Every day, I work with social entrepreneurs who are running businesses and leading nonprofits to change systemic problems and build a culture that supports the rights and voices of everyone.
But you know who else is just as passionate about change? The many well-funded organizations out there that are working just as hard to undermine the social justice movement.
That’s why it makes me anxious when I see activists and other social justice leaders struggle with their communications efforts. It makes me even more frustrated when I see people try to use numbers, charts and boring facts to win over powerful leaders’ hearts and minds.
So what does it take to get a 21st century audience to care about social justice issues? The solution might be simpler than you think. Here’s what I mean.
We’ve now reached a point where activism and capitalism are no longer at odds with each other. Everyone feels like they’re an activist these days. For many of those who hold powerful positions in our society, what’s good for the cause is often good for the profit margin.
That’s why we’re still seeing a lot of companies say “Black Lives Matter” even though we know they haven’t taken enough action to prove they mean it.
Good luck trying to prove someone wrong about a certain issue if all you’ve got is some research that you’ve managed to cobble up in your spare time. Big corporations and well-established government agencies have their own research departments, and they’ve got easy access to their own lawyers and PR people.
The right and wrong way to do communications for social justice
Want to know my advice if you’re trying to convince these people to support your social justice issue? Stop talking about numbers, and tell more stories.
The main reason why using numbers and charts doesn’t work for a lot of social justice issues is because logic only takes you so far when you’re trying to persuade well-financed corporations or governments to see things your way.
I love how Eugenia Cheng explained this dilemma in her book The Art of Logic.
In essence, she said that, because we’re human, our emotions influence everything. So instead of trying to bring down the big bad corporation or government agency with a taste of their own medicine (i.e. logic), it’s better to persuade them with stories — specifically analogies.
Stories, Cheng said, are a much better way to win an argument because they allow you to bridge the gap between what you feel strongly about and what someone else does.
Here’s how this might work in reality…
Let’s say you want to persuade Susan — a white woman — to care more about racial equality. Susan cares deeply about gender equality, so you start by talking more generally about people mistreating other people.
You could then start telling a story about two groups of people: men who mistreat women and people with power who mistreat people without power.
Among this second group of people, you can logically say that some of them will be men who are treating women badly.
This will likely align with Susan’s views.
For the next part of your story, you could point to the fact that “people with privilege mistreating people without privilege” could represent white people mistreating people of color.
Because Susan has already agreed that people with power shouldn’t abuse it, she’ll either start seeing a parallel between her views and yours, or she’ll need to find evidence to oppose your argument.
If she can see the similarities, Susan just might begin to empathize with victims of racial discrimination.
The principles that move social movements forward
Once you realize that empathy — not logic — moves people to change, your next best move is to begin using proven social justice communications strategies.
How do you do that? By using the following principles:
- Lead with shared values: In politics, shared values are often the most important thing to rally your followers around. In business, shared values are what people want when they shop with you. And in relationships, shared values are what makes them work. Shared values are the foundation of everything. They help us understand each other and make decisions together. If you present only facts and rhetoric that seem to conflict with an audience’s core values, they will likely ignore them.
- Propose positive solutions: The problem with focusing on negative issues is that we tend to feel helpless about them. We don’t think we can change anything, so we give up trying. This is called compassion fatigue. It makes us want to disengage from the world. Combining the condemnation of an issue such as police brutality with a call to action such as more equity training for officers points to a positive future and empowers people to take action.
- Connect the dots with individuals’ stories and the broader issues: The problem with telling stories about systemic issues such as racism or climate change is that they often don’t resonate with every audience. People tend to think of themselves as individuals rather than members of a group. They also tend to feel powerless when faced with large-scale societal challenges. This makes some people less likely to take action to address those challenges, even though they might agree with the underlying message. The more you can connect the dots between individual stories and the bigger picture — and between all of the groups and issues — the better you can own the narrative and point people toward a range of solutions that will help them achieve a collective vision for the future.
Does this mean that, if you’re a part of the social justice movement, you should never use any numbers to make a point? Of course not.
But, remember, now more than ever, people are more locked in to their belief systems. So if you’re trying to get someone from the other side of the aisle to see the world you wish to create, it’s better to use a strategy that brings people together and helps individuals see other groups of people as human beings.
Nothing does that better than a good story.