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Putting values first at the BPC Housing Summit

Values-based messaging isn’t a new concept. But for many of us in the housing community, putting it into practice can sometimes feel a little like a child’s shaky ride on his first bicycle: very unfamiliar and a bit risky.
On Sept. 15, I had the pleasure of welcoming a small group of housers from across the country to the Bipartisan Policy Commission 2014 Housing Summit with a crash course on messaging for affordable housing. After a brief presentation on the importance of putting values first, I challenged those in attendance to work with facilitators in small groups to build an audience-targeted, values-based message about the need for affordable housing and the solutions available to meet that need.

All of that first thing on a Monday morning.
But, with a little gentle guidance from our facilitators (aka NHC and BPC staff), the groups created some fantastic messages.
Here’s what I took away from the session:
We’re great with problems and solutions. The first tasks the groups were asked to tackle were thinking through what their target audiences cared about, considering the reasons they care about housing themselves, and putting those two sets of ideas together into a value statement. As I circulated the room, I heard group after group struggle to focus on the values, yearning to leap over values to talk about problems and solutions. This revealed some well-worn ruts in our communication patterns as a community.
  • Values ground our work. As housers, we find data on housing need compelling, and imagine others will as well. But is that because numbers change minds, or because we’ve already bought in? Cognitive science shows us that confirmation bias drives all of us to view new information through a lens that confirms what we already believe. We already believe affordable housing is essential, and for us, the data just backs that up—even if those cost-burden numbers could be interpreted entirely differently by someone with another worldview. On the positive side, since our work is so rooted in deeply held beliefs, once the groups got used to this new way of thinking, they came up with some very strong value statements.
  • Simple statements are powerful. Sure, none of the messages the groups came up with went into copious detail about affordable housing program design. No one mentioned a bill number. But every statement was compelling because the first thing we heard when participants read them back was why we should care. If we help our audiences see how affordable housing aligns with their values, they’re much more likely to listen and to want to learn more.
Creating values-based messages can be a challenge for many of us. Even I sometimes find myself reaching for data first when trying to make an argument! But the fact that we care deeply about the work we do gives us everything we need to improve the way we communicate. With enough practice, using values-based messages will become second nature… just like riding a bike.
For more resources on values-based messaging and some exercises to help you rethink your housing communications, check out the Messaging and Framing Toolkit on the Housing Communications HUB.

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