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5 Ways to Create Compelling Messages about Childhood Trauma Using Data

When presented strategically, data can help tell an important story about childhood trauma. See tips for presenting numbers in ways that advance efforts to reduce adversity, promote resilience and improve health outcomes, in a piece from PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group.

  • Heather Gehlert & Shaddai Martinez Cuestas
Children playing with bubbles outside

Chances are, you’ve heard many statistics about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). You likely know that the more forms of childhood adversity a person endures, the greater their risk is of health problems later in life. You probably even know some specific numbers: For example, roughly 16% of adults in California have experienced four or more ACEs, and that number grows to 23% among people enrolled in Medi-Cal. You may also have learned that many advocates are now using the term “PACEs” instead of “ACEs” to reflect a growing body of research that shows positive, protective factors can help build resilience and counter the harmful effects of adverse childhood experiences. If only more people knew about such data, we could do more to reduce and prevent childhood trauma, many health providers and advocates alike often say.

That’s partly true: After all, we can’t address our most challenging social and health issues until they are visible and their scope is clear. However, data do not speak for themselves, and if we do not communicate about them strategically, our progress may stall. Worse yet, we may inadvertently create messages that stymie—instead of support—our goals.

How, then, do we present data in ways that advance work to reduce childhood trauma, promote resilience, and improve health outcomes, especially among groups at higher risk of experiencing adversity early in life? Although there is no single message—no perfect words—that will be effective for all audiences in all situations, there are tried-and-true best practices that practitioners can implement when communicating about PACEs. Here are a few suggestions from PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group, based on our organization’s 28 years of strategic communication experience:

1. Identify the goal you want your data to support.

Before you figure out what do you want to say, you first must figure out what it is that you want people to do. What is the problem you want to address? The more specific you can be, the better. Also, what solution are you advocating? Who has the power to make the changes you are seeking? These are a few of the questions that can help you to define your overall strategy.

For example, if the problem is that pediatricians are not equipped to address childhood adversity, and you decide that training providers to use trauma-informed screenings is a good solution, then you can identify your target (pediatricians), and craft your message accordingly. Try using our “Layers of Strategy” document to develop your goals and outline your message strategy. As demands for racial equity continue to grow, we have seen more messaging addressing racial disparities. While this is great progress, we must remember that to advance racial and health equity, our overall strategy must center racial and health equity. In other words, it is not only about what we say, but also about what we want to achieve.

2. Place data regarding childhood trauma disparities within a larger context.

The meaning of any message comes not only from the messenger but also from the recipient. Your audience’s existing worldview will influence how they interpret the language and even data that you share with them.

For example, if you want to draw attention to racial inequities, and you tell someone that people who are Black or Latinx are more likely than their white counterparts to report high levels of trauma, your message may unintentionally suggest that individuals and parents are to blame for the poor health outcomes they experience. Upon hearing or reading this, people may wrongly think that Black and Hispanic people are the problem, and they may not see the systemic or structural factors that drive disparities. Instead, try zooming out to show that the legacies of racism still shape health today. When placed within a broader historical and social context, the same data can highlight, rather than hide, the role of systems and structures.

3. Use data selectively.

When you are passionate about an issue, it can be tempting to try to share everything that you know about it. Resist that urge. It is not possible to be strategic and comprehensive at the same time. If you throw too many numbers at your audience, they may become overwhelmed and tune you out. But if you keep your focus narrow and choose only the statistics that best support your goals, you are more likely to have a positive impact.

The three basic components of any message are: identifying the problem, detailing your proposed solution, and explaining why it matters. Specificity is important here. When deciding what numbers to highlight, consider which part of your message they support. Also, be sure to present them using plain language, as the writer of this Daily Republic op-ed does in a discussion of high housing costs and low wages, which form the backdrop for many of the housing problems we are facing: “Many families in Solano County were struggling to afford a home even before COVID-19,” she explains. “The California Housing Partnership reports that Solano County renters need to earn $36.06 per hour—three times the state minimum wage—to afford the median rent of $1,875.”

4. Make values part of the conversation.

Facts and data alone are rarely enough to motivate people to act. With that in mind, it is important to connect with and inspire people by articulating shared values. Prosperity, fairness, stability, health, and interconnection are just a few examples of values you may want to highlight. The exact ones you choose will depend on your audience and your goals. These values are key to reminding your audience why addressing childhood trauma matters. Values help people tap into their emotions and shared humanity. You can often do this in just a sentence or two, such as, “Every child deserves to be healthy, to be growing and thriving in a strong family, and to be supported by a safe and nurturing community.”

5. Use creative comparisons to make PACEs data easy to understand.

Numbers can make a message compelling or confusing, depending on how they are presented. The larger the numbers and the denser the statistics, the harder they will be for audiences to comprehend. To make figures more understandable and relatable, consider using social math, which involves breaking numbers down by time or place, or using memorable comparisons. For example, saying “a baby is born to a teen mother every eight minutes in California” is much easier to understand than saying “the California teen birth rate decreased by 53.2 per thousand down to 58,141 babies born to teen mothers.” Similarly, telling readers that “$22 billion is the amount of money needed to prevent the next pandemic” is it difficult number to grasp; but saying that figure is just 3% of the 2020 military budget puts it into perspective. Social math can be especially compelling when it underscores irony or injustice. That’s what the Justice Policy Institute did when their staff used this graphic to compare the cost of incarceration to the costs of other basic needs, like housing.

Infographic: The cost to incarcerate one person from Baltimore could buy one month of housing for 20 families


For additional tips and resources on strategic communication, email info@bmsg.org.

This blog was adapted from an article originally published in FOCUS, the Quarterly Publication of the Family Focused Treatment Association (FFTA).

Originally published by Berkeley Media Studies Group


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