it does or doesn’t work for the progressive community.
But then reaching that launching point, realizing I can’t just do the research. I actually have to get into the field. I can’t tell, I have to show people how this is done to create real change. That career arc is just awesome. So great to hear about. And so interesting. What a, what a what a road she’s traveled to get from where she started to ASO Communications.
Eric: You know, back in the day, George Lakoff, of course, was the bee’s knees. He was the doyenne, the male doyenne of, of message communications, whatever, linguistics and all that jazz. And I always, he, he always kind of fell short for me, because he gave us this kind of very academic approach to linguistics without an understanding of how power works and how change happens.
And I, like, I always thought, ah, Lakoff. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Well, it turns out he knows what he’s talking about. He just did a terrible job of selling it. And I think Anat mentioned this a little bit in there, she says like, oh, the research community, they’re good at getting the research did terrible in translating it.
And she is this incredible alloy of a very good researcher. Although she understands and recognizes the limitations of research in which you put people in a hermetically sealed room, you make them pay attention. You give them the messages in a certain way, and it’s not like real life where you’re hearing these messages, it’s on the television, and you got kids screaming and you’re trying to make dinner or whatever. It’s not how we, we take this stuff in. Nevertheless, you do the best you can in trying to get a sense of whether certain things are gonna land with folks. But she, I mean, like, she just really, truly, truly understands how change is made using the ways that we communicate.
And I mean, some of the things, some of the lessons that I, like, I stopped my car, I was listening. I, I listened to this episode three times and, and I kept pulling over to do a note on my, on my iPhone. Like I had the conversation and I remembered it. But then as I went back and kept listening and re-listening and re-listening, more things started to sink in.
And there are so many lessons that I pulled out, but one, and, and we’ll go through a bunch of them, one that really, really stood out to me is this, this pair, which is if the message doesn’t spread, it dies. And it only spreads if the most loyal people are willing to repeat it. And I think a lot of what we do, if we do it well, we are teaching our audiences how to communicate these messages. We’re giving them the tools to be their own communicators. And invariably, I think I talked about this when I was talking to Anat, you go into a room and some researcher gets up there, it’s like, oh, this issue is very, very complicated and so let me explain it to you. And then they take an hour with a whole bunch of slides that they read to you and you walk away, it’s like, all right, too complicated. I don’t know what to do with this, or I don’t actually understand what they were saying anyway, because it’s so complicated. And that’s not teaching your audience how to communicate that message. And that’s important. So it’s, so it’s both simplicity and kind of salience. And now the other part about the most loyal people, this, the 20% or the, like the people who are with you, if they’re willing to repeat it, and you’re connecting with them and you’re giving them the tools to use that energy and that deep committed approach to the work to move it out, then you have the chance that the message will spread and she calls it passing the baton. You need people to continue to pass the baton and if that baton drops, your message dies. That was earth shattering to me. Like I understand it in, in sort of general, like I always knew this, but I never had it kind of boil down in such a useful, interesting, specific way. Oh my God, I’m all flush now, Kirk.
Kirk: No, it’s exciting in that that baton pass that she describes, there’s so much work at so many levels involved with it, and so this notion she had where, yeah, academia, good at diagnosis, bad at cure, and then, and then in her work and, and with Words to Win By focusing on campaigns that have won and talking about how we win by talking, showing how we won. So this notion that as we move to cure, the thing that strikes me in, in thinking about the Rockridge Institute reflection, which I’m always a little bit, um, sad when I see something like that, you know, things like erupt on the scene. And again, that was a very hard time for anybody who is working in progressive issues.
And so this notion around framing becomes very powerful. And, and, and, and there’s so much promise around, you know, how that can all be thought through and how that can roll out into the field. And then Rockridge roll rolls from 2003 to 2008, like the, your organization stands up for five years. But it spawns all of this.
Eric: It’s like my acting career. I burned bright and fizzled.
