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As an analytical person, I like to think that facts, verifiable, provable, concrete facts, matter. As a communications professional, I understand that facts aren’t the only thing that matter. I know that emotion plays an equal, if not more important, role when it comes to communicating with people. So, when I came across Dr. Tiffany Manuel, whose research basically says that same thing and provides examples of how to understand this phenomenon and use it to better motivate people to act, I was fascinated. I watched videos of her speaking and read the articles she wrote. After all my reading and viewing, here are three takeaways you can apply when you are refining your nonprofit’s message and want to drive people to action.

1. Focusing on the wrong thing can backfire

Let’s says you want to talk about affordable housing. If you focus on the negative impacts and talk about how low-income people are forced to spend too much on housing, your audience can dismiss those individuals in multiple ways. Dr. Manuel refers to this as backfiring. By focusing only on the negative, your audience can dismiss low-income individuals and families as poor decision makers, as someone who should take responsibility and work harder to be a higher earner, as generally “not me” or as someone who should move and live somewhere more affordable. Make sure you’re framing your nonprofit’s message in a way that limits backfiring by focusing on how it affects everyone, including your audience.

Don't let your nonprofit's message backfire

2. Frame facts from a systems or structural point of view to avoid backfire

Make facts feel more universal, more connected to something every person encounters, regardless of their social position or income. This can make people feel like the problem is one they share and thus makes it more difficult for it to backfire. For the housing example, you could talk about how everyone is facing challenging times related to housing. Make sure that people feel they have a stake in the topic and that if the system is better everyone will benefit. When people start to believe there are finite resources and they’ll have to give up what they have to benefit others, they go into scarcity mode and fight to keep the status quo to prevent losing what they have. That’s the opposite of what you want. Instead, uncover the underlying system. Talk about the system in a way that is relatable to your audience personally, not in an abstract way. Then, they’re much more likely to take action.

3. Use data to anchor your case in solutions, not problems.

People can get burned out on bad news pretty quickly, so talking to them about how many people are homeless or how many people are obese can make their hearts and brains turn off and tune out. Make sure this isn’t happening with your nonprofit’s message. Instead, lead with a focus on the solution and keep the focus there. Use your data to support those positive solutions. Instead of saying how many people are obese, talk about how many parks we need to build to make sure children have a safe place to play and to get healthy exercise. Again, focus on how the system needs to change, in a way that everyone can connect with. Doesn’t everyone want a nice park in their neighborhood?

Thinking about data, science and communications always gets me fired up. Dr. Manuel goes deep into the topics of how to frame data and your nonprofit’s message to move audiences to act. If these are topics that interest you, look up Dr. Manuel and read more about her suggestions for anchoring the case for your nonprofit in aspirations and optimism for the future.

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