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Monday, February 20, 2012

Why won't they CARE!?!

My previous entries have primarily been about making your ideas and your message memorable and persuasive.  However, sometimes you need to go a step further and get people to truly care about what you are saying so they will actually act upon your message.

The solution to this problem is simple in theory but most likely difficult in practice.  The goal is to get your audience to make a connection between something they don't yet care about with something that they most likely do care about.  The tricky part is finding out what your audience would in general care about.  One of the safest bets is self interest.  People generally care about themselves and gaining personal benefits.  If possible, you should focus on what kinds of benefits your audience has to gain. Additionally, the potential benefits should be described in tangible and non-abstract terms that people can easily relate to.  If they are unable to properly visualize the potential personal gains, they are going to have a difficult time understanding how they would actually benefit.

Self interest is obviously not the only thing people care about.  You can appeal to other concepts as well. Concepts such as:

  • sense of learning 
  • sense of security and safety
  • sense of self (i.e. realizing one's potential and improving oneself)
  • sense of belonging and social acceptance
  • self esteem (i.e. being competent, succeeding, gaining approval, etc).
The difficult part is figuring out which of these concepts (or combination of concepts) will connect the most effectively with your audience.  

Let's consider applying self-interest and sense of security:
  • You are the communications director in a politician's office and you are tasked with getting the constituents in your Representative's district to get more involved and attend community meetings.  The Representative holds a community meeting every month and the turnout has been lower than expected.  Your goal is to increase the turnout for future meetings.  This next part is probably wishful thinking but let's assume you stumbled upon survey data that sampled the constituents in the Representative's district.  According to the survey, the top issues that seem to be on people's minds deal with public safety and economic development (i.e. JOBS!).
Given the information that you possess, your outreach message should absolutely incorporate public safety and jobs.  Your message should be simple, clear, and straight to the point: "Are you interested in finding out how safe your streets are?  Do you care about employment opportunities in your district?  Attend the Congressman's community meeting on the 29th to find out about these issues and much more."

The emphasis is on the constituent (the audience), not the Representative. Often times, in these situations, elected officials emphasize their own accomplishments instead of primarily focusing on the direct benefits for their constituents.  They obviously cover the benefits as well but their "hook" is showing off the elected official's accomplishments first and foremost.  In this example, we took a different approach and quickly highlighted the issues that the constituents care about.  We also utilized a bit of mystery and created a gap in their knowledge.  If they want to find out the most current information on the issues that they care about, then they better attend this meeting.

Tapping into what your audience cares about is a straightforward and obvious idea but it can easily be forgotten and ignored if not explicitly acknowledged and kept in mind when crafting messages.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Build Your Cred

In a previous entry, I discussed the importance of getting to the core of an idea and prioritizing the most important information.  As it turns out, this isn't always effective.  In instances when you need to look credible, prioritizing and shortening is not the best idea because it can crumble your credibility.  If you are dealing with an audience that might be suspicious of your expertise and credentials, one way to counteract this is to craft a message that is thorough and full of vivid details.

This strategy makes sense on an intuitive level.  Consider the last time you heard someone speak and how impressed you were with their knowledge.  More likely than not, the individual that was able to provide the most details was probably seen as more credible.  When someone provides a lot of details, the audience gets the (valid) impression that the individual is well-read and he has done thorough research on the topic that he's discussing.  The presenter could potentially be a great liar and be able to give a false impression of expertise. But, even then, his strategy has worked because he has effectively used vivid details to prove his supposed credibility.

Consider this example of a consultant giving advice to a residential homeowner or a building operator on how go green when it comes to operations and maintenance.  Contrast these two approaches that the consultant can take to prove his expertise and credibility.

Situation A)
Consultant: One of the primary areas to focus on for indoor issues is improving air quality.  There are many ways this can be done.

Situation B)
Consultant: One of the primary areas to focus on for indoor issues is improving air quality.  This can be done by cleaning your air conditioning and heating filters every month, making sure your filters have a "MERV" rating of 8 and higher, and using seals and coatings with low VOC content.

