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Principles for Promoting Social Change



Show others who you are and learn about their concerns.

Traits. The personal qualities you possess will influence the reception of your message by those in your audience. For example, a church elder once spoke about her lesbian granddaughter. The elder was able evoke a positive response in the audience by virtue of her positive reputation amongst the members. Oftentimes this is not the case and the person delivering the message may not be well-known by the people whose attitudes s/he is trying to influence. There is much that can be done, however, to increase the chances that even a total stranger can have a positive influence on the message.

One effective means is by eye-witness testimony or the testimony of personal experience. For instance, individual reports from the People-to-People visits to Russia or the Witness for Peace missions evokes higher audience credibility and receptiveness to the message. This method may be able to change deeply-held prejudices more than statements based exclusively on academic research or a personal moral philosophy.

Commonality With Your Audience. New ideas are more likely to be heard when delivered by people who seem similar to the listening audience . Is the speaker on hazardous waste another union person like themselves? Does the Mothers Against Drunk Driving representative dress like the other women in the church group?

Also, people listen more openly to a speaker who can clearly and positively connect with them. When you are setting up your Bosnia slide show, do you verbally express appreciation for people's willingness to come out on a work night or in the cold weather? Do you commiserate about the traffic detour everyone had to come through that evening? Do you show your appreciation to the person who finds the electrical outlet for you? All of these little touches can make a big difference in winning trust for your message.

Actions Speak Louder than Words. Your actions and behavior must correspond with your message in order for people to take you and your message seriously. Saying "we're alike" or "we're all in this together" while dressing in a way that marks you as distinctly different from your audience, weakens your message. Defining yourself as 'non-violent' but losing your temper uncontrollably in a debate lessens your credibility. Preaching multi-culturalism and respect for diversity while drawing all your literary and musical references from Western-European "classics" can not help but raise question marks. Your actions also need to match your words to keep your organization strong and growing. During the civil rights movement, many groups that claimed to be for "justice for all" lost a key source of support when female members in the group found themselves being treated like second class citizens. Similarly, many "democratic" unions lost membership when rank-and-file members felt ignored by "union machines."

Finally, be sure participants are morally comfortable with the means your group has chosen to fulfill an end. If volunteers see people fudging figures to make a more dramatic leaflet or making deals to gain electoral allies, they may begin to feel ambivalent, if not indignant, to your, and any other efforts of social change. Also, if too much of your budget goes to buildings, administration, and funding appeals rather than to the people in need or the issue at hand, then volunteers may forsake your effort.

Appeal. Appealing to the concerns of your audience by connecting your issues with those of your listeners can be done directly or indirectly. The National Priorities Project is an excellent example of a direct connection. It makes a point of illustrating that any small town can obtain information on the large amount of dollars it pays into federal tax coffers for the military. Compared to this amount, however, this small town can also obtain figures on the relatively smaller amount the town receives in return for social and community services. Services that could have markedly affected the well-being of the community, like schools, the police, or hospitals, are oftentimes unsuspectingly misappropriated to other national "priorities." The project took the process one step further and reframed the popular perception that defense taxes are needed for our security and then posed the question: "What really brings security to a community?" Emphasize, specifically, those needs your town or city has not met, but could have with finances now going towards military concerns.

Also, tying your message into community values or bringing your message "home" is a way to connect your issue to the interests of those you are trying to reach. Greenpeace, for example, knows that their audience is concerned with the neighborhood toxic waste issue and has thus connected these community concerns to efforts opposing French nuclear testing in Tahiti.

Strategy. Besides showing your audience the personal benefits gained by adopting your position and appealing to their needs, determine whether there are forces or factors reinforcing their current (perhaps contrary) attitudes. If there are, use what means you can to counteract them. What are the reasons for their current position? If you can devise ways to invalidate those other appeals, your position will be strengthened.

Refuse to treat an "enemy" as s/he is treating you. One of the most powerful images of the civil rights movement is the young people at the Woolworth's department store quietly and respectfully maintaining their sit-in at the counter while hate-filled adults poured ketchup and other products on their heads. Similarly, police are often pleasantly intrigued when groups engaging in civil disobedience share all their plans in advance and show an eagerness to work with, rather that against, the officers.

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The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues / / last updated May 10, 2000