The role of emotion in advocacy and communications

Like over 26 million other people (!) I was moved by the latest beauty-is-more-than-skin-deep salvo from Dove. Their wildly popular video, “Real Beauty Sketches,” compares women’s descriptions of themselves to descriptions given by relative strangers. The video doesn’t push Dove products very hard, but it certainly burnishes the brand as caring about their customer’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Selling is a lot about trust — and Dove seems to build trust very, very well.

The video, and the ensuing chatter (mostly positive, some negative), provoked a range of thoughts from me both on a personal and professional level. My biggest takeaway on a professional level is how important it is to appeal to people’s emotions in order to create positive change. For a non-profit advocacy organization, being influential and winning people over to your view takes likability, a compelling argument and good timing. And quite frankly, I think likability comes first. How do we determine likability? With our emotions.

An area where non-profits seem to have the emotional bit down pat is fundraising (“your $5 can end the tragic injustice in Burma!). Softly-lit photos of smiling Tanzanian school girls or (worst-case scenario) suffering Somali babies fill our mail boxes, appealing for funds. Indeed sometimes I tune out these appeals because they’re so emotional (or because they’re exploitative, as in the Somali babies case!).

On the other hand, many non-profits can’t seem to translate their emotional savvy into their policy and advocacy. I have witnessed too many seasoned policy advisors and lobbyists alienate their targets — government officials, donors, UN representatives — because they’re so emotionless. Some people think jargon is a sign of professionalism and they should be dour at all times because that gets them respect with the suits. But if the suit thinks you’re a self-important bore, will he open his ears to you at the coffee table during the conference break? Probably not.

I’m not saying ditch the complex policy prescriptions and research reports and only talk about the “desperate race for survival” and “starving children”. But if your delivery system for your wonderfully researched, complex report fails to appeal to people’s basic emotions, or even their most basic liking for you as a person, all your hard work is going to waste.

And now I’ll end this post here so I can run out and buy some Dove shampoo.

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