Skip to Main Content

Audiences: How to Reach Them Where They Are

How Our Minds Process Information

Your readers are not blank slates. Social scientists say each of us is an “experienced and sophisticated veteran of perception.” This means that our experiences shape our perceptions of the world and we rely on our experience-based assumptions to take shortcuts in our thinking. Taking shortcuts is not the same as being closed-minded; it is an automatic behavior that helps us cope with the huge volume of information that we process daily. This behavior develops in infancy and continues to develop into adulthood, allowing adults to speed up their understanding.

Most often, we use categories to sort our impressions. For example, if you walk through a park and see someone lying on the grass, you may not be aware of your mind categorizing the situation. You process visual cues to determine whether the person is “someone who has collapsed and needs my help” or “someone who has fallen but will be fine without my help” or “someone who is lying on the grass, enjoying the sun.” You either select a predetermined category through this entirely unconscious process or else experience uncomfortable confusion.

A similar process occurs when someone reads your story about WAP. Within the first few sentences, the reader has put the story into a category, such as “a situation with which I can identify” or “another example of how charities give hand-outs without solving underlying problems.”

Frameworks and Frames

Communications researchers call these mental categories frames. Think of a category as a picture frame for a concept – a way to contain and put the contents in focus. For example, a story about a training program for unemployed adults to become WAP workers could be “framed” by a reader as either a) “There’s a chronically unemployed person who hasn’t tried hard enough,” or b) “There’s a hard-working person who never had much luck and is trying to turn his life around” depending on how you frame the narrative.

Researchers also refer to frameworks for receiving information. A person’s framework is a complex structure of personal beliefs that influences the way the person sees any story and how she or he interprets it. An example of a framework would be: “Every person is responsible for her or his own situation and the government has no place in helping those who do not help themselves.” A contrasting framework is: “We all need to work together to be sure every American gets ahead in today’s uncertain economy.”

Frameworks are complex and can contain beliefs that seem to contradict each other. It is helpful to know what kinds of categories your readers are likely to use so you can guide them to use the frame you
chose for them. Recently, several researchers probed the thoughts and attitudes that shape public opinion about programs like the WAP. Explore some Common Frames and How to Use Them.