Archives for August 2013

Once Upon A Time At The Office: 10 Storytelling Tips to Help You Be More Persuasive

open book on desk with dark background; books seems to be charged with electric energy

This post about the persuasive power of storytelling and how to apply it in the workplace originally appeared at Fast Company, and has been reproduced with the author’s permission.

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a salesman who traveled the countryside, peddling his wares. Everyone loved his product except the evil king, who wanted to do away with it. One day the king said, ‘This product is ruining my kingdom and I want to destroy it. If anyone has a reason for why this product should live, let him come hither and speak now.’

Out of the crowd came a voice. ‘I think this product is great and I can prove it,’ said the brave salesman. ‘Then come to my palace tomorrow morning and prove to me why this is so,’ said the king. And so the salesman went home and prepared PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide filled with endless statistics and dizzying market projection graphs.

On the morrow, the salesman turned up at the palace. ‘Show me why I should spare your miserable product,’ said the king. The salesmen opened his trusty laptop and started to plow through his heaping deck of slides. Starting with a company background, the salesman went on to show market trend graphs, customer case studies, and then analyst quotes. The king began to squirm on his throne. When a return on investment spreadsheet appeared on slide 47, the king finally had enough. ‘Off with your head,’ said the king. ‘Originally, I only wanted to kill your product, but this presentation is criminal.’

Funny story, but you get the point. The point is a message was delivered using a story, not a statistic or an analyst quote.

Much has been written lately about the efficacy of storytelling in the workplace. Most of it is based on a general feeling that stories ‘work.’

‘Persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity,’ says screenwriter Robert McKee in a Harvard Business Review article entitled Storytelling That Works. ‘Trying to convince people with logic is tough for two reasons. One is they are arguing with you in their heads while you are making your argument. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.’

But there’s more proof of storytelling’s effectiveness than just anecdotal evidence. For example, studies carried out by Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock at Ohio State University have empirically shown that people’s beliefs can be swayed more effectively through storytelling than through logical arguments. The researchers posit that persuasion is most effective when people are ‘transported’ to another place using a story.

b+w image of story characters (lion, ogre, witch) being read a story around a fire by a faun

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down to discuss this topic with Susan Fisher, a strategic communication expert and principal at First Class. ‘People are always telling stories; why don’t they do it at work?’ asks Fisher. ‘It’s because they have been taught that at work you use logic and slides and statistics; this seems more professional. Telling stories seems too emotional and possibly manipulative. So people stick to facts and numbers. But the truth is that real emotions always work better, because that is the way to reach hearts and minds, and also people get to see the real you. It’s authentic.’

While we are all intuitively storytellers, I asked Fisher to share some of her insights about where professionals most often need to focus when telling stories in the workplace. Here are Fisher’s top 10 tips for becoming a more effective storyteller at work:

  1. Plan your story starting with the takeaway message. Think about what’s important to the audience. The ending is the most important point of the story. This is the message we want to deliver, and the one that will linger with the audience.
  2. Keep your stories short for the workplace. Three to five minutes long is about what people can digest in today’s ADD world.
  3. Good stories are about challenge or conflict. Without these elements, stories aren’t very interesting. The compelling part of a story is how people deal with conflict – so start with the people and the conflict.
  4. Think about your story like a movie. Imagine you are screenwriter with a goal to get your message across. The story has to have a beginning, middle, and end.
  5. Start with a person and his challenge, and intensify human interest by adding descriptions of time, place, and people with their emotions.
  6. Be creative. Create a storyboard; draw it out, while listening to music or reading something for inspiration. A good story always has ups and downs, so ‘arc’ the story. Pull people along, and introduce tension, just like in a fairy tale. (‘From out of nowhere, the wolf jumps onto the path…’).
  7. Intensify the story with vivid language and intonation. Tap into people’s emotions with language. Use metaphors, idioms, and parables that have emotional associations. (Note: For more on this, see Leo Widrich’s article entitled, Which Words Matter Most When You Talk and studies on intonation performed by Ingrid Johnsrude at Cambridge University).
  8. When using a story in a PowerPoint presentation, use appropriate graphics/pictures to convey your message. Stay away from text and complicated graphics. A single picture interlaced with emotional language will go a long way to convey your message.
  9. Most of us have not told stories in front of an audience since English class in high school. So you will need to practice. Tell your story in front of a friendly audience and get feedback. Gauge your pace, and take note of the story’s length and your use of language. It will be a bit rusty at first, but underneath it all, we are all born storytellers.
  10. The most important point is to make the switch within; because once you internalize that today’s ‘left-brain’ communication style doesn’t work very well and you realize that stories are how people really communicate, you will find it a lot easier to proceed…because it’s authentic. And that is what really persuades.

