A few weeks ago, I partnered with the Misinformation Village and Mozilla Foundation to present a virtual MessageDeck workshop at MozFest Fringe. The topic was First-Principles Messaging For Building Trust and Community Resilience – A Workshop for Effective Marketing Strategies against New Emerging Cyber Threats.
Plainly put, we wanted to see if a simple-looking card game could be used to combat the rising threat of AI-generated misinformation. It was an experiment and one of the first public applications of the MessageDeck Method.
Misinformation can be battled in many different ways. There are technical methods for identifying, tagging, and countering misinformation. But as a messaging consultant, my domain is understanding why messages stick and take hold in the human mind and how to help technologists do better at delivering technical messages.
How’d it go? Did we develop the ultimate market message inoculation for the public against misinformation in the one-hour session?
Nah. But was it a success? You bet!
Our “Big Ideas”
Listen Critically and Talk Good(er)
Misinformation is not all that different from the cybersecurity problem, which is an asymmetrical battle against scale and spread, sometimes against a better-resourced adversary. It’s a common trope in cyber that bad actors only need to succeed in their attack once. But defenders need to be vigilant and rebuff every. single. time.
It’s sort of the same with misinformation. Bad actors can “flood the zone,” as it were, trying everything in the world to distract and disrupt. Aided by AI-generated content, they can do it on a massive scale. As individual receivers of information and messaging, we have to evaluate and make split-second decisions on everything we consume. If we become complacent or overwhelmed, we get spun down the rabbit hole of poor-quality information to downright dangerous stuff.
That’s why I proposed a two-prong approach to humanizing messaging about misinformation:
- present a model for the public audience to build awareness and self-innoculate against misinformation, and
- help technologists and anti-misinformation communicators discover how to build better counter-narratives in the marketplace of ideas.
By being better presenters of “why” we should care and be vigilant and by equipping audiences to be critical and careful, we may have a chance to resist the temptation of complacency and overwhelm.
Before we look at the MozFest workshop, let’s take a look at how the MessageDeck model works:
Objectives for Audiences
First, to the audience. How do we help people develop the muscles of criticality when it comes to evaluating misinformation? It’s hard to give people a “six-step criteria” for anything, let alone “instruct” them on ways to do what they think they’re already probably pretty good at doing. So we have to present something simple, but powerful.
Introducing the Heart, Head, and Gut
People are likely familiar with the concept of emotional vs. logical messaging. Or they’ll recognize the concept pretty quickly. So giving them a “Heart vs. Head” model for evaluation is a good start.
But what’s often missing is a concept of credibility. It asks one to answer, “do I trust this information?” For that, we can represent the “Gut.” It’s neither just mental nor emotional. It’s deeper.
These are also the levels of engagement we often see in the typical marketing funnel.
- Emotion leads to attention & engagement
- Logic leads to developing relationships and learning
- Credibility is what’s required for trust and conversion
But don’t take my word for this.
- Heart/Emotion = Pathos
- Head/Logic = Logos
- Gut/Credibility = Ethos
So the objective for audiences is to help them recognize when a message is playing on their emotions, making a logical appeal, or trying to persuade them to make a conversion or take an action. This simple awareness model, accompanied by simple questions can help an audience become more discerning. And they can identify what’s missing in a particular message and when to be skeptical of credibility.
Objectives for Communicators
As technical communicators, we’re good (too good, sometimes) at talking logic. But we fail to get our audience’s attention in the first place because we don’t go to the heart first. And if we can get attention, we often fail to build trust because we don’t trigger the gut reaction.
But we can’t do anything simply as three levels (because, nerds), so we’ll need a few more levels to our messaging. They roughly align with the heart, head, and gut levels, but things get a little more nuanced when you’re on the delivery end of a message. They’re also stacked from top to bottom from low-density but high-emotion elements to high-density but low-emotion elements.
Ideas are the big, thematic things that should permeate through your full brand story or messaging. This is your “big why” and is the most important takeaway you want from your audience at first glance. After all, if you’re not hooking them emotionally right off the top, you may not be able to retain their attention as you move toward “deeper” subjects.
We hear a lot about “storytelling” in marketing. But that doesn’t mean we need to spin fiction with our audiences. Stories are, however, how we connect with the day-to-day lived experiences of our audience. It’s how we demonstrate empathy with them and how we also share what makes us tick. When you connect on a story level, you’re beginning to move from heart feelings to gut feelings. But you have to begin weaving in some logical arguments as well.
These are typical value statements, but not your corporate “mission, vision, value” stuff (those fit more in the Story or Mantra levels). These are clear articulations of the value you’re offering your audience. What are they going to get out of listening to you? These often come not from your own perspective but should be developed by listening closely to your audience. What is it they want (or don’t want)?
Mantras are phrases and concepts that are burned into your character or culture. Or they reflect the beliefs of your audience. These aren’t rote marketing “taglines” or “slogans,” but are genuine statements of value. For example, “complex does not have to be confusing.” It’s a statement of truth, but also represents a deeper why.
Proof Points build on the gut level. We’ve got to answer the credibility question of “why should I trust you?” But there are different kinds of proof points that should be included. Hard ones, like performance metrics and result KPIs, are obvious. Soft social proofs, like testimonials or case study stories, are also useful. But when you’re making a case for a large perspective shift, you should also be looking for external proofs, like industry reports, trends, and metrics that support your case. Proof points help you avoid bragging about yourself and let someone else’s words do it for you.
Finally, the one you’ve been waiting for—technical details. Many technologists feel they have these down, but they’re often scattered or spread across several pieces of collateral in the wild. Collecting all the details in a catalog of technical messages helps you know which ones to use when, and in what balance against other “lighter” messages.
Let’s play a game
That was a lot to get through. Pat yourself on the back!
