The leader of the opposition in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, is calling on the UK government to declare an environment and climate emergency. He’s responding to recent protests in London and around Europe calling for faster and tougher action on climate change. He’s also responding to what seems to be a shift in public attitudes.
What’s interesting from a communications point of view is the reason for the change in people’s thinking. It’s interesting particularly because the public is not responding to new information. The facts and figures on climate change have been building steadily for decades. Warnings have been issued by various bodies and relayed through the media.
So why now? Well, there will be a number of reasons for any change in social attitude but one key driver seems to have been the BBC’s Blue Planet series, which highlighted the plight of many ocean species and the problem of plastic pollution in our seas. The BBC’s wildlife programming, and its legendary talisman David Attenborough, command wide respect among the population. So, that helped. But the other thing to focus on is the ability of a documentary to provide a colourful, concrete, illustration of a broader problem. It’s the pictures, basically.
This is a well-known fact among NGOs campaigning for donations. When it comes to refugees from famine and war, a picture of one suffering child creates more sympathy, and more donations, than any quantity of words or numbers. And the principle holds true when you step away from global issues to everyday communication.
Someone I was working with at an international bank once told me that one of her senior colleagues, who was responsible for compliance across the organisation, had an orange prison suit hanging on the back of his office door. He would explain that it was to remind him, and anyone who came into his office, where he would end up if the job was not done properly. This is an example of a colourful, concrete, illustration. No-one who saw the suit would forget the connection. After all, I only had the story told to me, and I’ve re-told it dozens of times.
Another of my favourite examples is something I found in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, (you can also read about it in Heart of Change by Kotter & Cohen). Joe Stegner worked for a large manufacturing company and was convinced they could drive down costs, especially by rationalising their purchasing. He needed a really clear illustration of the opportunity he saw to improve efficiency. What he did was focus on a single, seemingly trivial, example: work gloves.
Stegner got a summer intern to find out how many types of glove were used across the company how much they cost. The answer was 424 types of glove, and the same type of glove was being bought for $5 at one factory and $17 at another. It made no sense. Stegner got his (hard-working!) intern to get samples of every type, and fix them with price tags. Then he put then in a massive pile on a table and invited the division presidents to come and take a look. Needless to say, he got the go-ahead to make some changes.
The same point could have been made more thoroughly and accurately with spreadsheets and tables. Maybe if you put those figures together the right way on paper, you could get the same result. But if you need to make the same argument to various people in various places it can be difficult to get a rapid and solid consensus for your proposals.
Moving on to you personally, perhaps you don’t have a summer intern at your disposal. And you don’t have a glaring example of purchasing insanity to expose. And perhaps you work in a world of pure information, unlike a manufacturing firm. All the same, you can still operate along the same lines. What you need to do is trace your activity through to customers and end users. Picture the everyday concrete situations they exist in and focus on their behaviour.
So let’s say you’re trying to get a client to stay with you, when they’re thinking of switching to another provider. Instead of saying something like this….:
‘Were you to continue with us we would seek to be fully responsive to the needs of your business. We’ve recently introduced same-day response times for all clients at your level of size and engagement and I’d be the one implementing that in your case going forward.’
… say something like this:
‘I want us to be the ones giving you advice. When you call, I’ll be the one who stops what they’re doing, picks up the phone, and a pen, and writes down what you want. And when the phone goes down I’ll put that request on my to-do list for that day. Given the amount of business you do with us, I think that’s what you deserve’.
This exact language might not be yours. But the point is to use concrete images and words to illustrate the exact nature of a problem or solution. In a competitive, crowded, marketplace, where one provider looks to the customer much like any other, punchy, powerful communication might be the only advantage you have. And if it works on whole populations, it can work on your audience too.