Fisher also recommends signing up for a storytelling workshop. There are even workshops you can do online.

Finally, in the words of Ira Glass, ‘Great stories happen to those who tell them.’ So tell them…and live happily ever after.

headshot of David Lavenda

David Lavenda is a technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. He is particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In his ‘spare’ time, he is pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information.

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Taming the ‘Argument as War’ Beast

calvin and suzie shouting at each other, no captions

There’s a joke that goes:

How do you start an argument online?

1. express an opinion

2. wait

As anyone involved in organisational, community change work, or public life in general will know, argument online or in person is inevitable.

In this context, I don’t mean the kind of arguments one gets into about domestic tasks or family dramas – I mean argument as in clash of perspectives and worldviews.

But why do we argue? Why do we try to convince others? Who benefits? What do we expect to achieve?

In his talk For Argument’s Sake at TEDx Colby College, philosopher Daniel H. Cohen asks these and other thought-provoking questions about the nature of a typical argument:

…what do good arguers win when they win an argument? Why do we try to convince other people to believe things that they don’t want to believe? And is that even a nice thing to do? Is that a nice way to treat another human being, try and make them think something they don’t want to think?

Cohen identifies three models of argument:

  • the dialectical model, or ‘arguments as war’ – Cohen acknowledges this is a common and entrenched kind of argument in which:  ‘…there’s a lot of screaming and shouting and winning and losing’.
  • arguments as proofs, which relates to ‘argument’ as it is understood in philosophy, mathematics and logic. Rather than an adversarial exchange of dialogue, this kind of argument is used to determine if a proposition is true; if a theory is sound; does the conclusion follow from the premises, and are the premises themselves valid?
  • arguments as performances, such as debates that occur in front of an audience, where the arguers are trying to convince the audience about their position; one variation of this model is the rhetorical model, where an argument is tailored to the audience eg. a political speech, an argument made to a jury

Cohen acknowledges that of these three models, the ‘argument as war’ model is the dominant one. The language of arguments itself is militaristic – we refer to arguments that ‘pack a punch’, that are ‘on target’, that are ‘killer’ arguments.

This mindset shapes not only the way we talk and think about arguments, but how we argue, and our conduct during arguments. Cohen is concerned that this approach has a detrimental effect on what should be an important social technology because:

it elevates tactics over substance – ‘argument as war’ means you have to understand all the plays people make to try to win arguments in order to counter them. It is cognitively taxing, and detracts from dialogue around the issue at hand.

it marginalises other ways of arguing – precisely because it is adversarial and polarising, argument as war hamstrings the possibility of conversations that are centred on negotiation, compromise or collaboration.

it equates learning with losing – by its very nature, ‘argument as war’ implies that there must be a winner and loser, triumph for one side and defeat for the other. Yet as Cohen points out, if someone ‘wins’ an argument with him – if they manage to convince him to change his belief after satisfactorily responding to his objections, questions and counter-considerations – it is himself, not his opponent, who is the only one who has made any cognitive gain. The opponent may have derived some pleasure or an ego boost from ‘winning’, but unlike the ‘loser’ has not actually gained anything.

As Cohen drily notes:

I lose a lot of arguments. It takes practice to become a good arguer in the sense of being able to benefit from losing, but fortunately, I’ve had many, many colleagues who have been willing to step up and provide that practice for me.

Cohen describes the argument-as-war metaphor as a dead end – the roundabout, traffic jam or gridlock of conversation – and as ‘a monster that has taken up habitation in our mind’. He believes that if we are to have new kinds of arguments, then we need to have new kinds of arguers:

There’s the proponent and the opponent in an adversarial, dialectical argument. There’s the audience in rhetorical arguments. There’s the reasoner in arguments as proofs.