Kirk: Right? That’s right. Much longer though than any New Year’s resolution than I’ve ever adopt. But it spawned folks like Anat who are able to come out and, and actually say, okay, look, I’m gonna get into this work. I’m gonna actually start showing you how this, how this is gonna go. And then Anat said, you know, actually, to really get into this conversation with people, I actually need to get, I need to get involved with them, how people are framing these campaigns and it’s, it’s always striking to me when I hear people say things that we’ve been saying for decades, and yet they’re still landing so new.
Like for instance, if your goal is awareness, you don’t have an awareness, you don’t have a goal, don’t have a goal, right? Yeah. If your goal is awareness, there’s no goal. You know, if, if, if you’re, if your target audience is the public, you don’t have a target audience. Right? You know? And, and, and what you need to understand is what you wish people believed and then what you want them to do with itl It, it, and when Anat described that distinction between, you know, what you need is a theory of change, right? If you don’t have a theory of change, you may have a theory of stasis.
Eric: I have a theory of not change.
Kirk: This notion about needing, you can have all the great thinking around how this is all gonna work from a, you know, from a research evidence-based perspective, but ultimately you need a distribution campaign that rolls this stuff into the field, and that’s gotta be effective enough that the field carries it forward because it’s, we’re trying to create real change where there’s a real sense of belonging and, Anat has lived in that world and lived it in so many ways.
Like, that’s what I hear as Anat starts talking about this, is that this is not just earned from the academic side of the house, which of course she’s got great credentials there, but, but it’s being earned in the field too, in terms of the campaigns that Anat’s been a part of and, and the successes that she’s seen doing that work.
Eric: Well there, there’s so many places to go from, from this conversation, Kirk, but yes. What do you wish people believed and what do you need them to do is a version of what do you want people to know, feel, and do? It’s a, it’s a framework that works and, but you have to answer it with fidelity. You have to ask these questions honestly, and just pay attention to that.
Another thing she said, say what you’re for. Actually she, what she said was, say what you’re for. Say what you’re for. Say what you’re for. Say what you’re for. Say what you’re for, not what you’re against. And don’t start with all the miserable horribleness. She says like, nobody wants to buy a ticket on the Titanic. You, we have to be able to paint a picture of the future. And she, I would say in my own mind, she kind of paired that with this notion of messaging from inevitability. Which is, the future is coming. It’s inevitable. And the future that we are trying to build is coming, come join us. It’s nice there. You can have nice things. It is a place where you feel like you belong.
We had, again, this really interesting conversation about what’s currently at play right now is a big message that’s out there that says the future is scary. The future is terrible. The future doesn’t have you as a part of it. Remember the old days when it was nice, when America was great? You know, like that, that kind of messaging is what we’re kind of up against. And the disadvantage, of course, is that this beautiful future is something that we are building. It may be inevitable, but it’s not here yet. And some people don’t recognize it and they’re not sure where they fit in it.
And that is where we, the big royal we, have to be able to message from inevitability in which we paint that picture and people can see it. And it’s, and it’s exciting and they’re interested in it, and they wanna be a part of it. Now, the next part of that is, she mentioned that there’s the 20% that is your base and there’s the 20% that wouldn’t be your base if you paid them. That wouldn’t be your base if you, if there was, you know, like if it was the last thing on earth to do there. They disagree with you. And you, if you’re messaging to them, if they like what you’re saying, then what are you saying? That, that this notion of first you have the space and then the 60% in the middle, they’re available to you under certain circumstances and they are, they may be available to you on issues, but not on kind of tribal things, on identity. This is where we’re seeing now people starting to win on abortion in very conservative places because on that issue, on abortion, they’re landing. There’s something about this notion that the government is going to take away your ability to make decisions about your own body that even conservative people are concerned about.
And so left of center organizations are, are eager to have that conversation because it means something and it relates to other things ’cause if this is true, then what else might be true? And that’s, so this notion that you can, the win this middle is a possibility as long as you create that inevitable, better future and help understand what the opposition is and what you’re against.
