4. What Do You Want To Say?Developing a Frame and Message

Develop a Communications Frame

A communications frame is the set of values and assumptions that all of your communications take for granted. Having a clear communications frame from the outset will ensure consistency across your communications, but it will also ensure that your audiences understand where you are coming from and what you are trying to communicate to them.

For example, your frame might be that democracy is preferable to other forms of government. Other assumptions of that frame might include the ideas that citizens should be able to participate freely in the democratic process, a peaceful transfer of power is preferable to one-party rule, elections should be credible, and democratic governance should improve people’s lives.

If your audience does not share the values and assumptions of your frame, they will have a hard time understanding what you are trying to communicate to them.

Continuing the example above, if your audience rejects your frame and instead believes that one-party rule is preferable to democracy, then they will not be receptive to any narratives or messages about supporting competitive election processes. You won’t be listened to or understood.

You may need to re-adjust your frame to match that of your audience so that they are receptive to what you are trying to convey. In places where a democracy frame won’t be understood or trusted, you may need to create a communications frame around values of fairness, national strength, unity, or some other value or outlook upon which you and your audience can agree and understand each other.

YOUR TURN: Develop a Communications Frame

Brainstorm a list of basic values and assumptions that are at the core of your work and communications.

Refine these until you have a clear list of assumptions and values that will be reflected throughout your communications.

Now list the values and assumptions of your key target audiences to assess whether this frame truly matches the values and assumptions of each of your key audiences.

Once you have settled on a clear frame, it’s important to ensure that all your communications fit within it. Share it with all the members of your team, spokespeople, leaders, board members, etc. Check all outgoing communications against the frame to ensure consistency. If you create communications that are inconsistent with your frame, your audiences will be confused and your messages will be muddled. People need to know what your underlying values are and what to expect from your organization.

For example, if your frame is that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, elections should be competitive, and that the will of the people must be respected, but you issue a press release implying that a certain candidate should pull out of the race, your audience will become confused, you will lose credibility, and your subsequent messaging will be inconsistent or contradictory.

Develop Your Topline Message

Now that you’re clear on your frame, it’s time to start developing your topline message. This is the distillation of the key point(s) you want to get across in all your communications. Whereas a frame is a place of common understanding between you and your audience, your topline message is what you want your audience to learn and have reinforced every time they hear from you.

Continuing with our example, if your goal is to raise awareness of your PVT and your frame is that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, you topline message might be:

A PVT independently verifies whether official election results are accurate, because every vote should be counted and every voice should be heard.

What Makes for a Good Topline Message?

The message in the example above is:

  • Short
  • Clear
  • Teaches the audience something it might not know
  • Embedded with values and emotion meant to connect with the audience

If the topline message were only “a PVT independently verifies that official election results are accurate, which deters fraud,” it would teach the audience about a PVT, but would lack an emotional way for the audience to connect. If the message were only “we must ensure every vote is counted,” it might resonate emotionally with the audience but not meet the goal of raising awareness of what a PVT is or does.

YOUR TURN: Create Your Topline Message

Start by brainstorming all of the possible things you might want to say. Don’t hold back! Some might be sentences, some might just be words. Here are some questions to get you started brainstorming:

Now, you are probably looking at a big mess of words. By using different colored pens or by rewriting them on different pieces of paper, start sorting the words and phrases into groups that are similar by theme or tone.

Keep narrowing down and honing each group. Which words or themes keep coming up? Which ones are the most persuasive? The most inspiring? The most emotional?

Take the most persuasive phrases and words and craft them into one or two sentences. That’s your topline message.

Go back and look at your goals – make sure this message supports your overall goals.

Different Messages Resonate with Different Audiences

Representative from YIAGA Africa interviews a woman in the market.
Photo: YIAGA Africa

Your topline message should be clear, concise, persuasive, and support your goals and frame. However, different people may respond differently to your message, and you may need to adapt or adjust it depending on who you are communicating with.

This can mean changing the tone or vocabulary you use, or it can mean reshaping the main message to emphasize the values or emotions that will connect with a particular audience. The resulting messages shouldn’t contradict your frame or topline message, but they should resonate with the different subsets of audiences you identified so you are more easily able to connect and communicate with them.


Goal Topline Message Target Audience Target Message
Raise awareness of what a PVT is by having 10,000 people visit our website and having an average reach of 100,000 people across our social media channels in the three weeks before the election. A PVT independently verifies whether official election results are accurate, because every vote should be counted and every voice should be heard. Journalists who write about elections

Members of the party in power

Members of the opposition party
A PVT is a statistically rigorous and internationally accepted practice to assess the accuracy or fraudulence of official election results. The results of the PVT will help tell the story of the election by providing another data set against which to verify official election results.

A PVT verifies that announced election results are accurate. Win or lose, great leaders respect the will of the people when every vote is counted and every voice is heard.

A PVT verifies that true results are known; that deters fraud, which ensures all votes are accurately counted and the true winner is known.

In the examples above, the topline message has been slightly modified in each of the target messages to appeal more strongly to the emotions of each target audience. For journalists, the PVT will make their reporting easier and more accurate. For members of the party in power, respecting the PVT results will bolster their historical reputation as great leaders who respect the will of the people. For members of the opposition party, the PVT will deter fraud and the chance that the election will be stolen from them.

In each instance, these messages flow directly from the frame and topline message, and help to achieve the overall goals you already set. The messages do not contradict each other or your topline message, so even if other audiences heard them, they would still learn what you wanted them to learn, and you will not be perceived as hypocrites or opportunists by saying one thing to one audience and another to another audience.

