The Communication Bump

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt completely right and fully confident about a certain point – yet you could not find the right words or arguments to convey this message clearly enough, and convince your listener? I’m guessing that anyone who has ever been in a meaningful relationship, ever participated in a debate, or ever cared about a significant cause has experienced the situation mentioned above.

My other guess, is that if you read this text and you happen to be a social or environmental activist, an educator, a leader or simply a person who cares about the social reality – then you frequently have come across the situation that I call The Communication Bump.

DSC_0382 (Large)
My friends and I are about to climb a serious bump in the Israeli desert

Here is one naked truth: No matter what your talents or ideas, communication is essential for success. You can be the most talented entrepreneur, the most creative activist, and the most gifted innovator, working endlessly to fix burning global issues. You might even be surrounded with committed people and supporters, and the vision you had in mind just came to reality through a successful prototyping. But now what? If you fail to communicate this idea further on, if you can’t manage to spread the word about the importance of your innovation, if you aren’t able to manifest your truth in the most inspiring, stirring way – it will stay in the boundaries of mediocrity, instead of tapping into awesomeness. And who wants to work for a better world and make it less than awesome?

Therefore, an effective communication for social change is critical – It’s a gate that you need to open to allow people in to connect with your purpose and join you on the path to achieving your goal. This is why I call it a ”bump”: it doesn’t matter how much you speed along the road – you still have to be careful yet give another push for crossing that bump and keep the purpose going. Imagine Larry Page and Sergey Brin prototyping Google and then conclude with: “That was nice, let’s post it within our contacts list and hope someone will get the potential”, or even meeting in person with investors but failing to deliver the necessity and power of their innovation.

The Communication Bump relative to social messages is a tricky one, mainly because there’s more than one, proven way to tackle it. But before we get to solutions, I want to pause for a moment and describe the problem.

The Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, who recently published the book “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action”, describes five barriers that make it difficult to deal with climate change and other global challenges:

  1. The distant nature of the problem;ostrich-clip-art publicdomainpictures
  2. The doom-and-gloom scenarios;
  3. The cognitive dissonance between what we know and how we actually behave;
  4. The denial mechanism; and…
  5. Our identity.

All of those are basically defense mechanisms to keep us from feeling guilty or hopeless while confronting global issues.

This is also the reason why it is difficult, not to say almost impossible, to convince someone to change their social or environmental behavior using only logical arguments. In this case, although knowledge is widely available – facts are not enough. To overcome those barriers there’s a need for using emotional communication tools, while tapping into one’s system of beliefs and attitudes.

This need raises a few questions:

  • How to motivate a long-term sustainable behavior change and not just creating a random act?
  • How to avoid being apologetic, yet to convey messages in a way that will make people listen?
  • How to avoid patronizing people, but instead meet people where they are?communication bump 3

Of course there is more than one way to communicate effectively, but this time I want to focus on a field of practice which I found highly useful for conveying sustainability messages: Values-Based Communication.

What is Values-Based Communication and how does it relate to The Communication Bump I mentioned earlier?  It is a concept that addresses personal or societal values of a target audience. The intended result is to build a personal connection between a certain issue and the receiver. This connection can be used to further inspire both attitude and behavioral change*. In simple words – the idea is to appeal to a certain set of values owned by the listener – values which have been proven to be connected to pro-sustainable behavior – on the grounds of motivating relevant behavior. At the same time, it is highly important to avoid targeting the conflicting set of values – those who have been proven to contradict sustainable behaviour – so as not to cause the opposite result.

For example, say that you want your kids to love nature and protect it. One way would be to take them traveling, collect together the trash and talk to them about natural beauty. The other way, would be to reward them with material prize when collecting the trash, or talk about nature while they watch you leave human footprint where you just had a picnic. Which way do you believe will serve the cause better? Obviously the first one. Giving rewards might encourage materialistic and self-enhancement values, and could therefore be seen as not encouraging sustainable behavior in the long run. The same goes with waiting for others to clean up after you, instead of being a role model yourself. On the other hand, the first way, appeals to the set of values which promotes environmental behavior, and if you are consistent, it will also work for the long run.

Universal values map according to Shalom Schwartz, created by Common Cause

Now let’s look at the connection between this values strategy and communicating your social innovation, your ideas, and your message to the rest of the world. As we know – people will not necessarily be convinced with facts, knowledge and proven data. They need more; especially when it comes to social-environmental issues (remember the five barriers?…) they need EMOTIONS to be involved. They need their values system to be engaged too – if you really want to get them on board.

Working with values can be done in so many creative ways: campaigns, community events, storytelling, dialogues and conversations, theatre, art and more. Once you’ve figured the appropriate values you want to trigger within the target audience, the rest is just creative and strategic work based on those values. Let the fun begin!

I could say so much more about values, the importance of getting familiar with them and how to successfully target the right ones – in a transparent way and that is not manipulative. There’s something very natural and intuitive with this topic that carries me away and leads to conversations that include many related aspects of life. But I will stop now and invite whoever is interested, to continue this conversation with me in whatever way it suits you: through comments, via mail, and most preferably in person over coffee or within one of my values workshops.

Looking forward to a dialogue around this topic with you!

*This definition was created by my thesis colleagues and myself, draws on Bell 2011, Sightline Institute N.D, and FrameWorks Institute 2009.