Media and empathy

There’s been some interesting discussions of late on the role of media in building empathy and creating more emotion in their storytelling.

The NY Times have been experimenting recently with Virtual Reality (VR) as a way to engage their readers – including this recent partnership with Google Cardboard where they sent over a million of the devices to their subscribers. They were then invited to view their new virtual-reality film called The Displaced – inserting you in the middle of a story of three refugee children and their journey.

There’s also this recent podcast by On the Media called Feel This – focusing on the new ways that the media tries to reach us on an emotional level. The episode covers the NY Times experiment, Europe’s “compassion fatigue” on the refugee crisis, and issues around clickbait


How to get young people to vote

I really like this TEDx talk in the UK by Rick Edwards. Focused on a common challenge that has been widely covered in many countries and regions, he makes some simple recommendations. Best of all, he avoids some of the common and incorrect perceptions spread by the media – e.g. that young people are lazy or apathetic.

And like all good ideas that are effective in changing behaviour, he starts by giving people the benefit of the doubt. Most people after all “want” to change. Most of the time, it’s our job to make the change easier, or as the Heath brothers always say, “shrink the change”.

Bursting the bubble

One thing I often focus on when thinking about behaviour change is the bubble. So much of our behaviour is driven by the people and things that surround us – our physical environment and culture, our friends and colleagues, and the wider community. All of this contributes to a type of bubble that informs our world. We each have a bubble, and it creates a special type of social norm that drives and reinforces much of our behaviour. So unless we find ways to crack open this bubble and reveal other, often larger bubbles, people will continue to feel supported in their behaviour – whether, for example, we’re talking about smoking, binge drinking, mob riots, or immunization.

One project I worked on in 2011 was the 15andfalling anti-smoking campaign. The bubble we focused on cracking was the one that told kids that smoking was popular – in fact, they believed that 50% of young people smoked. The actual smoking rate was far different – 15%, so we set about breaking this bubble, and building a greater sense of resiliency for young kids to resist.

Stories matter

Remember how much you loved a good story when you were a kid? Whether read to you by your parents, or crawled up in bed late at night unable to put that book down.

“I’m wondering what to read next.” Matilda said. “I’ve finished all the children’s books.”
Roald Dahl, Matilda

As we grow older, life gets complicated and we get distracted by many things. But we never lose our passion for stories – a good story is irresistible.

And stories are a powerful tool for brands and organizations, especially when you’re working to change behaviour. Stories appeal to our emotions, the most powerful influence on our behaviour. Emotion can put a destination at the top of the list, motivate us to want to choose one brand over another without even knowing why, or help nudge us toward healthier behaviour. As the Heath brothers put it, the fight between our emotional and rational self is best demonstrated through the analogy of the elephant and the rider – with the elephant as our emotional self, and the smaller rider as our more logical side. It’s a wonderfully simple image, and it sums up in an instant the power of our emotions. A rampaging elephant is virtually unstoppable.

But why exactly do stories have this affect, and why can they be so powerful for brands?

One of the more central aspects of a good narrative is its ability to convey a sense of authenticity. If brands actually have a story and take the time to tell one, then it means they have a purpose. It’s communicating the “why” of what they do, and the journey that got them where they are today (or even where they are headed). When we can see the motive behind why people do what they do, we embrace it and are more likely to believe it. It might be a story telling us about something they want to change, an event in their life that inspired them, or just a natural passion that has always driven them. Having a clear motive that explains the “why” of what you do is an important element in any good story, since it helps other people believe what you are saying. Incidentally, this is also why motives matter so much in cases of criminal law.

Of course, some of these stories might be made up, but it’s easier to spot those less authentic attempts today, given our easy access to information and social connections.

And when those efforts are genuine, a good story can be irresistible, forming a powerful base from which to clarify or strengthen a brand. Like some of these examples I wanted to share. They are from a variety of small and large brands across variety of sectors – with each demonstrating the power of a good story to connect with us at that emotional level (and get the elephant in us all moving).

1. Bamboo Sushi is a seafood restaurant in Portland, Oregon with a strong belief in sustainable fishing. Their website includes this message defining their beliefs.

Ask any person to define “sustainability” and each one will give you a different definition of what sustainability means. Because sustainability is such a broad concept, our approach to sustainability is inclusive and multi-dimensional.