The first message is clear and understandable but it definitely does not establish credibility because the consultant hasn't said anything that seems like specialized, technical, or "insider" knowledge.  He is lacking any real details that would prove his expertise or hint at his extensive knowledge.  The second message is more technical and confusing for someone not familiar with indoor air quality issues.  However, this is not a problem because the priority was to establish credibility.  Once credibility is established, the consultant can continue to simplify and define his terms and break down technical jargon.

Being thorough and detailed right off the bat can throw people off and muddle your message but sometimes this is necessary if the primary goal is to gain credibility and win your audience over.  This is especially important for individuals that don't have years of experience to support them.  These people have to prove their worth from the very beginning and show their audience (which includes potential clients) that they are knowledgeable, dedicated, and competent enough to get the job done.

What is this image showing?  I have no idea. But, it sure looks detailed and I am more likely to trust the person that made it than someone who isn't able to create and explain such schematics.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Statistics? *Yawn*

One of the primary difficulties in being persuasive and making a lasting impression on your audience (especially among experienced professionals) is not being viewed as credible.  To counteract this drawback, you can boost your perceived credibility by referencing statistics.  Unfortunately, people's eyes glaze over and they stop paying attention as soon as you start reciting rows of numbers.  Think of the last time you were reading an article, a study, or a book and you came upon a page full of charts, graphs, tables, or numbers.  Even though I have taken statistics courses, I unfortunately find myself skipping over these sections so I can get to the conclusions and interpretations section.  Is a part of this my fault for being lazy and not wanting to think hard?  Yes, it is.  But, I believe another major aspect of the issue is how statistics are actually presented.

There is a proper way of presenting statistics that has a much higher chance of connecting with your audience and making a lasting impression.  To do this, you must present statistics in a more "human" way and place the numbers in contexts that non-statisticians would be familiar with.  You must use everyday examples that people are familiar with and utilize their intuition by incorporating scales and relationships that they will understand and be able to relate with.

As I've discussed in previous entries, analogies and concrete examples are effective tools for connecting with your audience and tapping into their intuitive visual abilities.  These strategies are especially  important when dealing with numbers because most of us don't get much practice with interpreting quantitative data.  During the rare times that we do find ourselves in such a situation, we are often too stubborn or embarrassed to admit our numerical illiteracy.

To drive these points home, consider a recent commercial by Toyota for the Camry:
                        Video link:

Here is the relevant quote from the actor in the ad:
Actor: "The reinvented 2012 Camry Hybrid is rated at 43 miles on the gallon. That's the length of two football fields that are each 21 and a half miles long.  Just to put that in perspective for you."

The actor then grabs hold of a gallon of milk and starts drinking it.  This tactic is meant to emphasize the original statistic even more and allow people to visualize how much a gallon actually is.  The ad connects that small amount of milk to the length of two football fields.  It's attempting to use scales and visuals that most people will hopefully be familiar with.

This ad is a simple example but I believe it effectively showcases what I initially discussed.  Numbers must be placed in a familiar perspective or else your audience isn't going to make the effort to truly understand their meaning and scale.

Environmentalists can also apply these lessons to properly communicate environmental problems such as the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Often times, when this issue is discussed, the authors describe the size of the plastic debris by comparing it to the size of Texas or some other incredibly large area that people can't effectively visualize.

Case in point:

"The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California; scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas."

To remedy this, other units of measurements can be used.  For instance, football fields and skyscrapers are objects that most people would be more familiar with and can more effectively visualize.  The size of the garbage pile can be discussed in these terms instead.  Large objects such as these are still not as human-friendly as smaller objects such as houses, cars, and tennis balls but using these is still an improvement over what is currently done.

Having said all this, you must keep in mind who your audience is.  If you are dealing with technical and quantitative experts who live and breathe numbers every day then your attempts at making statistics more relateable and human-friendly are going to be a waste of time.  Your efforts might even backfire because these experts might think you are questioning their competence and level of quantitative expertise.  The strategies covered here are more relevant when dealing with individuals outside the quantitative fields.  These tactics can be effective with people who don't consistently deal with numbers in a thorough and meaningful manner.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Awakening our passions

I believe all of us have the capacity to be passionate and fight towards a cause we believe in. However, unlocking these energies inside us requires direct experiences.