With that foundation in mind, the method works by providing prompts across the framework level and collecting input nonverbally from the participants. This prevents the “biggest mouth” problem where the person with the loudest voice (or company title) dominates. So we employ either a physical or virtual card-based “forward facing” activity to gamify the collection of inputs.
As the workshop progresses, more prompts are answered and collected by the framework layer. Cards can be randomly selected by dice roll, coin flip, mud wrestling, or other feats of strength. Or they can be selected by a facilitator who guides the conversation. Sample prompts include questions like:
- Big Ideas
- Opportunity – What is an opportunity you see that others don’t?
- Counternarrative – Think about the typical industry story. Can you reverse it to your advantage?
- Villain – Put a name to the industry “bad guy” that nobody talks about.
- There and Back Again – What is your consumer’s life like before your solution? And after?
- Relief – What pain relief do you bring to your consumers?
- Tangible – What tangible upshot do you offer?
- Feeling – How do you want your consumer to feel after working with you?
- Echo – What phrase do you hear from your customers often?
- Repetition – What phrase do you find yourself repeating often?
- Proof Points
- Testify! – Talking about yourself is weird. What can you get someone else to say about you?
- Accolades – What third-party market validation have you had?
- Do – What does your solution do?
- Work – How does your solution work?
- Time Machine! – How does your solution save time for your users?
- Etc. Etc. Etc.
Facilitators also have special cards they can play to challenge an input to help the participants think more critically about their message.
- Strip It! – Remove any technical terms or jargon from this card. (Yes, even that one term you really love.)
- Break it Up! – Break this message down into separate thoughts.
- Own it! – Can anyone else say this? How can you own it?
- And so on.
Cluster, Collate, Cull
When the card deck (or participants) are almost exhausted, we have an entire universe of potential messaging points that are authentic and raw out on the table.
The team then collaboratively works through the input to look for commonality (signaling areas of alignment) and divergence (opportunities to explore). Themes and hallmark ideas will naturally emerge from the chaos and the team can then have conversations around these.
Meanwhile, the facilitator is guiding a conversation toward areas of synergy and authentic stories.
By the end of the workshop, there should be obvious messages that the group feels strongly about and some that were put on the table but not really revisited.
Even before the final messaging system is codified, participants will have fresh, cross-pollinated ideas and perspectives to immediately apply to their messaging.
All the authentic and relevant messages are collected and documented by the facilitator and put into a messaging system that can be used as a toolbox to create marketing or messaging collateral and campaigns that are in alignment with the core, first principles of the organization.
To see the output from the MozFest workshop, click here.
MozFest Workshop Video Replay
This video was recorded live during MozFest Fringe, warts and all, as we stepped through the MessageDeck method to begin to create a potential messaging platform around misinformation.
With a handful of participants from across the globe in technology, communications, and nonprofits contributing, the outcomes of this experiment were valuable.
The MozFest session was unique in that we had a limited amount of time (one hour versus a typical three-hour workshop) and we had participants from different organizations with their own objectives and perspectives. Nevertheless, our goal was to put the MessageDeck method to the test in building the beginning of a community messaging platform for the Misinformation Village.
We collected 62 unique inputs across the messaging framework. Because we were mainly looking for how to develop an overarching message theme, and in the interest of time, we focused mainly on the top of the pyramid and skipped over Proof Points entirely.
At the end of the workshop, participants began to create messaging clusters, which I then refined afterward.
From the clustering, we can see several potential stories that can be expanded and embellished. General groups include:
- The choice between using AI to create human connection or discord
- The Opportunities for speed and scale of creating/verifying trustworthy information
- A recognition of the power imbalances that can be created by AI misinformation
- The possibility of using AI to create more art and enhance creativity
- And several others
By performing a manual, qualitative assessment of the inputs, to determine whether they were largely positive or negative, we can see that the majority of the messages were positive:
Breaking the statements down and normalizing into general themes of opportunities for good or potential for negative and using a word cloud generator, some higher-level potential big ideas emerge:
With a limited number of participants and a short amount of time, these inputs are necessarily incomplete. However, a preliminary reading of the input suggests that a messaging campaign that is more positive in nature and presents an opportunity for society to make a choice between allowing AI to connect or divide, with a focus on positive values for society and cautions against power imbalances might be productive.
Some potential message points would be as follows.
- Idea - We have an opportunity to help society evolve along with artificial intelligence.
- Story - The power of AI presents us with a choice between connection or discord.
- Story - While AI enables us to do more at scale, that scale can come with the cost of power imbalances that take advantage of weak and disadvantaged populations.
- Story - AI can enable new models for business and art.
- Story - We have to be aware of the dynamics at play.
- Value - Understanding AI and misinformation allows you to better know what’s true, reliable, and what to trust.
- Value - Healthy skepticism allows us to protect human connection and defend against hate and division.
- Value - Working together for better AI gives us a better understanding of the world, grounded in facts, critical thinking, and cultural understanding.
- Mantra - Help, not hype.
- Mantra - AI “knows” things just like gravity “wants” things to fall.
- Mantra - Optimize for insight instead of attention.
- Technical - Mechanisms for engagement with trust and safety
- Technical - New not-for-profit incentive systems designed to amplify and reward insight and mutual understanding instead of what gathers most views
- Technical - We can provide models and frameworks for technical and non-technical audiences
Obviously, the above is nominal and not completely developed. But it presents the beginning of a menu of potential messaging opportunities that we as a community could adopt in our communications and could be used to frame discussions around misinformation.
In partnership with the Misinformation Village, we will continue to develop this messaging system through additional workshops and input sessions. The next planned one will be at Def Con in August of 2023. We are also exploring the potential to open source the framework to allow for larger community engagement.