Messages Matter

I just posted the video seen above on my Facebook page after Carolyn Widner Ward (thanks, Carolyn) posted it on hers. I had seen the original award-winning video, La Historia de un Letrero by Alonso Alvarez Barreda, several years ago (thanks to Eliezer Nieves-Rodriguez for the reminder and Dr. Sam Ham for the deep background on his use of it in teaching about zone of tolerance) on YouTube and did not remember where it came from. The original was in Spanish. This recent one is a remake in English and it makes the point – Messages Matter, though the original filmmaker’s intentions were more directed toward creating empathy. When we craft a strong message it causes people to think.

That’s an important point of Sam Ham’s recent book, Interpretation, Making a Difference on Purpose. Sam’s research on messaging for Lindblad Expeditions a decade or more ago led to his improvement of their messaging to encourage donations to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Donations increased on Lindblad boats by 270% when the new messaging approach was used in their tours. Strong themes that encouraged people to think about the future of the Galapagos made the difference.

Lisa Brochu and I have been using this model below in training to encourage interpreters to craft stronger themes that are more likely to connect with their audiences. It is a target that uses concentric rings to suggest how you can refine a theme to make it more powerful and therefore more likely to influence attitudes of audience members.

The theme is stronger as you move to the center.

The theme is stronger as you move to the center.

The outermost ring is the simplest one and if someone were to stop there, would also be the weakest theme. The next ring inward strengthens the theme by taking a simple statement to the next level of engagement. The next ring inward suggests that using tangibles, intangibles and universals make the theme even more powerful. The center or bullseye of the target suggests that the theme should convey a message by answering the “so what,” as Sam calls it. Why does this idea matter to me? That would be the strongest approach to a theme.

Research suggests that lasting engagement requires us to get people to think more deeply about our theme. Testing your theme at each of these levels helps you determine the theme’s strength or ability to influence your audience.

In terms of the video, the first message is fairly simple and straightforward, “I am blind. Please help.” It is a complete thought and it’s pretty specific. It even includes the intangible of blindness, but it doesn’t help me think about what it’s like to be blind. “It’s a beautiful day, but I can’t see it.” This is a message that puts me in the place of the blind man. How would it be to experience that beautiful day without vision? As a sighted person, it makes me think about my own experience with the day, the weather, the beauty of the scenery.

A strong theme encourages deeper thought and provokes action. If the idea introduced is interesting but does not make me think more deeply about the idea, I may not remember or care much about it. Empathy for a blind man may be automatic but the desire to help is not. Messages matter – when you write themes, make sure they help achieve your objectives.

-Tim Merriman

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