Archives for January 2012

Encoding Your Message With Story

cover of book 'Story Wars' by Jonah Sachs

The most common and enduring means of cultural transmission in human societies is the story.

Think about it – did you read The Stern Review Report (700 pages) on climate change, one of the seminal policy documents yet released on the issue of climate change?

Or have you seen (or at least know about) Al Gore’s Academy Award winning documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’?

This applies to any story – one example I found recently that illustrates this point was to ask the question: ‘who remembers how much JK Rowling was paid for the Harry Potter series?’. You’d probably have to Google the answer.

Try asking another question: ‘who knows the story about where and why JK Rowling wrote her books?’, and see how many more people can tell you about it. People remember the ‘rags to riches’ story – that she was a single mum, writing her books longhand in the local coffee shop, baby in the pram beside her, so she could stay warm and not have to put her heating on at home.

Most sustainability communications rely heavily on data and ‘selling’ an understanding of a situation, to which a reasoned ‘rational’ response must surely be expected. But graphs, data, spreadsheets and logic-based approaches touch comparatively small numbers of people; they simply do not resonate with the vast majority.

Stories are what resonate, and what have the potential to shift hearts and minds (note that ‘heart’ comes before ‘mind’) – over centuries, we’ve expanded our storytelling spheres from around the campfire, to books and newspapers, radio and TV, to cinema and now to the internet and social media.

To know a society’s stories is to know where it intends to go. New stories lead to new values, new identity and a new roadmap to the future.

Jonah Sachs, Creative Director, Free Range Studios

Free Range Studios is the creative agency behind such viral internet sensations ‘The Story of Stuff’ and ‘The Meatrix’ (about our take-make-waste society and factory farming, respectively).

This presentation by Free Range Studio’s Creative Director Jonah Sachs gives insights into the studio’s modus operandi, which is further detailed in his book, ‘Winning the Story Wars’:

Sourced from Compostmodern

Sach’s presentation is a must-see for all change-makers and communicators, and includes some key questions for story-tellers:

  • is the story a that I’m telling a myth? Is it big enough to change the core stories that people carry with them wherever they go, and help define their lives – not just grab their attention, but actually make them think about a new way forward?
  • is my story interesting enough to survive in this age of information overload? Is it encoded in a way that it can grab short attention spans and hold them, and get people to forward these stories along?

The Power of Myth

Sachs also speaks of the role of myth, which is a package of:

  • explanation (how the world came to be)
  • meaning (what this means for how we should live our lives) and
  • story (connects the invisible world to the visible world)

He examines the role of religion, science and entertainment in creating our cultural stories. He believes there is a ‘Myth Gap’ – that religion has traditionally fulfilled the role of societal myth-maker; but as science has begun to challenge that story, religion has become more literal and less comfortable with being cast as ‘story-tellers’ or ‘myth makers’; science is good with explanation and literal interpretations of the truth, but it does not want to be responsible for meaning, or (like religion) characterised as ‘storytelling’; and entertainment is good for story, but not always explanation or meaning.

Into this ‘Myth Gap’ breach have stepped the marketers, product designers and the advertisers, who have utilised all three elements – new products create new explanations of the ways we should live; branding brings meaning; and they tell stories that we don’t literally need to believe in to think this is a new way to live life. However, this same power is available to all, including those working for sustainability and social change, if they develop the skills to use it.

  • Are we offering new models of explanation – this is how the world works – in a way that people can grasp, see, feel?
  • Are we questioning patterns of meaning, to give new meaning to people’s lives?
  • Are we encoding it in a story?

Making Your Story Interesting – Freaks, Cheats, Familiars

Stories are changing, from the ‘captive audiences’ of broadcast days, where it was enough to have character, conflict and plot, to an era of short attention spans, and millions of stories competing for attention.

Sachs’s investigations into evolutionary biology, patterns of ancient storytelling and how stories work with the human brain, in order to unearth what makes something ‘resonant’, have led to his development of a new set of storytelling criteria – freaks, cheats, and familiars:

People love freaks – a human who breaks our expectations of how human beings should look and behave (eg. anthropomorphic animals; animals that have human characteristics); this is both where the most danger and the most social opportunity lies.

People love cheats – people who break the rules or challenge social norms; there are two kinds of cheats – those who break beloved cultural norms, the villains who should be punished; and those who challenge hated cultural norms, the rebels who we want to succeed.

People love familiars – existing cultural references from ‘within the tribe’; start where people are already having their conversation, with the audience’s passions.