I know this sounds philosophic and a bit religious so far, but let me explain.  Consider these examples:

1) You are presented with a documentary about starving children in a third world country.  The film presents statistics, descriptions, and difficult-to-look-at imagery.  I believe most of us will be moved by being exposed to such content. But, this phase will most likely pass within a week or so and there won't be a lasting impact on our behavior or passions.

Now, consider actually visiting this country personally and seeing all the suffering, pain, and death firsthand. Imagine seeing these children dying, suffering, and starving in your very presence.  In contrast, this experience will be magnitudes more powerful and you are much more likely to be deeply affected by what you see and feel. A direct experience like this could move someone to act and start fighting towards decreasing such suffering.

2) You read a series of articles or a book on the most heavily polluted areas in the world.  You are presented with information on Chinese and Indian cities, various third world countries, and even neighborhoods in the U.S.  Let's also assume you see imagery and videos of the effects of the pollution on the environment and the people that live in these cities.

Now, let's transport you to a heavily polluted city in China where you are coughing incessantly, your eyes are burning, and you have to wear a breathing mask to be able to actually get through the day.  At the end of the day, you feel nauseous, exhausted, and overall very sick.  Let's assume you live through such conditions for at least a week to get a small taste of how your life would be in such a location.  Compare the difference between simply reading about an issue and actually living through it.  Direct experiences are much more likely to affect you at a deep level and move you to act.

3) This one is a real example.  Consider the case of Roger Boisjoly. He was a NASA engineer that worked on the launch of the space shuttle Challenger.  Boisjoly " found disturbing the data he reviewed about the booster rockets that would lift Challenger into space. Six months before the Challenger explosion, he predicted "a catastrophe of the highest order" involving "loss of human life" in a memo to managers at Thiokol."  Boisjoly was quoted saying "I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I'm so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now." 

Roger Boisjoly

As a result of this experience, "Boisjoly traveled to engineering schools around the world, speaking about ethical decision-making and sticking with data. "This is what I was meant to do," he told Roberta, "to have impact on young people's lives."  For his whole life, he fought to promote a cause he believed in.  What if Boisjoly was a NASA engineer that wasn't directly involved with this launch but had read about the events that took place.  What if he had read about other engineers that had tried to stop the launch but had failed, would he still have fought for the cause he did?  Perhaps.  But, I believe his powerful experience and direct involvement are what pushed him towards fighting for what he believed in.  His experience had a life-long effect on who he was and what he wanted to do.

I know that I probably stated the obvious in this post but I believe we (people living in prosperous countries) often forget how truly disconnected and sheltered we are from a lot of terrible problems.  We don't directly experience situations that have the potential to move us and awaken our passions.  We generally lack experiences that make us want to truly and fully fight for something we believe in.  It's fortunate that we can live in such favorable conditions and not suffer.  However, it's also unfortunate because we are truly disconnected from many of the world's problems.

Quote source:

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hidden complexity

Over the years, I have slowly started to realize that rarely anything is as simple as it initially seems.  Once you start digging into a specific topic, you realize how complex it actually becomes and how many moving parts there are.

Today, I read a study about the "Million Trees LA" (MTLA) project. The paper is titled "Implementing Municipal Tree Planting: Los Angeles Million-Tree Initiative" and it's authored by Dr. Stephanie Pincetl of UCLA.  Before I started reading the paper, I thought to myself "How hard can it be to plant trees?  It must be a straightforward process."  Well, I was quite wrong and reading the paper was an excellent reminder (and a lesson) on why you shouldn't automatically assume an issue is simple and easy to understand.  You shouldn't allow your pre-existing assumptions and notions about an issue to skew your understanding of a topic.

