Ask ‘why’ to ensure your communication is values-led

Jayne Dalmer | March 13, 2023

Why are you reading this blog?!

This question isn’t meant to be harsh, and we’re not looking for ‘secret-sauce’ marketing flavour we can use.

Asking ‘why’ can help us understand what motivates us most in life — our values. Our values are like a guiding light for the things we think, believe, and do. And we hear a lot about values-led communication these days. Again, it’s tempting to ask why. See how important tapping into our values is?

Using values to show people why they should care about something feeds into two things we’re excited about at Write this month. It’s B Corp month, and Aotearoa’s brand-new Plain Language Act takes effect in April. Both these things are led by values, particularly those ‘all-of-us’ values that matter most to people.

Values can lead people through change

We became a B Corp almost 3 years ago, and this month is a perfect time to remember the values and purpose Write has in common with the B Corp movement. The theme of this year’s B Corp month is about transforming economic systems for the better. This means making changes that will make the biggest difference to all people’s lives.

For these sorts of changes, we need to think about upstream system-level solutions to problems — rather than individual solutions that might be easier to see and fix but won’t make the biggest difference to most people. B Corp businesses are leading the way through transforming the nature of business.

The new Plain Language Act is an example of systems change in action. Individual writers and organisations can do a fantastic job of making sure people can access, understand, and act on information. But this effort can be inconsistent and relies on the right people, in the right roles, at the right time — with the right motivation.

The Plain Language Act requires all government agencies to write public-facing documents clearly and concisely for their intended audiences — a human-centred approach to writing supported by legislation. Helpful standards, checklists, and training are much more powerful with the Act in place.

A common motivation for both B Corp and the Plain Language Act is caring for people and making sure everyone gets what they need, so we all flourish. This motivation taps into values like equality, social justice, love, freedom, and unity.

We all value similar things

Social psychologists have mapped human values around the world. The Schwartz value map shows values plotted from surveys of thousands of people in dozens of countries. The surveys asked about the values that people hold to be important. After collating the responses, this map identifies things that humans around the world value consistently.

The more closely related any two values are, the more closely they appear to one another on the map. A value is closely related to another if a person is likely to assign importance to both.

For example, it’s statistically highly likely that a person who attaches importance to ‘Preserving my public image’ (at about 6 o’clock on the map) will also attach importance to ‘Authority’ (next to it). And the value ‘Preserving my public image’ is not strongly related to the value ‘Broadminded’ (at 12 o’clock).

A map of people's values and the things that they are manifested in. Going in a circle from top to bottom and right to left: Universalism -- Equality, protecting the environment, social justice, broadmindedness. Benevolence -- Loyal, responsible, honest, forgiving, mature love, a spiritual life. Conformity -- Self-discipline, politeness, obedient. Tradition -- Humble, detachment, devout, moderate. Security -- Health, clean, sense of belonging, national security, social order. Power -- Social recognition, authority, wealth, social power, public image. Achievement -- Intelligent, capable, successful, ambitious, influential. Hedonism -- Self-indulgent, pleasure. Stimulation -- Daring, variation in life, excitement in life. Self-direction -- Freedom, independent, curious, creativity, self-respect, privacy, choosing your own goals.

Source: Common Cause Foundation. Redrawn from Schwartz, S.H. (2006) Basic Human Values: theory, measurement and applications. Revue Française de Sociologie, 47: 259–88

Values can see-saw and spill over — context is key

No values are good or bad. And we can all hold different values at different times in our lives and in different contexts. The communication we’re exposed to can point us more towards certain values and de-prioritise others.

If your communication draws attention to any one of these values on the map, it will tend to de-prioritise values that are opposite on the map. This is called the ‘see-saw effect’. For example, if you’re talking about ‘wealth’ in your communication (at about 8 o’clock on the map), this will tend to quieten people’s concerns about ‘social justice’ — the opposite is also true.

Drawing attention (even very subtly) to any one of these values on the map also tends to increase the importance that people will place on the values that are closest on the map. This is called the ‘spill-over effect’. For example, if your communication talks about the value ‘A world of beauty’ (at about 1 o’clock on the map), people will also place importance on ‘Social justice’ and ‘Protecting the environment’.

People are more likely to support change if you use values that support that change

You might be surprised to hear that most people in Aotearoa (and around the world) prioritise values known as ‘intrinsic values’. These are values that give us an internal reward — we feel good inside when we act according to these values. Often these intrinsic values also benefit ‘all-of-us’ rather than the individual. Examples of intrinsic, ‘all-of-us’ values are: equality, a world at peace, unity with nature, wisdom, a world of beauty, social justice, broadmindedness, being helpful, and preserving nature. On the map, these intrinsic vales tend to be at the top and right.

The campaign for marriage equality in Aotearoa New Zealand and other countries used the value of love in their ‘Love is love’ campaigns. And New Zealand’s government COVID-19 messaging used intrinsic, ‘all-of-us’ values of unity, responsibility, and protection.

Covid Alert Level 4 sign saying 'Stay home, save lives'

But extrinsic values can dominate our conversations

To think that most of us prioritise intrinsic, ‘all-of-us’ values may come as a shock. While we know that we value those things ourselves, we’re surrounded by media and messaging that tells us the opposite. We can also be influenced by something called ‘pluralistic ignorance’, where we think most other people think differently to us.

Many conversations in the media, politics, and advertising tend to focus on values known as extrinsic values. These values rely on external approval or rewards — such as wealth, power, or public image.

Think about the adverts you see for cars, which tend to focus on how other people will see us in our shiny new car, or how we can have power over our environment when we’re in the car. Think about political conversations that tell us money is the reason we should care about something and should guide decision-making. Money may be important for how something is done, but it won’t motivate people to care in the first place and take the time to understand an issue.

Match your why with your reader’s why

Most of us don’t consciously think about our values when we read a piece of communication. It’s the job of the writing to connect us to the values that matter most to what we’re reading about. From transforming the economic system to better meet the needs of all people, to introducing legislation to ensure people can understand and use the information they need — using the right values shows people why it matters.

If we’re told that wealth and power are most important, we tend to think about these things. But that makes it harder to think about equity and social justice at the same time. If you want people to support changes that make the biggest difference to people, you need to use language that gets people thinking about the needs of all people.

At Write, we’re about using the power of words for good. Reminding people of the values that most of us care about is good for all of us. We hope that’s why you read this blog.

Check out the Plain Language Act on the Parliamentary Counsel Office website

Read more about B Corp month in New Zealand and Australia on the B Corp website

Read more about the values map and unlocking the potential of human values on the Common Cause website

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