Now, can you imagine an argument in which you are the arguer, but you’re also in the audience watching yourself argue? Can you imagine yourself watching yourself argue, losing the argument, and yet still, at the end of the argument, say, ‘Wow, that was a good argument.’ Can you do that? I think you can.

This is a powerful question that Cohen is asking people to ask of themselves, because it is asking the arguer to practice non-attachment – to be able to evaluate the merit of another’s argument and our own arguments independently of one’s own position (ie. to let go of ego).

man and woman conversing, woman's speech bubble is: - man's speech bubble is: |, where the overlap is +

So next time you ‘lose’ an argument, don’t despair – remind yourself that you’ve made a cognitive gain: you understand how someone else thinks.

What if we could temporarily suspend, or completely let go of, defending our own position, and our own attachments?

We could become better arguers. We could model that behaviour to others.

And in doing so, we make a start on slaying the ‘argument as war’ monster.

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Communicating Sustainability to Different Worldviews

binoculars with earths in each lens
Image credit

This guest post is by leadership, organizational development, communications, and sustainability consultant and entrepreneur Barrett C. Brown. The original version of this article was published in Kosmos, and has been republished here with the author’s permission.

Why care for the environment? Ask this question of people from around the world and myriad responses will return. You might hear do it:

  • for your children
  • for the technical challenge of achieving sustainability
  • because the Glorious Qur’an states that this is man’s obligation
  • to save Gaia
  • because it is the ancestral way
  • for the opportunity to make money
  • to preserve the beauty of Nature
  • so I don’t get cancer from pollutants
  • because it is honorable and is our responsibility to be stewards
  • to stop the greedy industrialists by any means necessary
  • because pollution is a sin against Creation
  • to sacredly express love for all of existence

What is your answer? Do any of these responses feel true to you and appeal to your deepest sensibilities? Which responses, if any, fail to strike a chord or feel uncomfortable to you? How and where does that discomfort show up in your body?

Place your attention in those areas of your body and feel into how you might be viscerally reacting to one or more of the statements. These different statements will resonate with different worldviews. If you had even the slightest negative reaction to any of the statements, it may indicate that you have some difficulty relating to the worldview that generated it.

This is a brief introduction to the art and science of communicating about sustainability to different worldviews. One key ability is to be able to honor all worldviews as they are, even if they differ from our own. Any negative reaction we feel toward a worldview blocks our capacity to authentically communicate and create mutual understanding with someone who holds that lens on life.

By focusing conscious attention on where we feel a reaction in our body, we can begin to move through any internal blockage we might have toward that worldview. Effective communication starts with profoundly understanding ourselves.

The Development of Worldviews

Worldviews change over time, becoming more complex and encompassing. This occurs as an individual’s sphere of care and concern grows. We develop from only caring for ourselves, to caring for our family/group/nation, to eventually caring for all sentient life. Developmental psychology is used to map out worldviews and identify how they change over time.

After decades of research in the areas of cognition, morals, values, ego development, and other facets of human nature, it is clear that there are at least three general stages of worldview development: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each of these worldviews sees the environment – and is motivated to care for it – for different reasons.

Some people will be motivated to care for the environment in order to protect and support themselves and their family. Others will feel compelled to act sustainably to support their group, or nation. Still others will be inspired to care for the environment in order to serve all life, everywhere, now and in the future.

Complement Transformation with Translation

Many approaches to sustainability education attempt to transform a person’s worldview in relation to the environment; trying to change how someone sees the environment, so that they will care for it more. This may be effective at times, but it is often a long, difficult, and resource consuming process.

Robert Kegan, a Harvard developmental psychologist, claims in his book, The Evolving Self, that it takes approximately five years to completely change a worldview if the right conditions are present.

A complementary and more efficient approach is to translate sustainability messages into the worldview(s) of the population.

