In my days as a union organizer, I often began meetings with potential members by asking for a show of hands: Who here has been involved in the labor movement before today? Only 10.7 percent of US employees are union members, so unsurprisingly, few hands went up. My question was strategic; the number of hands raised gave me a measure by which to judge how much background and explanation I needed to include in the information I was about to share. The fewer the hands, the more likely that my audience’s understanding of labor unions had been shaped primarily by media stories, cultural stereotypes, and assumptions I would have to undo.
But that gambit is not one every communicator can employ. Most social issue advocates don’t have the luxury of meeting face-to-face with their audiences to gauge what knowledge they bring to the conversation. Without such direct insight, the safest bet from a strategic communications perspective is to assume no prior knowledge but many preexisting ideas.
In a “zero hands” situation, the advocacy message serves a dual purpose: to provide clear explanation of the causes, mechanics, and public consequences of an issue and, in so doing, to displace any misinformation. That can be a tall order, because expert knowledge becomes second nature to those who hold it, making it difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know what you know. Yet that’s exactly what an effective communicator must do.
Explanatory chains are one tool for ensuring advocacy messages don’t skip important links in a line of argument. A strong explanatory chain is an unbroken linear path of logic where Idea A leads to Idea B, leads to Idea C, and so on, connecting causes to consequences and filling in gaps in an audience’s knowledge base.
The more complicated the idea, the more important explanatory chains become. Take Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, a major case for organized labor to be decided this June by the US Supreme Court. The case pits Mark Janus, a government worker in Illinois, against the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the country’s largest public sector unions. Like many states, Illinois requires public employees like Janus to pay a “fair share” fee to support the work the union does on his behalf. Janus argues that he shouldn’t be required to pay any fee if he doesn’t want to join the union, and therefore the law violates his First Amendment rights.
The case has important implications for the nonprofit sector. First, Department of Labor data show that public sector workforces are among the most diverse, and public sector unions help to level economic disparities between workers of color and their white counterparts. A blow to public unions is a blow to economic justice for the historically disadvantaged groups they represent…and to the vision of social equity that many nonprofits share.
Second, as conservative legal scholars Eugene Volokh and Will Baude have written in an amicus brief about the case, if the Court sides with Janus that legally mandated fair-share fees violate one’s freedom of speech, then challenges to other government-regulated subsidies that affect nonprofits of all kinds may follow.
With so much at stake, clear explanation is paramount—and that’s true for communicating about any social issue. This advocacy message, typical of pro-labor explanations of the Janus case, shows how easy it is to assume too much about a lay audience’s knowledge:
Unions are required by law to represent and negotiate on the behalf of all workers in a bargaining unit, regardless of whether the individuals they represent are dues-paying members. This case, if decided in favor of the corporate special interests, would prevent public-sector unions from collecting fair share fees from workers they represent who choose not to join the union, which in turn makes it more difficult for working people to negotiate better wages and benefits, and the kind of working conditions that set standards for everyone.
To a union organizer, this introduction to a complicated case makes sense: Opponents of organized labor want to reduce the power and resources that public-employee unions have to negotiate and enforce strong contracts, and such a decision will disproportionately affect traditionally disadvantaged groups.
Someone new to unions, however, will likely struggle to follow the argument. FrameWorks’ research on teachers’ unions suggests a hypothetical insider’s view to the way people unfamiliar with unions will read this advocacy message:
You Say: “Unions are required by law to represent and negotiate on the behalf of all workers in a bargaining unit.”
They Think: That sounds fair. Unions shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who gets their help.
You Say: “This case, if decided in favor of the corporate special interests…”
They Think: Hold up. What corporate special interests is this referring to? Aren’t unions a special interest? This sounds one-sided.
You Say: “…would prevent public-sector unions from collecting fair share fees…”
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They Think: What’s a fair share fee?
You Say: “…from workers they represent who choose not to join the union, which in turn makes it more difficult for working people to negotiate better wages and benefits…”
They Think: Why? I don’t see the connection.
You Say: “…and the kind of working conditions that set standards for everyone.”
