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Four Steps to Busting Stereotypes With Strategic Stories

Are stereotypes about the people you serve getting in the way of achieving your communications goals? All kinds of labels—from “low-income people,” “ex-convicts” or even “climate scientists”—can activate negative stereotypes that undermine support for a cause. So how do you improve public attitudes toward the people you serve? Start by thinking about the four questions below – all of which can help you focus your strategy to address the real concerns of your audience.

To ground your thinking in a real-world example, I’ve provided some lessons learned from work the Woodcock Foundation has supported to bust stereotypes of American Muslims (a topic we explored during a session titled, The Art and Science of Strategic Storytelling: Disrupting Stereotypes of American Muslims, at the recent Communications Network Conference in Seattle).

1. What does the audience currently feel about the people involved—and what do you want them to feel?

In the case of American Muslims, research revealed that the public is fearful that American Muslims are associated with terrorists and not loyal to the country. Because the audience is currently in a state of fear, our message must first make them feel safe.

In order to accomplish that, we have to deliver a message that connects treating American Muslims fairly to safety—not simply “fairness” because it’s the “right” thing to do. One message along these lines that tested especially well in a national survey: “Target terrorists based on evidence, not an entire group of people based on their religion. That targeted approach is more effective at keeping us safe.”

2. What are the misperceptions about the people involved—and what does the audience not know that would make them feel more positively?

In focus group after focus group we conducted on this issue, the audience commonly misperceived all American Muslims to be recent immigrants, which brought with it many anti-immigrant feelings commonly harbored toward other “immigrant” groups. This perception bears out in polling as well—and what’s worse, American Muslims are viewed as immigrants that don’t share American values. Close to a majority of the public believes that “the values of Islam are incompatible with American values.”

Interestingly, while the audience widely believed all Muslims were immigrants, they didn’t have a narrative in their heads about why Muslims come to America. Through our research, we uncovered that hearing heritage stories about Muslims who came to America for positive reasons—to seek opportunity or to make a better life for their families—helped to address (anti-) immigrant stereotypes and replace them with a narrative about the positive contributions American Muslims make to our country.

3. What would surprise the audience about the people involved?

If the broadly held misperception is that all Muslims are immigrants, it’s actually a revelation to most people that American Muslims are American. In focus groups we conducted, just switching the order of two words—“Muslim American” to “American Muslim”—evoked more positive feelings. When the word Muslim came first, it suggested to the audience that the person valued their religion above the country. When the word American came first, it suggested that the person was a citizen, loyal to the country, shared their values and contributed to society.

5. What value do you want to activate?

Even if we succeed in busting stereotypes and make the public feel more positively toward American Muslims, many non-Muslims will always view someone who is Muslim as different—that’s just a fact. To get our audience over that final hump, we have to appeal to the deeply held American value of treating everyone with respect—even those who are different.

Alexandra Christy is the executive director of the Woodcock Foundation


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