The EU: explaining the little things in a big issue

January 18, 2016

I’ve been meaning to point you in the direction of this episode of Woman’s Hour. Specifically, the first ten minutes or so. There’s a great discussion about the EU referendum, where Deborah Mattinson from BritainThinks points out that neither the ‘in’ or the ‘out’ camp are presenting their arguments in a way that means something to ordinary voters.

All voters want to know is: what does it mean for me?

The fact is that most people still aren’t interested in the politics of the EU. And that’s because politicians – on both sides of the divide – have done a rubbish job of explaining what it would mean for voters if we stay, and what it would mean if we go. As Deborah says in the interview, the debate is being conducted in an ‘asbtract, slightly nerdy, tribal context’ – and only those with geek levels of interest (and deep knowledge of the Maastricht treaty) can feel involved.

Radio 4 presents this as a women’s issue – not because women need a different kind of communication to men, but because they are twice as likely to be undecided about how to vote. So they could swing it. And, according to Deborah, women feel that ‘the issues that matter to their lives are not being talked about… their kids, their grandkids, their jobs – they want to know what it’s going to deliver.’

That’s the nitty-gritty, granular stuff campaigners will need to speak about if they’re going to help people understand why this referendum matters. And no, this doesn’t just apply when talking to women – it works for everyone.

It got me thinking about a very useful writing technique called…

The Ladder of Abstraction

It works like this: imagine a ladder, stretching from the ground all the way into the sky. At the top of the ladder are big, abstract ideas: for instance, economics. At the bottom of the ladder are concrete details: say, the price of milk rising by 20p. Good writing constantly moves up and down the ladder, touching both on the big ideas and the gritty, granular stuff.

Take this really simple example:

If an employer says they’re ‘improving working practices’ and ‘developing a new vision for the company’ there will likely be raised eyebrows among the staff. It sounds nice, but nobody is saying anything concrete to back it up. As a result, it doesn’t sound credible.

And if an employer tells staff that they’re ‘offering flexible hours for new parents’ and ‘offering more training’, it all sounds nice – but it doesn’t sound like a major change in direction for the company. It doesn’t sound like a single, inspiring idea.

But imagine the company said:

‘We’ve got a new vision for our company. It includes improving the way we work: for instance, offering flexible hours for parents and extra training for all of you.’

All of a sudden, the big idea is backed up by the detail. It starts to sound like something we could get behind…

Talk people through the ups and downs

The idea is that good communication constantly moves up and down the Ladder of Abstraction.

So, yes, talk about trade agreements. But explain what they mean for restaurant owners buying Spanish-made chorizo and French wine. Talk about fishing quotas – but say what they’ll mean for the crews of trawlers in Cornwall, and the customers who buy their cod and chips. No, you can’t explain what ‘in’ or ‘out’ means for every single voter. But you can help us all to understand by moving up and down the ladder, helping everyone see the tangible effects that these big ideas will have on particular people’s lives.

Because, campaigners: these people aren’t just ‘your target audience’. They’re the people who will be standing in the voting booth, pencil in hand, ready to put a cross in one box – or the other.

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