You’re Not a Mind Reader

Go back to your research and profiles of each of your target audiences. Make sure your targeted messages align with what you learned about each one. If you are conducting audience research at the same time as messaging research, use the focus groups and interviews with members of key audiences to test different versions of your message and see what resonates. Like with your audience research, the goal of messaging research is to learn what they respond to, not to try to convince them to respond well to messages you’ve already chosen. It’s important to keep an open mind and really listen to how they respond to different versions of your message - you’ll often be surprised that language or approaches you didn’t think would work can be the most effective.

If you aren’t able to do research on your messaging ahead of time, all you may be able to do is guess at what message will resonate with a certain audience. In that case, don’t be afraid to admit that something isn’t working and adjust your message accordingly. Wishing that an audience will respond well to your message will not make it so.

From our example, maybe journalists don’t respond to the term “statistically rigorous” but are very concerned with “accurate and trustworthy results.” Maybe the party in power doesn’t respond well to “win or lose” language, but responds well to a message that a PVT will enhance the credibility of a win. Once you decide on a message, you may need to continue to revisit it and refine it until it is meeting your goals and emotionally connecting with the audiences you’re targeting.

The Importance of Staying on Message

The best communicators are very disciplined about staying on message. By staying on message, you’re never in danger of hurting your cause by saying something that contradicts your goals, and you’re using every opportunity to reinforce and teach your message to your audience. You might feel like you are repeating yourself too much, but it’s the best way to have your message break through with your audience.

Your topline message should be included – verbatim or close to – in everything you put out. Once you develop your topline message and its variants, train your communications team, staff, spokespeople, and leadership so that they are comfortable with the message and learn how to integrate that message into anything they say or write with ease and fluency. If everyone is clear on your messages and trained to stay on message, you will have a group of master communicators who are continuously reinforcing your messages and helping you to advance your goals.

The Power of Narrative

Humans are hardwired to tell and connect to stories. Stories create an emotional and empathetic connection, and stay with people for longer than facts or statistics. Telling stories is how we teach people, connect with them, and gain their trust and friendship. Using stories to meet your communications goals and convey your messages can be a powerful and effective approach.

Photo: ISFED

All stories have settings, characters, and plots. The best stories also have a narrative arc and a moral. A narrative arc means that the plot builds to a climax rather than just a plot where one thing happens after another without any sort of build up. After the climax, there is a resolution that should contain some sort of lesson or moral.

For example, here is a story that just has a setting, character, and plot: Yesterday, I ran errands around the city. I went to the tailor, then the supermarket, then the library. Then I went home. The setting is the city, I am the character, and the plot is the series of actions. While technically a narrative, without a narrative arc or moral, it’s pretty boring! And you are unlikely to remember anything about it or learn anything from it.

A more effective narrative would go something like this: Yesterday, I ran errands around the city. I went to the tailor, but the tailor had ripped my pants! I demanded my money back, but instead he kept the pants and threw me out of the shop. On my way home I bought a sewing machine so that I can hem my own pants from now on. That story builds to a climax (I got thrown out of the shop), and you learned a lesson that it’s a good idea to hem your pants yourself.

Narrative is powerful. Stories create a deeper personal connection than facts or data. If you had just read that incidents of tailors ripping pants had increased 33 percent in the last two years, you might not change your behavior. But after you heard the story above, you may think twice about taking your pants to a tailor, and consider hemming your pants yourself to avoid the same fate.

How Does This Relate to Your Communications Plan?

Election observation groups tend to spend a lot of time thinking about data. This makes sense – a key priority of election monitoring is to collect and analyze data from observers about the electoral process. This often includes data from observer reports on campaign events, election administration, election-related violence, voting, counting, complaints processes, and more. Many observer groups are also increasingly using official election data, such as the voter list, campaign finance data, and official results, to complement their observer data.

When you’re focused on data, there’s a strong temptation to simply release that data and its conclusions. You may also feel tempted to generate lots of charts, tables, and graphs to highlight your work and to show how data-driven your organization is. But because of how humans learn and connect, using data alone is often the least effective way of getting your point across. Instead of planning to simply release the data and statistical findings, spend some time thinking through what stories the data tell and how best to tell those stories. Collect details – including personal stories – from individuals that are representative of larger trends in the data that people can more easily identify with or learn from.

For example, your PVT data may show that 40 percent of polling places opened more than an hour late. You know that that has significantly impacted who could cast ballots and may affect the credibility of the election itself. Instead of just releasing that statistic and conclusion, consider highlighting its impact by including a personal narrative along with it. Tell the story of the working mother with three children who had counted on voting before work because she knew that was the only time her husband could watch the kids and she’d be at work for the rest of the day through the time the polls closed. She left her kids with her husband so he could feed them breakfast, but when she arrived at the polling place, it hadn’t opened yet. The poll worker told her to come back in an hour, but she knew she’d be at work by then and so was denied the opportunity to vote and have her voice heard in these important elections. And this mother is not alone – 40 percent of polling places opened late and thousands of people just like her were therefore unable to cast ballots.

You can develop similar narratives for significant issues your long-term observers identify during the pre-election period. For example, if 30 percent of long-term observers observe verbal violence against women candidates, you could develop narratives about the impact this had on those women’s campaigns.

Putting a face and personal experience to the statistic has more emotional power, helps the audience understand the stakes of the problem, and will help them retain the information – that this election was run in an unfair and uncredible manner.

Also, notice how the story of the working mother not being able to vote exists within our established frame and drives home our topline message. For her story to have emotional impact, we are assuming that democracy is good and that people should all have an opportunity to cast a vote for the party or person of their choice. This story illustrates our main message that the PVT helps independently check whether the official election results are accurate and that every vote should count. And it emotionally resonates with the audience in a way that they will learn and remember our overall message and findings.

YOUR TURN: Using Compelling Narrative