This article briefly explains how to translate sustainability to the most common worldviews. Fundamentally, translation is a way of truly honoring people where they are, without trying to change them. The process is to carefully frame a sustainability message in a way that resonates with someone’s worldview, with their deepest values and motivations. If framed well, and supported with the requisite prompts and reinforcements that help people establish habits, behaving sustainably can become a part of people’s everyday living.

This chart lays out five different ‘Ecological Selves’ – each represents a common worldview, has a unique way of understanding the environment, and resonates with a specific communication style:

chart from communicating sustainability to different worldviews

Click chart image to open larger version in new window

Chart Acknowledgements: Ecological Selves by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, based upon values research by Clare Graves, Don Beck and Chris Cowan, and self-identity research by Jane Loevinger and Susanne Cook-Greuter. Communications material (approach, hot and cold buttons) adapted completely, with permission, from Spiral Dynamics.

Here’s a summary of how to choose developmentally appropriate imagery for sustainability communications, and how to use this research and communicate about sustainability to multiple worldviews simultaneously.


A major component of the Eco-Guardian worldview is its magical and animistic belief system. Young children often hold this worldview. A similar form of it also makes up part of the complex constellation of beliefs of many indigenous groups, as well as some aspects of the New Age Movement. Therefore, images that anthropomorphize animals, plants, elements, and natural forces – or show them as imbued with sentient consciousness – are often used to communicate sustainability messages to this worldview. Such an image is that of Yemaya, the Yoruba Mother of the Sea. An example of her use for a sustainability initiative occurs each New Year’s Day in Rio de Janeiro when the city launches “Operação Iemanjá” (Operation Yemaya) and mobilizes 3000 workers to clean up the beaches after the previous night of revelry


This worldview is also expressed differently amongst youth than among adults. Environmental superheroes appeal to the youth of many cultures. Hibridos del Mar (Hybrids of the Sea) are Mexican marine superheroes who battle pollution and corruption. In order to appeal to adults deeply rooted in the Eco-Warrior worldview, fiery and intense images and graphics are often used. Pictures of extreme pollution or brutal environmental destruction may help successfully move some people to action. The Earth Liberation Front, for example, has a picture of a torched Humvee on its homepage, symbolizing their intention to ‘stop [the] continued destruction of life, by any means necessary’. Subtler and less extreme imagery, such as pictures of a solo mountain climber or other images showing ‘heroic efforts to save Nature’ are also commonly used to appeal to the Eco-Warrior in us.


Images that appeal to the Eco-Manager may be embedded in either a secular or religious context. Usually, these images will show ‘pure’ Nature, untouched by humanity, flourishing, pristine, and, in the case of Christian environmentalism, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. This image of an endangered orangutan is an example. The Eco-Manager worldview may suggest the way Nature ‘should be’, according to Divine or state law. Examples of images I have found targeting this worldview are, a lone howling wolf, a simple butterfly, a cathedral of trees, and many images with the sun – God’s grace – shining down upon the Holy Land. The ‘What Would Jesus Drive?’ campaign sprouted out of the Christian evangelical movement. It uses images of Jesus looking over a tangled mess of highways and stating, ‘Transportation is a moral issue’.


Sustainability images that are used to motivate people who hold this worldview fall into two broad categories: Challenge/Strategy and Nature+Technology. This image, from the book Winning the Oil Endgame, shows black ‘oil’ pieces against white ‘sustainability’ pieces. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development uses similar challenge/strategy imagery in its publications: pictures of hurdles, a tightrope, a Rubik’s cube, and a maze—all representing the challenge of sustainability. Also common are images that blend technology and Nature, suggesting that our technology is key to achieving progress in sustainable development. Eco-Strategist imagery in general tends to communicate a ‘human control’ dynamic. The assumption is that we have control over nature; this is a common theme in the rise of modernism worldwide.


