What do you want to build?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Buckminster Fuller

WOO HOO YEAH YEAH! is that incredible feeling when you change the world for the better — and you love doing it. Joyful. Inspired. Determined. Hopeful. Alive.

We are a creative campaigns & communications collective.  Working together with you, we can help bring to life exciting, beautiful new projects that build a better world — and empower people to be part of it.

What kind of work do we do?

Narrative, storytelling and messaging
Campaign strategy and tactics
Design and branding
Digital apps, video and social media

Interested?  We’d love to talk.

Cinema screen

Building moviements? Lights, camera, activism

Oxfam email promoting the Emperor's New ClothesThe amazing Selma recently inspired millions.  Oxfam just teamed up with The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Now David Puttnam is making a film about Greenpeace activists being arrested in the Arctic.

It’s good, but isn’t this just the tip of the iceberg?  Don’t movies and campaign movements have the potential to be a great love story of our times…

The lives of others (how we all want to be ________)

Close your eyes for a second and remember back to the last film you loved.  I mean really loved.  How did you feel?  Inspired, moved, thrilled, terrified, elated, electrified?  All that and more?!

It’s not for nothing that films have such a central and enduring place in our culture.  While our attention spans get less and less and culture gets more and more bite-sized, what else will captivate us regularly, voluntarily for two hours or more at a time?

Spiderman

Growing up I wanted to be Spiderman for his amazing powers and the fun of catapaulting round a city, Batman for his dark, dangerous courage and inventiveness, Han Solo for his wry humour and devil-may-care swagger.  Walking out at the end of Selma more recently I wanted to be Martin Luther King for his bravery, leadership, determination and soaring words.

Films call us to adventure.  They show heroism, great battles, love winning out.  Oceans, galaxies and relationships navigated.  Men and (not often enough) women bravely being their true, full selves.  Transcending desire for safety, power and status and reaching for values that balance care for others and the world around them.

It just so happens, that’s exactly what social causes are trying to do too.

At their best, at their finest, their core, we want to build socially conscious movements of inspired, determined people who believe that against the odds they can change the world — and who see that through to action.  We want people who will live the stories told in films.

Han Solo and Chewbacca

Others have already seen the power of this.

Greenpeace’s VW Darkside campaign tapped brilliantly into Star Wars.  It drove half a million people to begin to see themselves as Jedis and act as a result, helping persuade the carmaker to reform its ways on its environmental practices.  So little needed to be explained: knowing you’re fighting Darth Vader’s VW Death Star tapped into a great big, bulging vein of passion in many people.  It’s an epic battle.  You feel in your heart whose side you’re on.  You feel part of a story bigger than you, that inspires every step you take.

(While not about a movie per se, the Robin Hood Tax campaign is also worth an important mention as it tapped very powerfully into one of the few popular folk stories we have that’s as well known as films.  And the short films around it, featuring film stars Bill Nighy, Ben Kingsley and others as Robin-Hood-esque-justice-seekers helped bring the myth to life for a modern audience.)

Now contrast this with most cause campaigns we’ve all seen (or created).

Donating might be a quick way to feel you helped.  A petition might be good as an instant way to stop something you care about.  Sharing today’s news story on Facebook helps raise awareness a bit.  Explaining the ins and outs of a new law might help educate people.

But how often is people’s involvement fleeting and transactional?  How often do important causes struggle to build really active movements, make them feel part of something vitally important, and inspire them time and again to take action?  Wouldn’t you love people to feel what they feel from a film?

Rebels without a cause

Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. - The Hunger Games

The big, delicious sweet spot starting point here is that many films already tell stories about people called to be heroes fighting for justice against the powerful (which is basically the story of most campaigns!)

This includes many movies which are fictional stories — many great movies embody stories about social causes.  Here’s just a few for starters, a mix of recent and some oldies:

Erin Brockovich posterThe Hunger Games — food scarcity and abuse of state power
The Truman Show — dangers of video surveillance and media intrusion
22 Jump Street — drug dealers’ power over young people
Erin Brockovich — corporate power, environmental crime and public health, women’s equality in the workplace
Batman, Spiderman, Superman and other superheroes — crime and citizenship
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — racism (surely that’s what it’s really about?), killing of animals, militarisation, conflict resolution
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? — police brutality
Veronica Mars — corporate and police corruption
Indiana Jones — preservation of historial artefacts, fascism
Mad Max — environmental catastrophe
Good Will Hunting — child abuse, educational opportunities for young people from poorer communities

The more you look, the more you’ll see the examples are legion.  (Some have even made the connection between Saw VI and health insurance!)