For those not familiar with the MTLA project, it basically involved the Mayor of LA promising to plant a million trees in Los Angeles by the end of his first term.  Essentially, the goal was to plant 1 million trees in 4 years.  Easy enough right? Wrong.  The program has run into numerous problems:

  • The deadline for planting so many trees was unrealistic from the very beginning.  It will actually take 8-10 years to successfully plant so many trees.
  • The initiative requires the coordination and cooperation of multiple groups and several government agencies with their own decision-making mechanisms and priorities.  Even private property owners have to be brought along since they hold control of the space needed to plant the trees.
  • Funding is difficult due to revenue-raising restrictions from tax revenue and other sources.  For instance, a very similar project in New York had over $400 million in funding.  The LA project didn't even break the $10 million mark.
  • The trees simply couldn't be planted and forgotten. There are additional financial and labor costs related to weekly maintenance.
  • The permit process required to plant a tree involves 8 different steps and the approval of several city agencies.
  • An unintended consequence of more trees is providing cover for criminals to escape under.  The LAPD is concerned about the increased crime potential if there are more trees to hide under to escape the sight of helicopters.
There are obviously more issues with MTLA implementation but I believe the takeaway lesson should be clear at this point.  Even something as straightforward as planting trees can be a very complicated process with numerous moving parts and key players.  When all of these problems are combined, significant implementation barriers can be created.  These barriers are much less likely to be spotted and dealt with if the observer assumes simplicity.

When trying to understand a problem, don't be arrogant (or lazy) and assume you know more than you actually do.  Reality is often a lot more complicated and you should have the humility to acknowledge the gaps in your knowledge.  A proper understanding of most topics often involves thorough research and investigation.  Unfortunately, most individuals are too proud to admit their ignorance. Don't be one of these people.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Can they visualize it?

Well, can they?

"They" in this case is your audience.  "It" is your idea or message.  In previous entries I discussed the importance of using metaphors and pre-existing ideas that your audience is familiar with.  Today, we take this a step further and add an additional layer.  We need to make sure that the metaphors and the audience-familiar concepts that we use are CONCRETE examples.

What does "concrete" mean?  Concrete examples have several important characteristics:

  • They are NOT abstract ideas.
  • They are generally interpreted and understood the same way by different people.
  • They are more likely to bring everyone to the same conclusion.
  • They can be examined with your senses and easily visualized.
  • You've most likely had previous experience with them.

Having said that, here are some examples of concreteness:

  • A juicy apple.
  • A bicycle.
  • Luscious lips.
  • A bloody knife.

As you can see, all of these concepts are easily visualized and you have no trouble interpreting what you are reading.  Now, consider abstract ideas such as these:

  • Truth.
  • Justice.
  • Efficiency Optimization. 
  • Stakeholder Strategy.
  • Resource Utilization.

The above ideas are NOT easily visualized or interpreted in the same way by different people.  Our senses can't easily guide us in these instances.  Using such abstract examples are going to muddle your message and degrade its clarity.  These abstract concepts will cause your audience to have a diverse set of interpretations on what you are trying to communicate.  As a result, they aren't going to be on the same page when it comes to understanding your ideas.

Easily understandable examples are useful because they can be used as stepping stones for understanding new concepts.  By jumping off of such stable starting points, you are much more likely to have an audience that is following you along your chain of thought because they have a strong foundation for their understanding.  The audience can relate to your examples because they are based off of existing knowledge and connect with their visceral senses.

Let's consider a hypothetical example in the context of air pollution.  An environmental justice group is trying to get attention for the awful air quality in their neighborhoods.  How can they effectively portray their struggles and communicate their community's suffering in concrete terms?  One potential way of doing this is to use the image of a person suffering or adapting to poor air quality.  A child or an elderly person would be effective.  

Here is an example of a picture that can be used:

Image source:
On the side of the image, a message could be added:  "Where we live, this is the norm."

By using such imagery, your audience isn't asked to conceptualize a term such as "air pollution."  Different people will have different interpretations of what that means.  Some people might think of the awful air conditions in Chinese cities and others might consider the stereotypical smoggy haze over LA.  By providing your audience with a clear-cut example and a simple message, they are all on the same page and the problem of air pollution is channeled through this simple and specific example.  Everyone looking at your message is much more likely to be on the same page and your message is much more likely to be easily understood and be memorable.  

If you want your audience to be on the same page and easily relate to your ideas, start from what is likely to be universally understandable and consistently interpreted. 

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