It's Not Always Just the Message That Matters. It's the Frame You Put It in.

Being careful what you say and how you say it can make a big difference in how customers respond to your utility’s messages, says the author of a new book from American Water Works Association.

The wrong frame can ruin a great picture. The best frame can’t save a bad picture. We know these things to be true, and they apply in an important way to messages you deliver to your publics.

A new book, Communicating Water’s Value Part 2: Stormwater, Wastewater & Watersheds, contains an abundance of good advice for those charged with informing customers and others about water and wastewater operations.

As an operator, you’re likely not the main spokesperson for your agency, but you still at times need to talk about your work — to tour groups, to the city council or village board, to news reporters, to kids at a career day.

In the book, published by the American Water Works Association, author Melanie Goetz delivers practical advice on wide-ranging topics: dealing with public outrage, handling rumors, marketing, conducting surveys, crowdsourcing, branding and more. Two chapters that resonate with me cover framing messages and avoiding TMI (no, not Three Mile Island).

What’s framing?

The concept of framing says that how you say something matters just as much as what you’re communicating. “Almost any bad news, correctly framed, will prove more acceptable than even the best of news that’s poorly framed,” Goetz writes. She presents framing not as a way to mislead or sugarcoat, but as a way to foster understanding.

Framing can be valuable when helping people comprehend numbers, especially big numbers. As an example, Goetz shows how the Huntsville (Alabama) Water Pollution Control broke down the cost of wastewater treatment. Instead of dealing in millions of dollars, the utility asked customers:

“How much is it worth to you to make just one gallon of the shower, toilet or kitchen sink wastewater that you generated today clean enough to put back into our local waterways … the places we swim in, fish from and get our drinking water from?”

The answer is that Huntsville cleanses wastewater for less than half of one cent per gallon. That’s much more understandable than saying it costs X million dollars a year to run the treatment plant.

Goetz suggests reviewing your utility’s communications materials and looking for framing errors: “Go from the top of your webpage to the bottom, the oldest brochures and fact sheets to the newest. In many cases, you may find a better way to say what you’re trying to say.”

Simplifying messages

It’s easy for people in technical fields to step into the trap of TMI — too much information.

“Many details are simply not worth knowing, irrelevant or confusing — and certainly not important to the overall message,” Goetz states. “Either succinctly paraphrase complex information or delete it altogether. Less data — more precise data — can make communications easier on everyone.”

She describes how the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs described his company’s new products in few words but with maximum impact. He called the MacBook Air “the world’s thinnest notebook” and said the iPod would let users “hold 1,000 songs in your pocket.”

In the same vein, she writes, utility representatives “must do three things: simplify, simplify, simplify, even over the objections of staff engineers, scientists and technicians. And without dumbing down the message.” Her TMI-busting recommendations include:

  • Use analogies, metaphors and similes.
  • Put technical information into a concise FAQ format.
  • Avoid confusing acronyms; use only those most people readily understand.
  • Steer clear of technical terms and jargon — the kind only industry insiders understand.
  • Tell your story with pictures.
  • Illustrate your points with stories.
  • Score your documents for readability on a website such as (a good rule of thumb is to target an eighth-grade reading level).

There’s a lot more worth reading in this book, which, by the way, practices what it preaches. Besides being informative, it’s an interesting and entertaining read. You can search for the book on Amazon or on the AWWA website ( 


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