Ask any self respecting social change agent about their issue and they will quickly drown you in data. They can reel off facts on how pervasive the problem is today, how fast it is growing, what segments of the population are at greatest risk, and most importantly, the exact date the problem will become an irreversible catastrophe. Usually this presentation ends with an impassioned plea that goes something like; “Problem X is HUGE and getting worse every minute, I just don’t understand why people are ignoring this. When are they going to realize that they have to (select one) eat less, eat local, eat organic, conserve energy, use alternative energy, save more, spend more, get screened, recycle, stop smoking, ……..Etc. Why don’t people get it?” And they are truly amazed that the rest of us are not moved to immediate action.
You almost feel sorry for them. You think that all this data would give them power. And in fact all the data we have at our fingertips these days is powerful. It helps us understand what can be done to make better tomorrows. But data does not create change. That requires a completely different kind of knowledge.
You have to start where your intended audience is, not where you want them to be. Instead of spending all your research effort on dissecting “the problem” spend a healthy chunk of it meeting your audience where they live. Approach them as an anthropologist might approach a foreign culture. Once there, you have to learn, really learn, about all the factors that influence their everyday decision making.
Try this exercise some time and it doesn’t take very long to realize that your really HUGE problem is actually pretty minor in the face of day to day survival. The frighteningly high odds of falling victim to your problem really don’t mean much when the potential victim has a 100% chance of having to negotiate all the demands of modern life –family, job, putting food on the table, social status, education, crying babies, each and every day.
In short, life is full of challenges already. And it seems that everywhere you turn there is some harbinger of doom ready to demand that you put all those other problems aside right now and focus on the only one that really matters. Is it such a surprise that most people tune out, turn on the tube and have a strong drink? The last thing most people have the capacity for is to take on another serious change effort.
Does this mean that all your good efforts are wasted? That the best you can ever hope for is change in the single digits of the population? That depends on what risks you’re willing to take. If you can’t escape from the literal-sclerosis that afflicts most social change agents then you likely will remain frustrated. On the other hand, if you can step outside the world of data and into the world of story you will be amazed by the power of your efforts.
Your first task as a story teller is to really get to know your audience. That means at a personal, emotional level not just as statistics and data points. This really is hard work. It can’t be done in a conference room brainstorm or sitting at a computer. It requires getting out there and getting dirty, getting close, walking a few miles in their shoes. Try it and you’ll be amazed by what you learn, even if you’ve always considered yourself an compassionate grassroots organization.
Once you’ve completed that task then you need to ask yourself one question. “What does this audience need most?” Not as relates to just your issue but in the very broadest terms. When you can answer that question you’re ready to start the work of creating your story of a better tomorrow.
More about that next time.