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Talking about social issues with the uninformed

June 29, 2021

Family_meal_table_debate_GettyImages_Thomas Barwick_PhilanTopicMy father always said to avoid controversial subjects like religion at the dinner table. He meant to warn us about introducing potentially divisive topics into an otherwise pleasant evening. Today, though, with social media, a twenty-four-hour news cycle, and cell phones at many dinner tables, social issues have become part of the daily fabric of life. Information abounds, overwhelms, and is tuned out. Causes must find a way to be heard above the noise and misinformation — and need to be heard and understood especially by the people who aren't listening at all.

Communicating about your cause with an audience that lacks knowledge isn't necessarily the same as talking with those who actively oppose you on the issue. The key is not to raise the defenses of the uninformed by being polarizing in your attempts to educate them.

When engaging audiences who have no information about or have taken no stance on your issue, the success of your message lies in its construction and method of delivery.

Let's start with the messenger.

The messenger must hold up under the audience's scrutiny. When we think about the narrative of a cause and how it is consumed, we can no longer think only about the written or spoken word. Today, the efficacy of a narrative depends just as much on who is delivering it as what it says. Can the audience see the messenger as having relevant expertise or authority to make the stated claims? Does the messenger have a reputation worthy of the recipient's trust — a personal connection and a relationship built over time based on consistent support for the individual's interests?

The messenger must also be able to authentically articulate a message, opportunity, or call to action that is relevant to the recipient. In other words, causes must provide a narrative that, when delivered, both feels real to the messenger and makes the recipient feel heard and not judged.

The message must meet four criteria. Once you've found a credible messenger, the message itself must include four crucial elements:

1. The recipient must see the message as objective (no hidden agenda). Construct the message carefully so that any decision to respond is up to the audience. Those who feel you've made their decision for them will not react genuinely.

Nonprofit example: A Truth.com video uses tobacco companies' own words in its messaging to persuade young people to stop using tobacco products: "This is what Big Tobacco said about the Black community, read by the Black community.... 'We don't smoke this sh*t. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the Black, and the stupid.' 'Young Blacks have found their thing. And it's menthol.'"

Corporate example: In 2017, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning Syrian refugees from entering the United States. Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh issued a strong message to employees: "If we stay true to our values and support those who champion equality and justice while working with policymakers to ensure our voice is heard, I'm confident our business and our communities will be stronger as a result."

2. The delivery should not polarize but instead show proactive action. Don't use language that drives the audience away before they've heard and digested the message. If you want them to be open to educating themselves about your issue, avoid using snarky, preachy, or blaming language such as, "You might be surprised to learn..." or "You probably didn't know...."

Nonprofit example: Truth.com's messaging is open to people who aren't yet certain they're ready to quit smoking. Their "Growing Wave of Quitters" messaging includes "Meet the Quitters" and "Convince me to quit vaping" graphics, breathing exercises to reduce stress, a "Not sure if 'This is Quitting' is for you?" quiz, and, for those who choose to try to stop, a support-by-text program. Even though the harmful effects of using tobacco are well established, Truth.com doesn't berate its audience for ignoring them.

Corporate example: Bergh's proactive plan was clear: "We will not sit idly by. Because our employees are our first priority, we are reaching out to any employee who may be directly affected. We will stand by our colleagues and their families and offer support to any employee or family member directly affected by the ban."

3. The message should offer a clear, simple opportunity for the receiver to become informed on their own terms. Keep it simple: Don't overload the message with facts or create a long narrative, because the audience may think learning is too much work. Getting them involved in the process of educating themselves will, in turn, support the narrative and make the issue feel real.

Nonprofit example: Truth.com offers a variety of entry points for educating oneself about tobacco depending on interest: Cigarettes, vaping, or opioids; tobacco companies' marketing practices; the health effects of tobacco; quitting alone as opposed to with support; etc. They also offer print, video, audio, and social media resources.

Corporate example: Bergh's letter was straightforward and succinctly set forth a few relevant facts explaining how the country "has benefited immensely from those who have come to the U.S. to make a better life for themselves and their families, and we would not be the country we are today were it not for immigration." He also showed "why the action was consistent with longstanding company policy."

4. The recipients of the message must view themselves as part of the community to which the message is being delivered. Trying to communicate information about something completely unknown to an audience is a waste of time and energy. Your audience must have a point of personal reference if they are to be interested enough to accept your call to learn more and act.

Nonprofit example: Truth.com's messaging is highly visual and features young people across diverse demographics.

Corporate example: Addressed directly to Levi Strauss employees, Bergh's message felt highly relevant to the community to which it was delivered. "We desegregated our factories in the U.S. 10 years before it became the law of the land. We were one of the first companies to offer domestic partner healthcare benefits, long before it was popular. We have been a strong voice for inclusion, diversity, and giving everyone an opportunity to achieve their fullest potential at LS&Co. regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or religious preference. We know, deep in our soul, that diversity of all kinds is good for business and that a diverse organization will outperform a homogeneous one every time."

Communicating effectively about your cause includes assuming good intentions in messaging, stories, and calls to action. You will find yourself more naturally communicating to better inform your audience when you assume that they are interested in doing good — rather blaming them for not supporting your cause already.

Once you know how to approach your audience, you have to plan to get them to take action in support of your cause.

Moving the audience through three phases: intrigue, education, and intentional action. Causes need to work harder to create narratives that build from interest to education to action.

1. The interest phase. This is where you pique your audience's interest so they'll want to learn more. This can require building trust and support — using credible messengers — as well as helping the audience see themselves as part of the community.

2. The education phase. Here you deliver a fact within a story that helps individuals see themselves and their beliefs from a new perspective — likely from that of a person similar to them, a real peer rather than an influencer. Ideally, you will use campaign-themed messages creatively wrapped in claims and stories.

3. The intentional action phase. Now you can help the audience make the decision for themselves whether or not to answer your call to action. The word "intentional" here is built on the decision-making process they go through based on their own interests.

Two years ago, just after the longest government shutdown in American history at the time, Zaid Jilani and Jeremy Adam Smith wrote in Greater Good Magazine: "If Americans don't learn to build bridges with each other, we may see more government shutdowns, lying, segregation — and even violence." Their words were prophetic, but my point has less to do with violence than about understanding. As causes, we can recognize that bridge building is needed not so much because we disagree with each other, but because we may be uninformed. Taking this approach lowers the temperature of conversations around social issues enough that we can even have them at the dinner table.

Heashot_derrick_feldmannDerrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence, and the author of The Corporate Social Mind. For more by Derrick, click here.

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