On the packaging of ideas

by Nate Berkopec (@nateberkopec)

Summary: The meta-content of an idea and how it is presented can have a big impact on how persuasive our ideas are to our intended audience (916 words/5 minutes)

Lately, I've been thinking about the importance of how ideas are packaged, and the effect this has on persuading the intended audience of the idea. Mostly this was due to the Dolly Parton's America podcast telling the story about how Dolly Parton's involvement in the 9 to 5 movie and soundtrack supported the feminist movement of the 80's, while Dolly Parton is a country singer that does not identify as a feminist. Despite that, her soundtrack (and the movie itself), expresses feminist, left-wing ideas.

What a way to make a livin'.

Idea packaging is comprised of a number of related elements:

  • Frame
  • Medium
  • Identity cues

Idea packaging is important because the same idea presented with different packaging can be received and responded to very differently. One can adapt one's idea packaging to present the same message to different audiences, or present what would otherwise be a non-palatable idea to an audience with good packaging.

The frame of an idea is the perspective from which the idea is presented. As an example, in the 2020 US presidential election, the Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders present similar economic ideas with very different frames. Bernie presents his ideas as "anti-billionaire", while Warren presents mostly-similar policies and ideas as "pro-middle-class" or "pro-99%".

Frames are powerful because they can control the way an audience reacts to an idea. Bernie's frames lead to a more emotional conversation about how billionaires are cheating the American people, while Warren's frames lead to a more dispassionate conversation about the pros and cons of her policies. Again, the policies and ideas themselves are really very similar, but they're presented with different frames.

Medium is another important element of idea packaging. The medium through which an idea is presented affects how audiences consider the idea. Dolly Parton's soundtrack for 9 to 5 contains lyrics that are quite explicitly about women's rights, workplace harassment, collective action and other traditionally-left-wing ideas. However, by being presented in a popular song (and a popular comedic movie), these ideas appear far more innocuous to an audience that would possibly reject these ideas when presented by a political candidate in a speech, or in a documentary, or in a news article.

Medium can also dictate an audience's capacity to respond, which affects further conversation around the idea. Ideas presented via television and film convey greater weight and an appearance of truth, because we cannot respond to the ideas presented directly. Ideas presented on Twitter can be immediately refuted with a quick "@mention" of the account, or a saracastic or critical quote-retweet. Our ability to defend ourselves rhetorically affects our persuasion.

Identity cues are the final, and perhaps most important, part of idea packaging. As Seth Godin phrases it: "People like us do things like this". Ideas are more likely to be accepted when they are attached to an identity that we already identify as or would like to identify as. This is a key idea behind brand marketing - people who are rich and beautiful wear designer clothing, therefore if you wear designer clothing, you will be like these rich and beautiful people.

Identity cues are especially important in politics. Often, it is more important which "side" the idea represents rather than what the idea actually is. I don't think I need to explain this one.

Avoiding identity cues can often be highly effective as well. Dolly's "9-to-5" deliberately avoids identity cues in order to make its unavoidably political message more widely appealing.

In the professional world, identity cues can also be used effectively. Bob Martin has consistently presented his ideas as "software craftsmanship". By accepting Bob Martin's ideas, you are a craftsman, conjuring images of a bearded woodworker in a beautiful workshop.

The three elements of idea packaging combine and overlap to affect the audience. As a personal example, I struggled with meditation and mindfulness for years (I tried multiple apps, tried many books, and in-person training in Zen) until Sam Harris created his Waking Up app. Why did it take so long for me to develop a mindfulness habit? Idea packaging.

  • Frame. Sam frames meditation as an empirical examination of consciousness. This is very much unlike other approaches to meditation, which often invoke mystical themes, or emphasize benefits, like relaxation and calm, or a religious frame, like Buddhism. Sam's "scientific" frame appealed to my sense of rationality and resonated with me very well.
  • Medium. Sam's meditation content is delivered through an app, in audio format. There are no interactive social elements, such as commenting. I am quite used to running my life with apps. Other approaches, such as MP3s/raw recorded audio, would not have been as effective for me. In-person training was too difficult to attend regularly, and books were an ineffective medium for instilling a regular practice.
  • Identity cues. Sam Harris, as a "brand", represents a logical, scientific approach to the world (whether he actually always does this is not the point, but it is the "brand promise"). I realize the "smart atheist" brand is obnoxious to many (tips fedora), for good reasons, but something about it clearly still appeals to me! I am comfortable identifying with a famous atheist. Essentially Sam is saying "logical, scientific people like us meditate like this".

All ideas have packaging, so when presenting our ideas, we should be aware of how we've packaged them.

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I'm Nate Berkopec (@nateberkopec). I write online about web performance from a full-stack developer's perspective. I primarily write about frontend performance and Ruby backends. If you liked this article and want to hear about the next one, click below. I don't spam - you'll receive about 1 email per week. It's all low-key, straight from me.

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