How do we get people to take social challenges as seriously as plastic straws?
There was a big lesson I learned when I did some bisociative thinking between Jane McGonigal’s excellent Reality is Broken and the Blue Planet imagery of how plastic pollution is destroying our natural world.
That one image of a sea turtle with a plastic straw causing it so much pain led to immediate action as people stopped using single-use plastic straws, and pubs, bars, restaurants, and fast-food outlets immediately stopped providing them in solidarity.
Our imaginations were immediately captured, but we need to learn from this to engage society in bigger challenges that we face as a species in the coming years.
We need to be more CLEAR.
Being CLEAR is about 5 things:
Let’s break it down.
Can you concisely explain the issue in one line? In this example it was simple — single-use plastic straws are killing wildlife on the other side of the planet.
Can you assume causation in a logical way? Does it make sense that these straws that you’ve discarded could go on to cause this damage?
Where is the evidence that this is a problem? This doesn’t have to be a long report, or white paper, or research, in fact it is better if it isn’t. A simple picture is far more likely to engage and draw a reaction.
Is there a quick and simple action I can take? Yes — stop using straws. It’s even better if it isn’t all that inconvenient or hard to act on.
Does it have the potential to be repeatable? Can it scale? Can I enable others to take action too, can I story tell and could it be viral?
If we think in terms of CLEAR it can help us think about where we are not being CLEAR when trying to inspire action.
When we are deeply interested in a social cause or issue, it is beyond obvious to us. Without going too much into the curse of knowledge again, there are things that we know that we don’t consider for a second that others either might not know about, don’t know they don’t know about, or don’t care about.
If we can communicate concisely, in a logical way, provide simple evidence, give them a path to be a better human and help them to share it with others then we have a greater hope of success.
When you think about some big, viral messages they can be broken down this way, but ultimately for the sake of cutting through the noise they need to distill down even further. Can you get it down to three words or fewer? For example, straws kill turtles, but even clearer — straws bad.
We like to simplify to the binary to really cut through. I’ll write more about good and bad, but for the purposes of this post it often has to be that simple.
With the range of social and environmental challenges we currently face, we need to be smarter with how we engage with the public.
People want to be active participants in building a better future but advice is misleading and corporate green-washing is creating situations where people are being tricked into thinking they’re making responsible decisions through manipulative marketing and branding.
We want to look at a plastic straw and immediately think — no, bad. The same a bottle of fizzy, high-sugar soft drink, diesel car or a drive thru takeaway.
This isn’t to say as adults we can’t still decide to use a straw or have a glass of cola or burger every now and again, but we do it mindfully.
As social entrepreneurs we can think about how to make our missions CLEAR to enrol good people in the cause.
Of course there can be consequences with being CLEAR. Giving up single-use straws created massive inconvenience for people with disabilities who rely on plastic straws when eating or drinking out. By shifting over to reusable tote bags from single use plastic bags we’ve inadvertently created a bigger environmental issue in the low usage of reusable bags, and the increased cost of shopping for people who are less likely to carry them when they go shopping.
If we over simplify things we risk losing the importance of the message, but we are in a phase now where we need to act fast and make it easy for people to cut through the noise.
Being a responsible social entrepreneur means it is your responsibility to do the research, ask the what if questions and try to predict what dominoes might fall if you start the sequence.
Rushing to get a cause over because it sounds like a good idea isn’t enough, there’s a lot of public cynicism and there’s a responsibility to not create a lack of trust by being over simplistic and risk missing the point.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, this is an article I’ve been looking forward to writing all year. I hope I did the idea justice.
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