Sachs’s takeaway message from his talk speaks to us all, as change agents for sustainability:

There’s still a big space in the Myth Gap for stories about a better world; the marketers of consumption have not completely closed that gap –  people still want to be called to something higher, and as Joseph Campbell said, the next great myth is going to be about how we can all co-exist on this planet, so I encourage you all to use your passions to write those myths and make a better world.

Why aren’t we availing ourselves of the techniques that marketers and designers have successfully used for decades? In part, it is resistance to the idea itself – the notion that telling stories is ‘fluffy’, not the ‘serious’ business of change, that ‘myths’ are something only certain societies are beholden to, not those with market economies, the scientific method and the ability to print endless amounts of factual information that changes very little.

Perhaps those resistant to this approach should consider that the multi-billion dollar movie making industry, and the multi-billion dollar marketing industry know otherwise – they know that story, and in particular, myth, is what works.

Think about your organisation’s communications approaches – how well, if at all, do they use story as the approach?

What barriers are there to using a story approach in your work – are storytelling skills not sufficiently developed, or is there a lack of knowledge or acceptance of the approach?

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Values, Campaigns & Change

Chris Rose’s site Campaign Strategy is one I always find myself going back to, and one to whom I have referred many people. Chris has a substantial background and track record in campaigning and changemaking, and his work is informed by direct experience and practical research.

Bringing about change is easy (alright – easier) with people who are on the same wavelength as ourselves. It’s all those tiresome people who don’t see things our way who make change difficult, right?

two people standing at opposite ends of an optical illusion - one sees three wooden beams, the other sees four

If it sometimes seems that you are talking a different language, or at least a different dialect, in conversation with others, bear in mind that you seem just as difficult and unfathomable to them!

There are some who say that what we need to do is bring about a shift in values – and over the long term, that’s what does need to happen for humanity. Will we all ever hold the same values, or a shared expression of those values? Hard to say.

In the meantime, right now, we are working in societies where a diversity of values are held, and we need to understand what the  motivators are for different values groups in order to ‘frame’ our conversations and communications – which ‘dialect’ to speak.

What does THAT mean, in tangible terms?

Extensive research undertaken with the British public by Chris Rose and Pat Dade of Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing (CDSM) is presented in their overview, Values Campaign Planner, which maps people’s responses in accordance with grouped values, characterised as ‘Settlers’, ‘Prospectors’ and ‘Pioneers’.*

Compiled over decades of research from questions put to thousands of people, the authors describe the Value Modes database as ‘…like a nationally representative database of hundreds of cross-indexed focus groups.’

The purpose of the Values Planner is to show what values motivate different groups of people, and how communications need to be adapted to create that resonates with each group.

This planner integrates the model of CDSM (aka Values Modes) with the work of Professor Shalom Schwartz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to provide an outline guide of motivations which can be used to match the design of offers or asks to audiences, according to motivation.

In essence, it’s like a Myers-Briggs for sustainability.

There are of course overlaps, as people tend not to fall exactly inside the lines of such typographies, however in summary the three main segments are:

  • Settlers (sustenance driven) – oriented to safety, security, identity, belonging
  • Prospectors (outer driven) – esteem-seeking, success-oriented people
  • Pioneers (inner driven) – oriented toward self-actualisation, ethical living, global issues

The three overarching segments reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and each segment has four subgroups. For example, subgroups of each modes group include:

Settlers: Smooth Sailing

…want routines of convenience, routines that they don’t have to think about. Rules help them do this. They dislike new ideas and ways of thinking – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. They know, deep down, they have to look after themselves first and that they will always put their own needs before others, whatever they may choose to say in any given situation.

Prospectors: Now People

…have probably the greatest need for the approval of others and this drives their wonderful set of empathetic social skills. They attract others to them, and the high energy they create, like a magnet. They look for the flash and intensity in all situations.

Pioneers: Concerned Ethicals

…need to live a life with a sense of purpose. They attempt to see the world in a holistic way, rather than as a set of disparate issues. They have a strongly pronounced ethical view on all aspects of their lives. They have passion for anything they become involved in, yet sometimes lack compassion for others. They can be seen as interesting and formidable rather than caring and compassionate.

The authors caution against trying to ‘sell’ opposing values to those held by people – making people ‘wrong’ by telling them they hold the ‘wrong’ values is more likely to get an adverse reaction than further engagement. There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ category – just different categories.

