Throughout my career, I’ve heard nonprofit communicators complain about their lack of resources compared with larger organizations. If you’re in that position, there’s good news — you don’t have to bust your budget to apply the same science-based approaches corporations routinely use. But you might need to think differently.
In “The Science of What Makes People Care” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, authors Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand of the Center for Public Interest Communications argue that nonprofits are overspending on education and awareness-building and overlooking the science of what actually motivates people to care, to donate, and to take action. Awareness campaigns “ignore the scientific principles of what motivates engagement, belief, and behavior change,” they write. This echoes the conclusions from their 2017 article “Stop Raising Awareness Already” — awareness campaigns are expensive, labor-intensive, and unlikely to improve outcomes.
In a science-based field like public health, it’s easy to assume that data will drive policy and behavioral change, and there’s plenty of research shows that investing in prevention will lead to better health outcomes. Eating better and exercising more will increase your health and life expectancy. So why don’t elected officials, other policymakers, and individuals make the decisions that public health advocates know will improve health? There are actually several reasons, and many relate to the way issues are framed and communicated. Whether you’re talking to elected officials or parents, providing information is not enough — you need to make them care.
For their latest article, Christiano and Neimand reviewed years of research, including what works in corporate marketing and what has made social campaigns effective (such as racial and gender quality, reducing deaths from smoking and drunk driving, and marriage equality). Research from multiple disciplines led them to five principles to make people care:
- Join the community.
- Communicate in images.
- Invoke emotion with intention.
- Create meaningful calls to action.
- Tell better stories.
Join the Community
Research consistently shows that people choose to seek information that affirms their core beliefs and worldview. Instead of talking about your organization and the great work you do, consider what value you can offer your target audiences. What problems are they trying to solve? How does your mission align with their own values and priorities? “People seek information that makes them feel good about themselves and allows them to be a better version of themselves,” Christiano and Neimand write. “If you start with this understanding of the human mind and behavior, you can design campaigns that help people see where your values intersect and how the issues you are working on matter to them.”
Communicate in Images
Abstract concepts like wellness, equality, justice, and innovation mean different things to different people. Instead, use direct and visual language. When you communicate in descriptive terms, people will form a picture in their mind, and they will be more likely to remember your message and care about it.
Invoke Emotion with Intention
Nonprofit professionals often talk about the need to “pull on the heartstrings,” but be careful not to take that too far. People avoid or tune out information that makes them feel bad — especially it makes them feel sad, fearful, or guilty with no way to resolve those feelings. You can’t be positive all the time, of course, but look for ways to stir up positive feelings, like pride and hope. Christiano and Neimand suggest, “Think about what you’re trying to get people to do and how they would feel if they were doing it. Then think about stories that would make them feel that way.
Create Meaningful Calls to Action
Calls to action should follow three rules:
- They should be specific.
- People should understand how the action will help solve the problem.
- The action should be something people know how to do, and something they can easily work into their daily lives.
Tell Better Stories
The importance of storytelling is nothing new to anyone in communications, but pay attention to the wording. The advice is not to “tell stories,” but “tell better stories.” I’m sure you know that stories capture the imagination and can explain complex issues in a powerful, memorable way. However, Christiano and Neimand argue that many nonprofits are sharing messages and vignettes rather than stories. “Stories have characters; a beginning, middle, and end; plot, conflict, and resolution. If you do not include these elements, you are not telling a story.”
They recommend finding interesting stories with unusual characters and unexpected twists. And they ask this important question: “Are your stories interesting in their own right to merit a listen — even if the listener isn’t passionate about your issue?” The best stories don’t tell people more of what they already know. They engage different audiences and motivate people who are already on board.
People don’t fail to act because they don’t have enough information, Christiano and Neimand conclude. It’s because they don’t care or they don’t know what to do. Your job is to show them why they should care, and give them a specific way to help. Read the full article here.