Images that motivate this worldview fall into two categories: cynical/deconstructionist and nurturing/spiritual growth. The postmodern backlash against modernism and its (unintended) ill effects has led to a slew of imagery that challenges our definition of progress and suggests alternative ways of seeing the world. A vanguard organization in this arena is Adbusters, with its ‘culture jamming’ initiatives. Adbusters’ website is replete with smart, hip, and cutting edge artistry that appeals to the Eco-Radical. An example is this image of Earth as victim of a hit-and-run accident. Another example is an Ecologist cover which shows a malnourished African boy in front of a giant, felled, old-growth hardwood. The headline screams, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ This worldcentric sensitivity to the downtrodden, which the Eco-Radical embodies, generally emerges alongside a commitment to personal/spiritual growth. This growth motif employs positive, beautiful images of humans communing/meditating in nature, celebrating life outdoors, and serving sustainability while transforming themselves.

Communicating to Multiple Worldviews Simultaneously


These Ecological Selves are the environmental ‘lenses’ of the most common worldviews held by humanity. However, people don’t merely operate with one worldview. While these worldviews may appear to be strict stages—developing from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional and beyond—they are more akin to probability waves.

This means that although people have a ‘center of gravity’ —the core worldview they tend to operate from, say 50% of the time—they also respond from more complex and less complex worldviews the other 50% of the time.

Three other factors make this analysis challenging. The accurate measurement of a worldview is a rigorous process and, in any given population, a variety of worldviews are present.

Finally, highly developed adults are often found to value all the worldviews, seeing the importance of each. Given these issues, the best strategy for communicating about sustainability is to use languaging and images that appeal to multiple worldviews simultaneously. Experienced, intuitive communicators do this naturally, sensing the appropriate language for their audience.

Here’s a simple, 1-2-3 process for crafting these communications.

1) Identify the three dominant worldviews, or Eco-Selves, amongst the target population.

2) Develop a separate sustainability communication (with images if needed) for each of these worldviews, drawing upon relevant authorities and communication sources, and using the ‘best-fit approach’ guidelines.

3) Combine the three separate communications into one, being careful not to use any of the ‘demotivators’ for any of the worldviews. As long as no ‘cold buttons’ are pressed, people will tend to ‘hear’ only that which resonates with their worldview.

For example, someone with an Eco-Manager worldview will tune into the Eco-Manager-specific communication yet pass over the part of the message tailored to the Eco-Strategist or Eco-Warrior.

This process demands that we be mindful of our own worldview. If the communication I’ve crafted sounds good to me – yet I haven’t tailored it to the audience’s worldviews – then I am most likely on the wrong track. I may be merely communicating the way I see the world, which might be either a fundamental (unconscious) dishonoring of the audience, or lazy scholarship.

Knowing that different worldviews exist, I feel a deep, internal responsibility to learn from and learn about an audience first, and then tailor the message as specifically as possible.

I believe that this depth of conscious communication is requisite for all sustainability education if we are to authentically and intelligently respond to the increasing complexity of our environmental and social challenges. This process is ultimately about 1), profoundly understanding ourselves and how we see the world, and then 2), turning that mindful engagement to our audience and striving for seamless mutual understanding.

While this approach is by no means a panacea, it is a vital part of successful communication. For years now, various senior leaders in UNICEF have successfully tailored all their communications to local worldviews. Currently, business consultants, government officials, and civil society leaders from around the world do this as well.

If this manner of meeting people where they are resonates in your heart and mind, I invite you to test it, learn more, and eventually use this approach in all your communications about sustainability.

barrett c brown

Barrett C. Brown is President of the MetaIntegral Academy and holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Human and Organizational Systems. He has more than 20 years’ experience helping individuals and organizations to navigate complex change and unlock deep capacities. He is often asked to speak about leadership, and has presented worldwide, including to CEOs and government ministers. 

Barrett has also co-designed and co-led leader development programs for over 3000 executives (including master classes, innovation labs, corporate universities and multi-year executive education programs) and visioning, strategic alignment, culture development, and change processes for US and European companies and institutions. He specializes in complex change initiatives that involve multi-stakeholder alignment or corporate social responsibility. 

Kosmos: The Journal for Global Citizens Creating the New Civilization publishes the voices of leading edge visionary thinkers and actors in building the emerging global culture. The mission of Kosmos is to inform, inspire and engage individual and collective participation in a global shift of a higher-order consciousness, and in the transformation of our political, economic, cultural and social structures to reflect this shift. They endeavor to do this through new ways of thinking about our commonality and diversity, and through transforming and connecting the objective world of global realities and the inner world of spiritual values. 