Ah, like my head is, at some point I’ll attach it to the rest of my body, but this is kind of pulling so many things that we’ve all been working on together in one beautiful little package. It is, you could teach a semester course on movements, communications, social change, whatever, just by listening to Anat talk and then taking it apart and spending like a week on each of these themes.
Kirk: I thought you were, uh, spot on saying that Words to Win By is basically should serve as the curriculum for any, any, uh, communications professor out there that just wants to say, hey, do you know, here’s my class.
Eric: A lazy but brilliant communications professor
Kirk: And what’s Anat doing there? It’s so interesting to process, you know, so it’s scripted. She builds the entire episode. It’s built around themes where, let’s look where we’ve won. The examples come from all around the world, so there’s a global perspective in terms of how campaigns are working, and then pulling that together and providing that framework is so interesting. I do think that the conversation about Jacinda Ardern is so interesting.
You know, this is the New Zealand PM from the 2017 campaign that, you know, one with the, uh, let’s do this, that messaging from an inevitability perspective, I would love to see the deeper deconstruction that Anat would do then, not just about. The moment that got Jacinda into the role, but then how things evolved for Jacinda, you know, and then she leaves before she was needed to in early 2023 with polling changing in terms of like where her support was.
I, because this gets me back to this distribution campaign concept. It’s like we’re so focused on the campaign, we get Jacinda in role or we get this person in office, but then the real work starts, which is they’re gonna run policy, they’re gonna actually get stuff passed. But when that happens, there’s gonna be another kind of conversation that grows up and, and even around Jacinda, there’s so much hostility and so much, um, misogyny, you know, because new person with this new message. So I would love to see that deeper evaluation too. It’s like, how do we continue supporting these leaders once we get ’em through that, in, into the, into the room, so to speak, right. You know, because this distribution campaign is so. Crucial. And, and it’s funny, you know, just, uh, Anat talks about it, you know, sort of using this left /right dichotomy where she’s saying the left has kinda lost its villain and there’s kind of a, a distinction a little bit in some cases between the movement and the party. And she’s saying on the right, those two things are the same thing and they work in a lockstep. And it’s a really interesting thing to reflect on and think about. Yeah. If you’re thinking about theory of change and how we, are we actually gonna move things? How does that sort out in a way so that we can actually keep things moving in a positive direction, not just through the initial campaign, but sustain it afterwards?
Eric: Well, I spent a lot of time thinking about the, I mean, what she was referring to in, in a sense was that the Clinton campaign said that you can, you know, you can have your economy and your money and your movement as well, and that it may have helped Bill Clinton win, but it didn’t build a movement. So he didn’t kind of win the win in a sense.
Now we, we can also kind of contrast that with the fact that Anat also said that we, that the Democrats haven’t really lost an election in a long time, that they continue to win elections, they lose the polling and win the elections, which is an interesting concept. And the, the midterm elections went well and, and so on. And they’ve been kind of chipping away. And of course, the popular vote has gone to Democrats for a whole bunch of times. So there’s, there’s that. So the, there’s, there’s a little bit of tension here, but this, this notion that you, that when you are for something that is going to, it is going to require that you have, that there’s something against it, that your message has to have that kind of currency, that the other side won’t like it. Because you can’t be all things to all people. We know this. This is, this is true in every family. Uh, but at some point, you know, we have to create momentum and a critical mass gravity, call it what you will, that will move these ideas forward and socialize them and be, and, and create the inevitability to them.