While this is an important message for sure, it doesn’t really tap into the story behind why they do what they do. However, it’s this remarkable hand-made story below that really pulls me in. Motivated by a desire to change things, Bamboo Sushi has a set of beliefs that drive how they do business. So now, because I understand the “why” of their business, I empathize with them. I want to believe them.


2. This wonderful example for the Amsterdam Museum brings the 16th century city to life with a great story.

3. Here’s a lovely story about a rooftop beekeeper in New York that’s personal, intimate and inspiring.


4. Open Journalism is a living, breathing thing, and as such, it cries out for a good story. In this brilliant spot for The Guardian, it’s conveyed as fluid and unpredictable, with a purpose focused on challenging stereotypes. What really happened to the Three Little Pigs? Why did they do what they did?


5. The power of stories is also why TED has become such a phenomenon. It’s about great ideas wrapped up in personal, real life narratives. In this case, it’s been used to great effect by Ridley Scott for his upcoming movie Prometheus, with the character played by Guy Pearce delivering a talk in the future (TED2023).


6. This story introduces us to Kraken rum by telling the mythical story of The Kraken. A rich and fantastical story well told – the stuff of legends. I’m not even a rum drinker, but I can’t help but love the brand.


7. If anyone should have a big universal story to tell, it’s NASA – a magical story of adventure, discovery and inspiration. The first spot below is the fan-made version, followed by the official one (We are the Explorers). The official one is voiced by non other than Optimus Prime, a nice touch.



8. We know we feel great empathy for our pets, so telling a story about a dog who worries about protecting his/ her bone provides a great emotional platform to talk about insurance.


9. In this story, GE demonstrates the role they’ve played in Healthcare by telling a great story through the eyes of their employees. They experience the true impact of their work when they meet a group of cancer survivors. Along the way, we discover the “why” or purpose of GE, and we feel something.


Anyway, just a few thoughts. I’m off now to finish reading the 3rd book in the Hunger Games Trilogy

Making behaviour change about everyday things









Behaviour change efforts will always be more effective if you start by considering how people behave in their home, at work – in the real world. It might seem an obvious point, but we don’t live in a world of units, milligrams, servings or calories. Rather, we drink from glasses, eat from plates, use cups as a measuring tool, and often equate exercise as something that gives us permission to eat more. By communicating with people in these terms, we are giving them the information they need to act. By building on how people live their life, we effectively “shrink the change” by going with the flow of human behaviour – rather than competing with it. It’s a key first step I believe when considering how to frame many behaviour change initiatives.

I was reminded of this during a recent visit to a naturopath. She was talking about the amount of vegetables I eat every day (funnily enough, even as a vegetarian, I can still eat more). But when giving me my prescription, she asked what would be a more relevant term – “servings” or “cups”. For me, it’s cups, and I’d suggest for many others as well. Fruit might work well as servings, but it’s a different matter when talking about vegetables (given how we generally prepare and eat them).

So how might that apply in other campaigns focusing on health promotion?

There’s this effort from Change4life, with a focus on helping people reduce those “sneaky” drinks in their day. Smartly I think, they chose to talk about the idea based on glasses not units. If course, while everyone drinks from different sized glasses, it was communicating a broader message through TV. Online tools and community efforts can help to educate people on the idea of a standard sized drink or glass. But I think they are off to a great start by tackling the issue in terms people can relate to, rather than spending considerable energy to educate people on the idea of units of alcohol.


Or what about this wonderful solution to the challenge of health labeling on food. Instead of trying to find simple ways to showcase the amount of fat in our food, it gets to the heart of the matter by converting fat to energy. It does this by highlighting how much exercise we would have to do to work off the fat we’ve just eaten. Fantastic!

Of course, given how effective it would be in making people think (and change their behaviour), I would guess it’s likely to face extreme opposition from private industry.

In another example, the new USDA food guide ( released last year replaced the pyramid with a more relevant graphic focused around a plate. Again, a good attempt to relate information in terms people can connect with.

By understanding how people think, how they translate information, how they behave at home, at work, in the car, at the gym, we will give ourselves a better chance of changing behaviour. It’s not rocket science really. It’s simply about ensuring we’re not getting overwhelmed by the “curse of knowledge” within the industry we find ourselves in. It’s about converting all that rich data and information into something meaningful  – something that builds on our existing behaviour as we nudge people toward healthier habits.

Top 16 Sunday reads – #10

Here’s my Sunday reads on behaviour change. It’s a longer list, since I’m just catching up from stuff over the past month. Hope there’s something of interest for you somewhere in these.