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The Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation

book cover of How To Get People To Do Stuff

This guest post is by behavioural psychologist and author Susan Weinschenk (aka ‘The Brain Lady’). The original version of this article was published on The Brain Lady Blog, and has been republished here with the author’s permission. 

Are you good with people? Do you know how to get them to do stuff? Are you using tips and techniques you picked up from others or experimented with?

If so, I bet that sometimes your strategies work and other times they don’t.

There are seven basic drivers of human motivation. And if you understand what motivates people you’ll be better able to figure out how to get people to do stuff.

That’s the premise of my book ‘How To Get People To Do Stuff’. Here’s a summary of the seven drivers of motivation:

The Need to Belong

Have you ever felt left out? Not part of a group you wanted to be part of? It probably made you feel sad, depressed or angry, or all of the above.

We are ultimately social animals, and our desire to connect with others is a strong, innate drive. We’re not meant to live alone, and we’ll work hard to be socially accepted. We need to feel that we have a place in the world where we belong.

You can use the need to belong, and the longing for connectedness, to get people to do stuff.

For example:

  • If you use nouns when making a request, rather than verbs – for example: ‘Be a donor’ versus ‘Donate now’ –  it results in more people taking action. That’s because nouns invoke group identity.
  • People are more likely to comply with a request if they trust you.
  • The best way to get others to trust you is to first show that you trust them.


It might surprise you to learn how much of everything we do in a typical day we do out of habit without even thinking about it. We don’t even remember how those habits got formed.

We hear so much about how it takes months to create a new habit. How could that be, when we seem to have created hundreds of them easily without even realizing it?

It turns out that it’s actually very easy to create a new habit or even change an existing one, if you understand the science behind habit formation. You can use the science of habits to help other people create or change habits, so you can get them to do stuff. Here’s a little bit of information about the science of habits:

  • The easiest way to create a new habit is to anchor it to an existing habit.
  • If you use anchoring you can get people to create a new habit in less than a week.
  • An important part of getting someone to create a new habit is to break things into really small steps.

The Power of Stories

What kind of person are you? Are you someone who helps those in need? Do you keep up on the latest trends and fashions? Are you a family person who spends time and energy to nurture family relationships?

We all have self-personas. We tell ourselves, and other people, stories about who we are and why we do what we do. Some of our self-personas and our stories are conscious, but others are largely unconscious.

If you understand these self-personas, then you can communicate in a way that matches those self-stories and thereby get people to do stuff. For example:

  • If you can get people to take one small action that is in conflict with one of their self-personas, that one small step can eventually lead to big behavior change.
  • You can prompt someone to change their own story by having other people share their stories. If someone hears the right story you can get people to change their own self-stories in as little as 30 minutes and that one change can alter their behavior for a lifetime.
  • Writing something down (in longhand, not typing) activates certain parts of the brain and makes it more likely that people will commit to what they wrote.

Carrots and Sticks

Have you ever been to a casino? Think about this: You spend a lot of time and energy trying to get people to do stuff; you may even offer rewards or pay people to do stuff. And yet a casino gets people to pay them!

Casinos understand the science of reward and reinforcement. Here are just a few things the science of reward and reinforcement tells us about how to get people to do stuff:

  • If you want consistent behavior don’t reward people every time they do something, just some of the time.
  • People are more motivated to reach a goal the closer they get to it.
  • When you punish someone it only works for a little while. Giving rewards is more effective than punishment.


Imagine you’re driving down the road and there’s an accident ahead. You tell yourself not to slow down and look, and yet you feel the irresistible urge to do exactly that.

Being fascinated by danger is one of our basic instincts. Instincts are strong and largely unconscious. They affect our behavior. Sometimes you can get people to do stuff just by tapping into these instincts. For example:

  • People are more motivated by fear of losing than the possibility of gaining something.
  • We are basically all ‘control freaks’. The desire to control starts as young as 4 months old.
  • When people are sad or scared they will want is familiar. If they’re happy and comfortable they’ll crave something new.

The Desire for Mastery

Even stronger than giving an external reward is the desire for mastery. People are very motivated to learn and master skills and knowledge.