They Think: Sounds like you are trying to tell me this affects me, but my workplace isn’t unionized.
There are too many assumptions in this short statement for a non-expert to follow. Making the implicit explicit would keep readers from using assumptions of their own to connect the dots.
Just like well-placed dominoes, strong explanatory chains connect each idea to those before and after it, so the logic flows without interruption. Consider this chain connecting housing to school performance:
Bad housing conditions may compromise children’s long-term well-being. For instance, poor ventilation in apartment buildings increases the risk of childhood asthma, which can cause children to miss more school days because of illness and hospital visits. Too many school absences will affect kids’ learning, leading them to fall behind their peers. Over time, this can lead to lowered academic outcomes, delayed graduation, and even limited career options. Healthy housing is an education issue.
The tightly connected sentences close gaps that might otherwise invite readers to reason unproductively about why kids who live in rundown housing don’t do well in school.
Now, imagine that instead of labor or housing, we were talking about some issue in your own field of interest. Are media stories people’s primary source of knowledge about that issue? Are your own communications building strong explanatory chains?
Think of explanatory chains as a recipe for understanding. Leaving out a key step can lead your audiences’ interpretation astray. Strong explanatory chains…
- Begin a few steps back: Before jumping in, offer the necessary background to the problem being described, so the audience has the “big picture” in mind. An effective chain starts with an underlying mechanism or system-level problem.
- Identify the mediating factors: What is causing what to happen, and with what consequences? Be sure to connect, step by step, each link in the chain that ties the initial cause to its final consequence.
- Incorporate “signposting”: Use words and phrases such as “consequently,” “as a result,” or “that’s because” to help readers follow cause-and-effect arguments. Avoid pronouns with unclear referents and passive verb constructions—these can hinder comprehension.
- Include a final consequence: Showing the logical effect or ultimate impact resulting from the initial and mediating factors helps to launch a conversation about solutions.
Let’s revisit that earlier advocacy communication about the Janus case. Here it is again, rewritten as an explanatory chain that anticipates and answers non-experts’ questions:
The law requires unions to represent and negotiate on behalf of all workers in a bargaining unit. Workers can choose whether to join their union, but because negotiating and enforcing contracts is expensive, unions can charge “fair share fees” to everyone who benefits from the contract but decides not to become a dues-paying member—that way, the costs are shared fairly among all. This case, if decided in the plaintiff’s favor, would bar public sector unions from collecting fair share fees. As a result, unions would have fewer resources with which to bargain for strong wages, benefits, and working conditions. Union contracts also tend to set standards for non-unionized workers, too, by increasing the market value of the work they do, so reducing unions’ bargaining power will have cascading effects that drive down wages and conditions for all workers.
It’s not too late for nonprofits to figure out how to explain the Janus case to their memberships. And it’s never too late to use explanatory chains to drive home the issues you care about. That’s what FrameWorks’ partners have been doing. A recent example from the Douglas County Health Department uses a strong chain to explain its efforts to reduce obesity by addressing food insecurity:
Some of our neighborhoods lack nearby grocery stores with healthy food—and even if options are available, those foods may be too expensive for people to afford. Families without a vehicle or living far from public transit face an even greater challenge. With limited or no access to supermarkets that stock fresh produce, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats, these individuals often have diets high in calories, but low in nutritional value—putting them at greater risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. To better evaluate and ultimately prevent potential food deserts [in] our community, Douglas County Health Department will…survey 433 retail food outlets to assess just how available healthy food is in Douglas County. With the survey data, local leaders can start discussions on possible policies, changes, improvements and incentives to ensure access to healthy foods across Douglas County neighborhoods.
Link by link, this message connects a problem’s cause (food deserts) to its consequences (chronic disease) without leaving space for widely shared misperceptions about the causes of obesity to hijack the message.
Whether you are explaining the value of unions to non-unionized Americans, or educational disparities to the well-heeled, or the challenges of growing old in America to millennials, explanatory chains should figure as critical ingredients of your message. If you want the public to support your cause, connecting the dots is mission critical.