The psychology of engagement and motivation

Published 20 Dec 2013 

In October Phillip Adams had Simran Sethi on Late Night Live to discuss communicating climate change and food security. The audio is here (I recommend it over the TED video).

She's 2013 - 2014 William Gamble Fellow at the University of Melbourne; a journalist, strategist and educator; senior communications advisor to the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, USA, and sustainability advisor to the Adahan group in Istanbul, Turkey.

Her thoughts on the psychology of engagement and motivation are very relevant to our work I thought. 

I found them summarized on the Digital Naturalist website:

1. We are not as evolved as we think we are.

We humans are operating with the same brain that our cavemen ancestors were born with. Even though we have access to so much more information and have the ability to travel across the world, even though we attend universities and every day come into contact with a diverse array of cultures and peoples, we still process information the same way that we did back when we were cavemen.

As Simran puts it, “The way we engage in the world is not because we are stupid or lazy, and it's not because we don't care. There's only so much that our brains can handle. So the key for us is to figure out how to tell stories in a way that connects to our two-thousand year old green brain.”

2. There are some things that we all have in common.

While this information overload might seem to be bad news for storytellers looking to get our messages heard, it's actually good news. If all humans have the same cavemen brains, that means there are certain things that we will always have in common. Such as: caring for and wanting to protect the safety and well-being of our families, appreciation for food, the need for shelter and a sense of community and belonging.

As storytellers, we can always begin with and come back to these truths of the human condition to be sure that our audience walks away with something relevant. When shaping your story, no matter what the issue, it's helpful to ask how you're relating to and appealing to these basic human needs, which we all understand.

3. Facts won't cut it.

According to the psychological research that Simran explores in her talk, facts and information do surprisingly little to sway people's opinions. We tend to filter information based on our previous experiences. If we hear a fact that fits with our existing worldview, we'll pay attention. If not, we'll ignore it.

A video that relies on facts alone will do little to engage an audience. Instead, we need to draw people in with a story, to convey an experience as well as information.

4. The messenger matters.

We trust people who seem to be like us. This means that we'll often only pay attention to information that comes from people who seem to share our existing worldview, and who are accepted by our community and the people we trust. According to Simran, this explains why An Inconvenient Truth was so effective in engaging people who already trusted Al Gore, but did much less to convince those on the other side of the political spectrum.

If you're trying to reach a certain demographic of people, choose a narrator or a main character that is familiar to or respected by that group. When writing narration and titles, keep in mind what language and wording your target audience will respond to.

5. We have a finite pool of worry.

Physiologically, our brains can only hold so much. No matter how frightening an issue might be, we will not be able to care about it if our minds are occupied with other, more immediate concerns.

The best bet for convincing anyone that a cause is worth caring about is to relate it to a concern that they already have. For example, Simran speaks about her neighbor in Kansas who is a climate change skeptic. While this man may not have time to worry about polar bears on melting ice floes in the arctic, he does care greatly about the asthma his daughter has as a result of the local coal plant. An effective conversation about climate change would start there, with his existing concern.

6. Humans respond to 4 kinds of threats.

According to Simran, our brains will only respond to threats that are 1. instantaneous, 2. imminent, 3. personalized, or 4. in some way repulsive to us.

In order to reach people who already have a lot on their minds, we need to find examples that hit closer to home and within our immediate futures, that more obviously impact our ability to lead our daily lives. If you are trying to galvanize a specific community, you'll want to start by finding out which concerns are most pressing to them in their daily lives, and communicate the issue through that lens.

And in order to make a threat or an issue rise to the surface and be acted on, we need to tap into our audience's emotions, to help them feel that information is immediate and important. First, we need to make sure that the story relates to a universal human care (see Lesson #2), and is told through compelling characters (see Lesson #9). Once these basic building blocks are in place, we can also use music to drop our audience into the right frame of mind to experience the emotions we're going for.

7. “We start to desensitize after magnitudes of one.”

It makes sense: we care most about those who are suffering when we can place ourselves in their shoes, and that's hard to do when we're considering vast numbers instead of one individual's experience.

Pick one main character with one main question, and build your story from there.

8. We are relational.

According to Simran, we are storytelling animals. We make meaning out of hearing other people relate their experiences, and by retelling our own. Above all, we are curious about each other and want to be reminded that we are part of a community, that we have the power to impact the people around us.

There is nothing that engages us more than a well-developed character. Make sure that your characters are strong: delve into their backstories and highlight the questions they are struggling with at this particular point in time. Show us how they have grown and changed, and how they interact with those around them.

9. Before we speak, write, direct or produce, we must begin by listening.

We are best at communicating about issues when we understand the hopes, cares, and needs of the people we are speaking to. We won't get anywhere by feeding people information or overloading people with more worries that they can handle. But if we talk to each other, if we ask questions about what concerns affect our audience most and actually listen to the responses, we can't help but speak directly to their cares and interests.

The word storyteller emphasizes “telling,” but in order to be effective we really have to be professional listeners. Even if we think we know the issue that we are communicating about, we still need to begin by researching, by formulating questions, and by remaining open to telling a story that's slightly different than the one we thought we were setting out to tell. Rather than presenting quick-fixes and easy answers, it's sometimes much more powerful to spark questions that will continue a dialogue and encourage an audience to keep thinking long after they leave the theater.