Certain situations encourage a desire for mastery, and others dampen the desire for mastery. You can use what we know from the research on mastery to set up conditions that will encourage and stimulate the desire for mastery, and, by doing so, get people to do stuff. For example:

  • Giving people autonomy over what they are doing will stimulate them to master a skill and will motivate them to work harder.
  • If people feel that something is difficult they will be more motivated to do it.
  • Don’t mix praise with feedback if you want to stimulate the desire for mastery. Just give objective feedback.

Tricks of the Mind

You’ve probably seen visual illusions—where your eye and brain think they’re seeing something different than they really are.

What you may not realize is that there are cognitive illusions, too. There are several biases in how we think. Our brains are wired to jump to quick conclusions.

This is useful in reacting quickly to our environment, but sometimes these fast conclusions and decisions lead to cognitive illusions. You can use these tricks of the mind to get people to do stuff. For example:

  • If you mention money then people become more independent and less willing to help others.
  • People filter out information they don’t agree with, but you can get past those filters by first agreeing with them.
  • People are more likely to do something if you can get them to phrase it as a question to themselves (‘Will I exercise each week?’) than if you get them to say a declarative statement (‘I will exercise each week.’)

If you understand what motivates people, then you can change and modify what you do, what you offer, and how and what you ask of people.

You can change your strategies and tactics to get people to do stuff.

susan headshot

Dr. Susan Weinschenk has a Ph.D. in Psychology and over 30 years of experience as a behavioural psychologist. She applies psychology and brain science research to predict, understand, and explain how people think, work, and how to persuade and motivate people to take action. She is the founder of the Weinschenk Institute, and author of several books including ‘How To Get People To Do Stuff’ and ‘100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People’.

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MEMEs – The Mind-Viruses of Cultural Change

Keep Calm and Meme On - blue background, white text Keep Calm meme

If you recognise the style of this image and phrase, you’ve been infected by a meme-virus!

‘Meme’ is a term coined by English biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He defined ‘memes’ as self-replicating ideas or cultural DNA – beliefs and actions that infect human consciousness, and are transmitted from mind to mind.

Dawkins sought to show that just as genes are the biological code carriers of DNA which carry our physical selves for replication, memes are the equivalent in terms of transmitting culture.

There is now an established body of science around memes, called memetics:

Meme: an information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory.

Memetics: the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes

To create some context around this abstract concept, here are some examples:

‘Computer Says No’ – this deadpan phrase from the TV series Little Britain became a meme for people who are frustrated when confronted with the indifference of electronic technology and the power it has over our lives.

‘Not Happy Jan!’ – a classic ad campaign for the Australian Yellow Pages in 2006, this meme is still used today to express displeasure.

‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – a motivational poster produced in 1939 at the start of the Second World War by the British government, it was intended to raise public morale following anticipated attacks on major cities.

The Nigerian dude who keeps telling you he has a large sum of money he needs moved, and can give you a tidy commission if only you can provide him with your bank details.

The seemingly endless list of movie catchphrases from ‘Bond, James Bond’ to ‘Say hello to my little friend’ to ‘He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!’ to ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat’.

All memes.

But memes are not just catchphrases and advertising slogans. There are now a slew of meme-making websites where people can create memes for online sharing, using their own images and phrases, using images that have already become memes, or a mashup of both – they include Meme Center, Generator Meme, and Keep-Calm-O-Matic where you can create your very own ‘Keep Calm’ meme (there are over 5,800,000 memes out there that have been generated by this site alone).

Anyone can make internet memes, which both democratises the possibility of creating one, and also explains the variety in design quality, spelling, grammar and attempts at humour.

But memes aren’t just funny, cute or shocking content shared on social media and the internet, and they aren’t the preserve of the entertainment and advertising industry.

Memes are also social norms, habits, songs/ melodies, stories, skills, art, gestures, fashion trends – any type of information pattern that can be transmitted from one person to another.

The spread of Nazism and Christianity are also examples of memes at work, as is any other -ism (Marxism, Taoisim, Feminism). The Mexican Wave. The Sign of the Horns. The Yin-Yang symbol.

