Grabbing people’s attention often takes more than scary anecdotes or doomsday numbers. For many people (including a large percentage of our Skeptics segment), visible manifestations of a problem are the only way to grab their attention.
In a recent Shelton Group study, we showed our participants a list of powerful examples of climate change, ranging from residents of a Pacific island country being relocated due to rising ocean levels, to a total melt-down of the polar ice caps. We asked which example would lead respondents to make dramatic changes to their lifestyle. Half of the respondents who identify as “non-believers” said they were not moved by any of the examples.
The takeaway here could simply be that people have become numb or desensitized to the negativity associated with environmental messaging. What’s more likely is that most of us have to experience or witness something first-hand to truly be moved by it. And answering a question on a survey is a far cry from seeing Nebraska become a desert with your own eyes. We hear in focus groups that personal experience is a game-changer – it can change attitudes and actions. So the question, then, is how to make something so big and invisible personally relevant and visible to most Americans.
That’s exactly what happened recently near our office in Knoxville, Tennessee. A local, organic mulch company had its mulch pile catch on fire – the effects of which extended beyond its immediate location. Smoke from the fire spread throughout the area, closing roads and businesses. Adjacent schools were dismissed and nearby offices closed. Questions about people’s safety were raised. And all the news coverage featured very concerned citizens fretting about their personal health and safety.
In short: Knoxville residents were driven to react to a problem, all because the effects were highly visible.
In Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the Heath brothers talk about making the problem you’re trying to solve visible. They reference an employee who found a way to save his corporation a massive amount of money by implementing a shift in the way the company made glove purchases. The data he used to make his point was strong, but his bosses simply didn’t buy into the proposed change.
This is where the employee began to think outside the box. He collected a sample of each of the 424 different types of gloves his company was purchasing from different manufacturers at different costs depending on the location. These gloves were piled up on a boardroom table as a visible representation of the poor purchasing decisions that were costing the company millions of dollars each year. Once the executives of his company saw this pile, and questioned whether this was how the company was doing business, the proposed changes were implemented post haste.
The moral of the story? Use visible examples to help sell an idea to your end consumers. By giving them a glimpse into the near future, and shedding light on what positive and/or negative things lie ahead, you’ll see far more engagement and movement.