Shattering the Overton Window: A Call for Messaging that Matters

Here’s a challenge to all communicators…

Take a look at your company’s communications over the past year and see if they say anything outside the established norms of your industry?

the overton window

Chances are: your company has been communicating squarely within an existing conversational frame. Meaning: within the spectrum of ideas considered acceptable by its various stakeholder communities.

And chances are also that you’ve been feeling more meh than not about the results generated from those communications.

Perhaps you’ve had a tweet or two that have caught fire – maybe – but I’m pretty certain that even if that’s the case, there’s little you could point back to demonstrating that your company has meaningfully moved the needle.

And by “moving the needle,” I mean the difference between trending repeatedly on a particular topic over a prolonged period of time vs. just trending for an hour or two.

The reason why I can predict that with a relatively high degree of confidence is that over the past two years the communications arena has been experiencing a fundamental shift, at least on the web.

The social/digital boom of the past two decades has officially plateaued. And now that the returns from chasing the next bright shiny social digital object have almost entirely diminished, you’re left with only what you actually have to say… with your ideas.

And to the extent your ideas fall within existing, well-worn, conversational frames – the potential for your company to truly leave a mark in people’s minds has become increasingly limited. Because fundamentally, undifferentiated ideas are undifferentiated. They’re inherently not unique enough to stand out in the haystack of content that is the swirling whirling conversational web.

Yes, there are the 1 percent of brands that have successfully moved the needle over the past year; but for the other 99 percent, I invite you to go Overton Window shopping.

The Overton Window, named after political scientist Joseph P. Overton, is what I’ve just described: the range of ideas that your publics will tolerate at any given moment in time.

If you want to make a difference, if you want your communications to have lasting impact, you now have to either further open or close the Overton Window.

Not surprisingly, some of the more notable examples come from the political sphere where Donald Trump on the right and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left have proven rather artful at expanding or otherwise shrinking the Overton Window around various issue areas. The Green New Deal is a recent example where the Overton Window has been flung wide open around a climate change conversation that had otherwise become rather predictable and stale.

The same rules apply in the corporate space. But whereas historically our trade has viewed the idea of moving the needle primarily through a creative lens, today it is critical that we view it through a more substantive idea lens.

To put another way: the actual substance of your messaging should increasingly be given more weight than their packaging and presentation.

So, the question to ask yourself now is this: what is it that your company or brand can say or do that will instantly get your stakeholders to think about any aspect of your business, industry or surroundings in a materially different way?

Whatever your answer to that singular question is, it should disproportionately dominate your communications strategies and programming from this point forward…

Named a top 25 communications innovator in North America. An EVP who co-leads Ketchum’s DE&I specialty. Strategic counselor, problem solver and fixer of reputations for some of the world’s largest and most innovative Fortune 500 companies, non-profit organizations and governmental institutions. Senior political and policy advisor at New York City Hall. A 15+ year veteran social/digital storyteller. Passionate husband, father and criminal justice reform advocate.