And then you have the opportunity to have conversations around issues across, across the aisle. And I think that’s what a kind of governing majority ends up looking like in a, in a reasonably rational world. And of course the alternative to that is chaos, which is, it’s 2024. God knows, a year from now we go back and listen to this conversation. What I’ll be thinking, ’cause I just don’t know where it’s going to go. But I do believe that we have it in our power collectively as a community that is interested in social justice and true democracy, to make this happen. And I also believe that what Anat is saying, we’d like all of us have to just stop. If we’re doing any of these things that violate these terms, we have to stop that. We have to get over ourselves and our own genius and our own brilliance and actually get to using language and communicating and building coalitions and power and organizations that work. That make sense, that are clear, that are, we know what we’re for we, and we frankly know what we’re against and that we’re, we’re moving forward. She has done this, an incredibly good job of, of crystallizing that, of being very clear about how to do this. Ah, that’s how I feel. I’m like, it’s still kind of buzzing, so sorry.
Kirk: Yeah. Well, and, and Anat is doing a great job getting out there, doing podcasts, being in the media, just doing everything that she can, her organization can, to get this thinking everywhere.
And, and again, I go back to this notion of how do we embed this so that this is something that every person working every campaign, working in every organization, you have access to this capacity, you have access to this expertise. It’s, it’s not something that’s far away, it’s something that’s near, it helps change things, you know, slowly but surely.
But over time, and I, and I will say that you asked Anat what she was hopeful about, and this notion that there was more increase in turnout between 24 and 18. Then there had been, since we allowed a whole section of the population who needed the right to vote, they got, they finally got the right to vote like we hadn’t seen such, such a, such a transition since then. So, so there is something exciting there. If we can just deploy the lessons that Anat is trying to teach us and bring that passion and energy to the polls and to change in every level so that we can get sustained positive progress. I mean, it’s Eric, man, what, what a conversation. What a conversation. That was great.
Eric: It, it was really great. I really thank Anat for coming on and for, for being her usual fabulous, candid and informative self. I and oh, so, but the, the other thing that I would say is what we really need to do is to make sure that the CEOs and the program staff and the head researchers and the academics listen to this and pay attention.
Because the point is to make change. The point is to be effective. The point isn’t to make a point. And we’ve got to really focus on that. And if, if you want your message to work, you have to understand how messages work. And if you wanna communicate and drive people to do things, you have to engage them in ways that are meaningful.
It’s not about being right, it’s about winning. It’s about working, and it’s about building the kinds of, uh, things, movements, whatever you wanna call it, that can succeed. And that’s important. I mean, it’s essential. Without that, we’re just gonna continue, well, well, our theory of stasis will endure.
Kirk: And those are all great people, smart people, thoughtful people. But it is, I believe, harder to value this kind of guidance. If you haven’t lived it. Have you, if you haven’t seen it, if you haven’t felt the impact of, of approaching this work from different perspectives. And so there’s that felt part, there’s that lived part, even within our community where we need to have folks embrace this in a really visceral way, so that it actually starts informing, you know, day in, day out decision making in a more meaningful way.
Well, Anat Shenker-Osorio –
Eric: Ah, I wanna say one more thing before you, one more thing before you roll us out. This is a reminder also that this is not just about messaging. This is about strategy, and we are having a conversation, which is message is embedded in strategy and vice versa. But what we are really talking about is how do you use message to advance your strategy?
And I, I just wanna be very, very clear about that because we, we have a tendency to kind of fall back on, oh, if we get the right message, then we’ll win. No, no, no, no. The message is embedded in the strategy. What is it you wish people believed? What do you want them to do? How does that advance your work? What does the beautiful future look like? How do we make it inevitable? All those things go together. And so I, I just wanna be like very, very clear that we’re not kind of falling back on message as strategy. This is both. Anyway. Okay. Now take us out, Kirk.
Kirk: This was great. This is Anat Shenker-Osorio, uh, checkout Anat’s work at ASOcommunications.com. Please, um, subscribe to the Words to Win by podcast. And Eric, thank you for another good one. This was, this was great. And please can we find a way to get Anat’s thinking embedded in every campaign, everywhere? This is the mandate as we move forward. This is, this is really good stuff.
Kirk: Thanks everybody. We’ll see you next time.
Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…
Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.
Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.
Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.
Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at luminafoundation.org.
Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.
Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.
Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.
Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.