On technique…

Communicating for change

A workshop in Randwick Council’s sustainability unit’s Community Leadership program organised by Fiona Campbell.

An educator in minimalist home organisation, Cecilia Macauley uses practical examples to communicate her ideas.

HOW MANY OF US would like to convince people to make a change for the better?

Les Robinson would. Les is one of our most experienced trainers of change agents. So would Fiona Campbell, Randwick Council’s sustainability educator who organised Les’ workshop as part of her Community Leadership training program. The program provides the skills that enable organisations and individuals to assume a leadership role in their communities.

We write. We speak. We encourage. Sometimes, we cajole. But all too often nobody listens. Even when they do listen they will not act. This is disappointing and when it happens time after time it discourages us. We give up and retreat into our own little bubble where we do what we think is right and ignore what is going on outside our garden gate.

Why is this, when we have all the facts at hand? Why is it that people do little to make the changes in their lives that would contribute to resilient and sustainable towns, cities and communities?

Les knows that people will act when we communicate effectively. He knows that improving how we communicate, how we construct our messages, can either turn people away or recruit them as change agents to build better communities and better organisations.

All it takes is understanding how our words, our images, our video stories can be shaped to encourage this change in behaviour. It isn’t hard. All it takes is a little understanding.

That was what the Master Communicator for Change workshop was all about.

More than facts

“The climate change campaigners give all the facts but people don’t reduce their impact. This is disappointing and discouraging for the campaigners”, Les said.

He was illustraiting how effective communication is about far more than facts and information.

Don’t make people feel wrong, Les advised.

Les took participants through the Iceberg Theory of Communications. What we see above the water is supported by what we don’t see below the surface.

Facts are overrated in creating behavioural, organisational and social change. Simply giving facts and loading our verbal and written communications with them leads to denial and resistance.

Effective communications:

  • grab attention by surprising us; this, not facts, is what people notice and remember, especially when we appeal to emotion
  • provide information
  • are attributed to a credible source so as to generate trust; do we trust the voice delivering the message? does the voice care about us? is it honest? this is about perceptions of those making messages
  • link to the audience’s human values; these are values we all share; they might be about the future of their family in an insecure world or the liveability of their neighbourhood; we frame our communications to show we have common values.

Surprise and emotion make messages sticky

Humans are emotional. Emotion, the gut reaction, is how we usually react to something. For some, their reaction doesn’t move beyond the emotional to the rational. Emotion, then, is an important feature in making our messages effective. Les alluded to a book published some years ago that said as much.

In that book, Make It Stick, Chip and Dan Heath identify the common characteristics by which stories and rumours are spread. A message that spreads is:

  • short enough to be remembered
  • unexpected and surprising enough to make it interesting and sharable
  • concrete, it is about real people and familiar objects
  • credible enough to be believable
  • emotional enough to create a positive or negative emotional response
  • a story; it tells a tale.

(Yes, there is an acronym there).

Facts do not create change

Facts are overrated in creating behavioural, organisational and social change. Simply giving facts and loading our verbal and written communications with them leads to denial and resistance.

Les said that online, carbon footprint software by which people estimate their climate change footprint all too often makes people feel bad about themselves and they give up. Don’t make people feel wrong, Les advised.

Facts rarely travel. Stories do.

There are exceptions where facts do work. The social media meme about how many spoonfuls of sugar are in a can of Coke is an example. It uses surprise to ask a catchy question about a common beverage, a question few have an answer to. It encourages people to read more. It is about a fact but does not bombard us with facts. It is a simple fact people can easily relate to and that can lead to personal change.

The social media meme about how many spoonfuls of sugar are in a can of Coke is a successful use of a fact. It uses surprise and does not bombard us with too many facts. Graphic circulated on social media.

As well as offering too many facts in communications, persuasion, especially ‘don’t’ messages, cause resistance. They make people feed bad about themselves and they become defensive. Such messages produce a ‘boomerang effect’ of worsening behaviour. Evidence for this comes from anti-littering, anti-alcohol and other ‘anti’ campaigns.

Facts rarely travel. Stories do. We make a work picture. Word of mouth remains an effective communications channel.

Types of communications

In journalism, articles are designed to inform people about something that has happened or might happen so as to familiarise them with some development and the arguments around it and, in some forms of journalism, to analyse an idea. These take a shortform (short article) or longform (long article) format depending on the space available for the story and on the need to fully report it.

There are formats other than the journlaistic that we can use to produce our messages that are catchy and memorable. We can format them as:

  • a movie poster
  • a character reference
  • a kid’s party invitation
  • a cooking recipe
  • a diary entry
  • a thank you letter
  • a royal invitation
  • a ‘dear John’ letter
  • a love letter
  • an obitiary.

Imagination is the only limit on innovative storytelling through cleverly constructed messages.

So much more

Workshop participants came mainly from community organisations and NGOs. They included individual change makers who use the Ripple Effect in their communities whereby their example ripples out to influence others.

There was so much more to this practical workshop where we worked in groups to shape messages. Like his earlier Passion Mashin’ — Reviving Your Community Group and Changeology workshops, and his Facilitate With Confidence workshop the following Saturday, Master Communication for Change left participants with a different understanding of how to shape communications so that they are not bland recitations of facts that few remember and that do not read like PR-speak.

Les Robinson is the author of Changeology — How to Enable Groups, Communities, and Societies to Do Things They’ve Never Done Before.

Changeology, 2009; Les Robinson, Scribe Publications.

Make It Stick — Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die; Chip Heath & Dan Heath, 2007; Random House.



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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.