An example of how this approach could be used with respect to climate emissions in the report Research Into Motivating Prospectors, Settlers and Pioneers To Change Behaviours That Affect Climate Emissions by Rose, Dade and John Scott of Keen-Scott Brand Research.

There is also another good example of the application of this framework by Integral Strategies, which shows how the same local campaign might be framed to resonate with different segments.

cover of 'Three Worlds' book, with three connected cogs, yellow, blue and red

The Values Planner on its own is more than enough food for thought, however Chris recently released a book, ‘Three Worlds: What Makes People Tick’, based on this research, if you would like to investigate this framework further. You can also buy the book direct from the Campaign Strategy site.

Have you ever tried to ‘sell’ a message to an individual or group that just wasn’t receptive to the values contained in that message? What happened?

Did you find a way to tap into the underlying values of that individual or group in a way which enabled constructive discussion to emerge?

* Please note: the Values Planner is for use by non-profits and campaign groups. It may not be used for commercial purposes without the permission of the authors.

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Don’t Hurry, Be Happy

‘Enjoy the Ride’, an innovative campaign by the Western Australian government’s Office of Road Safety, diverges from most other ‘don’t speed’ campaigns by promoting the whole-of-life benefits to individuals of slowing down, instead of the ‘shalt nots’ of speeding:

Often, the way we drive is a symptom of the way we live; too fast. When we go too fast, in life and in our cars, we not only miss the opportunity to enjoy life to the full but it’s downright dangerous too.

This three minute campaign clip links the issue to the wider cultural context, and how speed affects different areas of our lives, including our health and relationships:

Slow Movement author, speaker and advocate Carl Honore helped launch the campaign. Honore, a self-confessed former ‘card-carrying roadrunner’, praised this holistic approach of slow, and what he calls ’embracing your inner tortoise’:

Forget the tired old shock tactics of yesteryear. Instead of trying to browbeat or terrify people into driving more slowly by bombarding them with gory images of mangled corpses, bashed up cars and severed limbs, the Enjoy the Ride campaign puts the stress on all the benefits that flow from following the speed limit.

Fewer accidents, to be sure, but also: less money spent on fuel. Fewer toxic emissions into the environment. A calmness that allows you to take in the scenery, listen to music or talk radio, chat to your passengers or just let your mind wander (not too much, obviously.) Your car becomes a Zen refuge rather than a torpedo of road rage.

The campaign offers resources including a series of posters and wallpapers:

image of empty outback highway at dusk, text 'slow down and enjoy the ride'hand running through wheat, text 'if you're always racing to the next moment, what happens to the one you're in?'poster of driver blowing bubble, text 'don't hurry, be happy'

As part of the engagement strategy, the Enjoy the Ride Facebook page currently has a ‘Which Song Slows You Down?’ competition, where people can win prizes by offering suggestions that will become part of a playlist.

Although there is still the underlying why people speed question – its often very real time pressures, which in part is influenced by distance people have to cover (particularly in sprawling cities) to get from work, to pick up kids, to get to the shops, to get home – this kind of approach opens up the space for considering these bigger questions, and how our behaviours are influenced by the design of the systems in which we live.

Do you think this approach works eg. would this campaign be likely to influence your driving, and broader lifestyle habits? 

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Cooking the Books on Food Waste

Ireland’s Monaghan County Council have produced this excellent clip, “food waste = money waste”, which literally shows how wasted food is wasted money.

When ‘waste’ costs are determined, often they can seem to be only a small proportion of a business’s outlay.

However if the costs of purchasing food, the costs of energy and water used in preparing it, and paying someone to cook it are factored in, it suddenly looks a lot more expensive to be wasteful – whether you are a business or a household!

Why It Works

The clip works because it:

  • uses ‘show don’t tell’ – it tells a story without a single spoken word and barely any written words; an additional bonus of this approach is that anyone who speaks any language can grasp the meaning
  • visually makes the connection between wasted money and wasted food – even if people aren’t bothered by food being binned, the sight of money being thrown away is jarring and counterintuitive to how we would behave if it were really money
  • brings the issue out of the realm of “waste” and into the context in which people in the hospitality industry work, showing their daily activities and the points at which waste occurs
  • is brief! In less than 90 seconds, a powerful point has been made
Screen shots from the clip:
chef emptying euro notes and coins into a bin chef slicing and dicing Euro notes knife 'chopping' series of Euro coins

Crux is a bit bemused at how this was made – isn’t it illegal to burn, cut, cook, saute or otherwise mangle the official currency?

And if it was not the real deal, its a very good effort at counterfeiting, I mean replicating, the Euro!

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