1. Great article via Wired on a New York Times Magazine story on “How companies learn your secrets”. A great reminder I think on why we need to continue to apply the same rigour and investigation when identifying insights that help change behaviour on critical community issues such as health promotion and energy conservation.

2. In another article commenting on the same Febreze example, Jonah Lehrer delves into the power of habits and how new ones take hold in the brain.

3. Promising work here from Change4life on those “sneaky drinks” many of us consume during the week. While I’d like to know what they are doing to support the message of course – especially on the issue of standard drink sizes etc – I do like that they are going with the flow of our behaviour and using “drinks” as the reference rather than units. The 5-a-day fruit and veggie folks  face the same issue of relevance in their communication – servings vs. cups vs something else? Relate it to the real world and go from there.

4. A new report from the Behavioural Insights team in the Cabinet Office (UK) on some of the early approaches and results of applying nudging in the UK – Applying behavioural insights to reduce fraud, error and debt.

5. Great little post by Tim Harford on how Nudging is proving to be a credible tool in behaviour change. I wrote something earlier in defence of nudging. While it’s not the silver bullet, we should consider it as one of the many useful ways we can shift behaviour.

6. A wonderful post on one of the best print ads you’re likely to read all year. A wonderful mix of genuine insight, strategy and creative, working together to get people to act. You won’t be disappointed.

7. The power of “perceived” social norms – or why Facebook might be making us sad.

8. Huffington Post on the The Secret to Pinterest’s success – we’re sick of each other. Much like Tumblr I think, although a much smarter interface.

9. Simple reminder here that behaviour change is about “shrinking the change” – and this opens up an entire variety of solutions beyond the individual – from our environment to the people surrounding us.

10. The world’s 50 most innovative companies via Fast Company. Clearly they understand a few things about people and behaviour change.

11. A recent study demonstrating that Pot smokers are twice as likely to have car accidents. Are we doing enough to change behaviour on this issue?  The human cost must be significant.

12. An impressive graph demonstrating the crazy growth of Apple devices – another reason why it really is a mug’s game trying to predict the future. Unless of course your Apple, although they are really in the business of making the future rather than predicting it. There’s a difference.

13. Exercise labels on food – a truly wonderful idea. 1 can of cola = 1 hour’s run. You can just imagine the backlash from the food industry…because we know it would work.

14. The challenge for introverts in a world rallying around groupthink. Great piece on why brainstorming and groupthink is not as effective as many might think. Balance is the word I think.

15. Beautiful and emotional work by Mercedes. A great reminder that when communicating product features, we needn’t just focus on the rational.

16. Finally, for something a little bit light and irresistiblyhappy on this Sunday Morning

Poetry of change

One idea that caught my eye over the last week was this series of Haiku traffic warning signs out of NYC. Created by Artist John Morse and posted by the NYC Department of Transportation, these signs have started appearing on poles across five different boroughs within the city. They were also placed close to schools and cultural institutions (presumably museums, art galleries etc).

I found this idea both intriguing and timely given that I’m currently reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Much of his focus is on what he terms System 1 and System 2, and how they work to inform the decisions we make. System 1 is essentially automatic and operates with little effort, while system two is more deliberate and controlled. We mostly rely on System 1 for daily decisions, while System 2 can be lazy at times. This means that many of the impressions and feelings it holds are informed by System 1.

While traffic signs generally focus on simple and visual messages that are universally understood, it also means that they can blend in and become part of everyday life, especially when targeting daily commuter traffic. In a way, they almost cease to exist after a while. However, these Haiku signs do an interesting job of shifting us out of the habits of System 1, as we make our way to and from work. These signs make us think – not too much, but just enough. The efficient and unique combination of words that we find in poetry means that we’re intrigued enough to want to read on and figure the story out. And of course, there’s a rhythm to Haiku that draws us in. It’s also an incredibly visual art form, painting a powerful picture.







“Poetry has a lot of power. If you say to people: ‘Walk.’ ‘Don’t walk.’ Or, ‘Look both ways.’ If you tweak it just a bit – and poetry does that – the device gives these simple words power.” – John Morse.

You can hear more of John Morse’s interview with NPR’s Scott Simon here.

While I’m not suggesting this approach should replace the power of simple and effective road and traffic signage, in combination, I think it’s a unique and interesting approach. It’s part of the many new and inspiring alternatives that are focused on driving behaviour change out in the real world. Bravo to NYC.