The Latest Research and Trends in Strength-Based Communication

Is your organization doing everything it can to take a strength-based approach to communication? 

If not, you’ve come to the right place, because for the next eight weeks, this space is going to be dedicated to the topic of strength-based communication for nonprofit organizations: what it is, why it matters, and best practices for incorporating it into your organization’s DNA.

For the unfamiliar (or those who just need a refresher), we define strength-based communication as:

“Communication that emphasizes the strengths, opportunities and power of an individual, group or community. It represents people positively, in a way that feels true and empowering to them.”

Also commonly called “asset-based communication” or “asset-based framing,” strength-based communication is an essential practice for any organization that cares about equity, inclusion and social justice.

We’ve written fairly extensively on the topic already (see here, here, and here), but as our work in this area continues to deepen, we’ve realized there is so much more to unpack.

Over the last year, we’ve had the exciting opportunity to help organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Self-Help shape their approach to strength-based communication, and now, we’re excited to share key learnings from that work with you. Over the next eight weeks, you can expect posts on how strength-based communication relates to equity work, as well as advice on using person-first language, avoiding saviorism, making strength-based communication a cultural norm across organizations and much more.

But today, I’d like to begin that series as we always begin our work at Prosper Strategies: with research. What is the academic and industry research telling us about the latest trends and best practices in strength-based communication? And how might that impact our approach?

Here’s a roundup of must-read research, articles and style guides for anyone who cares about making the shift to strength-based communication, along with a few key takeaways from each if you’re short on time.

Let’s Talk About Race: How Racially Explicit Messaging Can Advance Equity
Racial equity communication and strength-based communication are deeply intertwined. This study from the Racial Equity Alliance found that “race explicit messages” are more successful than messages that avoid race with the general public. Other key findings include:

  • The majority of people are holding two frames at once on policy issues and race, both progressive and conservative.
  • Even people with high implicit bias, when watching a progressive, racially explicit message, agree with progressive fiscal policies.
  • Talking about race does not elevate individual implicit bias.
  • Multiracial spokespeople are better received than White-only spokespeople. 

FrameWorks Institute
FrameWorks is a research think tank that conducts research into framing of social issues – everything from climate change to poverty – to see what frames and communications approaches resonate with people vs. fall flat. Their key findings differ by issue area, so I’d recommend browsing their library for the topics most relevant to your work. That said, the big takeaway from FrameWorks overall is that framing and communication have a
massive impact on how social change happens. When you browse their library, you’ll find data-driven framing devices you can use to make your communication exponentially more effective.

Education Writers Association (EWA): Reporter Guide for Inclusive Coverage
This resource provides research-based guidance on the use of terminology related to race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration and veteran status. Though it was originally intended for education writers, it can be a valuable starting point for making decisions about how your organization communicates and shaping your own strength-based communication guide.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism Disability Language Style Guide
The EWA guide doesn’t go deep enough on disability, but this source fills in the gaps and provides guidance on the use of terminology related to physical and mental ability.

Opportunity Agenda’s Social Justice Phrase Guide
This guide provides five helpful guidelines for conscientious communications, including how to:

  • Accurately and respectfully talk about people’s identities, situations and roles in society
  • Retire outdated and problematic phrases and metaphors
  • Talk about policies and solutions in realistic and accurate ways that spur action social justice advocates want
  • Lift up unity, participation, and cooperation over division, extreme exceptionalism and competition
  • Reinforce prosperity over scarcity

Associated Press Stylebook
The AP Stylebook recently released a section on race-related coverage that may inform the development of your organization’s strength-based communication guide. While nonprofits certainly do not need to (and probably should not) follow every editorial practice that news outlets subscribe to when discussing race and other identities, it’s helpful to understand what terms are being widely used by newspapers and other media, and why.

Prosperity Institute, Communicating on Race and Racial Economic Equity Guide
This resource provides research-backed guidance on the use of grammar and a suggested choice of terms to help people committed to the cause of economic justice effectively communicate about and tailor solutions to address racial economic equity.

While we’re firm believers in developing an approach to strength-based communication that is custom to your organization and the unique preferences of its stakeholders, you also do not need to reinvent the wheel. Beginning with this research and using the recommendations made in third-party style guides as a starting point can fast-track your organization down the path to strength-based communication.

Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the topic of strength-based communication with a discussion of how it relates to equity, and what your organization needs to do first from an equity perspective before committing to strength-based communication. Until then, if you have other must-reads on strength-based communication to share, please drop them into the comments!

  1. The Latest Research and Trends in Strength-Based Communication
  2. This Post: The Equity Assessment: What Your Organization Needs to Do BEFORE Establishing Its Approach to Strength-Based Communication
  3. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #1: Use Individual Preferences and Be Specific
  4. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice # 2: Use Person-First Language
  5. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #3: Avoid Saviorism and Extreme Exceptionalism
  6. Strength-Based Messaging Best Practice Number 4: Emphasize Strengths Over Needs

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