Someone, somewhere, started all of them – one person. And they spread, and stuck.

What is it about memes that makes them travel across space and time, infecting minds across language barriers?

Knowing that the sharing of cat pictures on social media is a meme in and of itself, and knowing that banking and finance tend to be topics that make people’s eyes glaze over, Positive Money hilariously combined a cutesy cat picture with a message about an aspect of banking:

picture of a cute ginger kitten sitting up on its hind paws, doe-eyed caption 'Fractional Reserve Banking Makes Cats Sad'

Did it work to get people fired up about fractional reserve banking? Probably not. But then its not designed to reach the already engaged.

The key question is, was it shared by money and finance-types in places where others not already exposed to this idea might see it and either smile, or goo-goo at the cat? Did it cause anyone to Google ‘fractional reserve banking’ or visit Positive Money’s site?

For those new to the concept of fractional reserve banking (and why would they care?), the kitty picture is more likely to work as a way to spark curiosity than a written article – in fact there’s a theory on this phenomenon called the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.

Memes and Sustainability

What about sustainability memes?

A well-known ‘green’ meme is the Mobius loop, which will be recognised by most people as the universal symbol that something is recyclable:

mobius loop - recycling symbol, three green arrows chasing each other

How can the success of this, and other memes, be identified and harnessed for other sustainability-related initiatives?

On his blog at Terra Infirma, sustainability expert Gareth Kane examines the meme-phenomenon of Movember and offers up some reasons why it has succeeded – fun, novelty, peer pressure, relevance and great branding – and why most sustainability initiatives do not:

In comparison, most sustainability engagement programmes are, at best, like one of those multitudinous nude charity calendars – hackneyed, clichéd and unoriginal. They’re produced with the best of intentions, but the world yawns.

If you want to get a sustainability meme running in your organisation, you could do worse than use Movember as a yardstick.

San Francisco consultancy DarwinSF is undertaking some work on how memetics can be applied to climate science, with partner Joe Brewer – who has a background in cognitive linguistics (how language relates to conceptualisation) – noting:

Global warming is a meme. No-one experiences it directly. They experience it through perception. The science is pointing out a very real empirical phenomenon, but the only way people can experience it as stories and ideas in their lives.

Darwin SF’s report ‘Global Warming is A Virus!’ – which merits a separate blog post itself – is available as a slideshare presentation.

Secrets of Meme Success

one match igniting the first in a row

The transmission power of ‘Not Happy, Jan’ is such that the comments on the YouTube vid for the ad include one from someone unaware of the origins of the phrase: ‘…so thaaaaaat’s where it came from!’ and: ‘Indelibly etched into the minds of many Australians.’

Another commenter asks:

How did this ad become so legendary? People are STILL saying the famous ‘Not happy Jan!’ all the time!

Good question!

Memetics is far from an exact science, and although the internet is full of advice on ‘how to create a viral video/campaign’ and the like, if there was a formula to it, it would be being used by everyone.

To some extent it can be designed, but even good design is no guarantee, and much of it is pure luck.

Here are some good rules of thumb:

  • make it short – there’s increasing amount of everything out there competing for the same allocation of time and attention
  • keep it simple – the more complex it is, the more work the brain has to do to process the unfamiliar
  • make the message matter
  • make it memorable by using metaphor, repetition
  • create an emotional impact – for sustainability, sticking mostly with positive (humour, awe) rather than negative (shocking, disgusting) triggers
  • make it shareable content – people share things with others because they want them to have the same experience
  • design an experience – take the audience on a journey, tell them a story

In my view, one of the best example of meme-success for sustainability is The Story of Stuff Project series of videos presented by Annie Leonard, and produced by Free Range Studios.

Commencing with the original documentary in 2007, this series continues to have a huge impact, having been incorporated into school curricula and corporate sustainability trainings; seen in over 228 countries; translated into at least 15 languages; and viewed by over 12 million people. And it reflects the majority of the points listed above.

Think about what you share, online or offline – why? This will give you some insights into how to approach your change work.

If you want your ideas or behaviours to ignite and to spread, consider how you can meme all the things!

meme all the things character

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