Communication for change is different to marketing, education, or PR. We are inviting people to take personal risks, not just be aware of something. It’s vital to begin by learning about those people and their realities – by talking to them. Once we’ve done that, here are 5 rules that make a difference.

#1 Create ‘I can do that’ moments

#2 Tell of heroes, journeys and victories

#3 Be appreciative

#4 Work on one step at a time

#5 Break the rules to spark delight

#1 – Create ‘I can do that’ moments

Practically everyone knows why they should do be doing the ‘right’ things. Piling on more ‘whys’ probably isn’t going to make any difference (even assuming that people change because of reasons, which they don’t – see Mindspace). What people most commonly lack is the self-belief that they can pull it off and get a result without being embarrassed or creating too much uncertainty, hassle and stress in their lives. This is called having ‘self-efficacy’ or ‘agency’.

Instead of arguing risks and benefits, let’s aim to give people an ‘I could do that’ moment, where they see a similar person performing the exact physical actions, or hear them speaking the exactly right words, to the point where they could imagine doing or speaking them themselves. This is called social learning and it works because it activates mirror neurons.

People hate being persuaded, but they do love to learn new abilities, so ‘how-to’ demonstrations tend not to cause denial or resistance.

My favourite example, from the Food Safety Information Council:

(I feel so strongly about this point, Here’s a whole post about it, with more examples:

#2 – Tell of heroes, journeys and victories

Who’s stopped noticing campaign slogans, brand tag lines and messages? If single phrases or sentences ever had power over the human psyche it’s long since evaporated. Stories, by comparison, have always set alight human imaginations. In their mind’s eye, an audience puts on the armour of heroes, follows the journey, discovers how the dream was achieved, and feels the victory.

So, the next time we’re inclined to create a message, let’s talk about a hero, a journey and a victory instead.

Ending HIV, by ACON, is a great example of this approach. Are you ‘in’ for ending HIV?

Another is Buy a Pair, Give a Pair: “The whole story begins with you”,

And here’s a simply glorious example from Thai Life Insurance

#3 – Be appreciative

Who was ever belittled, humiliated or criticised into bettering their lives or worlds? Yet, that’s what we do whenever we inadvertently imply that people are doing the wrong thing. We find ourselves lecturing people. And they find themselves resisting and denying.

So let’s start by respecting, loving and believing in people. Let’s swap ‘I am right’ for ‘you are right’. That could be the hardest thing we do, but it puts us on the path to a healthy relationship with people.

A simple way to communicate this is by appreciating what they have already achieved. Here’s a nice example from Shellharbour City Council:

#4 – Work on one step at a time

Change is a journey, often stumbling, full of obstacles and setbacks. The only thing that predicts whether people will take the next step is whether the last step worked for them. So let’s not dilute our efforts by giving people 5, 10 or 20 possible first steps. Instead let’s focus all our resources on one step at a time, and make that as rewarding as possible.

So, for example, not ‘5 steps to recycle well’, but just ‘remove lids and tops’. Break it down, Remember that even one new behaviour can be very hard for people to adopt.

For example, Zoos Victoria Seal the Loop campaign focuses solely on recycling used fishing line, with bins located at boat launch ramps. Mobile Muster focuses solely on recycling mobile phones.

#5 – Break the rules to spark delight

When we stop behaving predictably, we surprise ourselves and our audiences. By breaking expectations about what our communications are supposed to look like we create a wave of pleasure or delight. And that delight causes people to notice us, start buzzing about our idea, and wanting to come and play!

But more than that, our audiences notice that our organisations can change too. That sends a special message about the world: that we welcome and believe in the possibility of change. And that helps people believe in themselves, because without that, nothing will happen.

Caro and Van’s Be an Unfucker is a strong example of this. They seriously broke the rules.

The classic is Dumb Ways to Die by Metro Trains, Victoria, the most viral public safety campaign in history.


P.S. Keep in mind, of course, that communication, by itself, is hardly ever the foundation of a successful change project. Sustained behaviour change, or even one-off actions, are really design challenges: about how we create systems that easily enable and support action? However, once the design is in place, then good communication is is vital to reach out and excite people to ‘come and play’.

Upcoming workshops flyer:

Workshops 2018 flyer.png