Beyond Thunderdome (well, beyond the cinema / TV / Netflix…)

So if you’re in the film industry, what’s the benefit to you?  Why go to the effort of integrating a campaign for real change with your film?

In an ever-busier world of advertising and social media, film producers and promoters must be looking for more ways to extend people’s interaction with — and sharing of — their movies.

Cinime

Cinema chains are definitely looking for other ways to increase interaction with people beyond the beginning and end credits.  While working on Scope’s End the Awkward campaign we trialled using the Cinime app to engage people via mobile while they were seeing our campaign films on the big screen.  It’s fledgling technology, and mostly aimed at increasing the value for cinema advertisers, but it points the way towards greater off-screen interactivity.

Imagine instead of some boring end credits, as the lights come up on the big screen there’s an invitation to continue the film’s story — be your own Veronica Mars or a modern-day MLK.  It’ll probably need to start online via your mobile but could go far beyond.  Imagine the power to fire up millions of people to do good and to keep talking about that film days, weeks and months after they’ve left the cinema.

Martin Luther King

There’s big potential on the small screen too.  Netflix (and other similar services) are usually surprisingly uninteresting when you get to the end of a film.  “You might also like these movies…”  But I’ve just been watching for two hours!  Maybe I want to do something different.  Maybe I’m jumping around my living room — feeling like I’m Jim Gordon in Gotham and I want to go on fighting crime, or Bond in Quantum of Solace and I’d like to stop some environment-destroying oil villains — and I want to carry on the story.  Deepen my experience.  Let me live that hero.  Let me love your platform more.

It would be a great differentiator for any film or series, but also for any cinema chain or streaming service that did this.  And it would be a cure for the complete disloyalty I and surely many others feel looking for movies online: I’ll shop around at Netflix, Google Play, Blinkbox, Amazon, iTunes searching for where the thing I want is a) available and b) cheapest.  Only the subscription fee I’m paying makes me stop in at Netflix first, which is hardly a great endorsement.  How could these platforms stand out more from each other?  By what else they offer — of which great, enjoyable, involving and socially conscious campaigns could be a part.

Integrating a social cause campaign would also make a cinema release stand out from so many others.  Look at what The Dark Knight did with this brilliant transmedia campaign — granted, it wasn’t about social activism, but it was a game-like campaign engaging people outside the cinema.  It’s a short hop, skip and a jump to turn this kind of idea into something that allows people to take action for good in society — either elaborate or simple.

(TV programmes of course have their own legion of possibilities, shorter production cycles so can be nimbler, and are intimately connected to popular culture including social issues — just look at Benefits Street as one example.  On-demand TV services like 4OD are increasingly interactive when it comes to the adverts — but really passive, except for the odd hashtag, when you get to the programme itself.  Surely a big opportunity there.  But that’s all for another blog about TV specifically!)

Funnily enough, social cause campaigns could also be a relatively cheap way for movie promoters to reach bigger audiences.  Marketing budgets for films are soaring and can be as much as 70% of ticket sales.  (TV networks are spending increasingly large amounts too — I’m reliably informed Sky spent more on marketing The Enfield Haunting than actually making it!)  Social causes are used to creating inventive campaigns on modest budgets (we can help!) and these kinds of campaigns are inherently shareable talking points when done well — generating conversation, social media and earned media coverage in a way that could really add to what film promoters do at the moment.

Surely it’s all a big win-win?

Rocky?

Of course it isn’t quite as simple as all that.  The relationship between films and campaigns isn’t necessarily a natural one, and there are potentially some big — but I feel not unleapable — hurdles.

Rupert Murdoch 20th Century Fox

If you’re a social justice campaigner reading this, you might have a really fundamental question about whether the fit is right at all:  Aren’t many commercial films actually a way of telling stories about liberation from oppression while leaving people essentially passive and powerless?

We pay for entertainment from big, bad media corporations like 20th Century Fox owned by Rupert Murdoch or stream online from tax-dodgers Amazon.  We sit immobile in a seat, fattening ourselves up even more on sugary food and drinks, feeling like bad guys have been fought and the heroes have won — but leave just as disempowered as before.  Are we outsourcing our conscience and our heroism?  Are movies the biggest trick we play on ourselves?  Like Keanu Reeves’s character discovers in the Matrix, are we lying there vegetating while our brains are conned into thinking we’re really living?

The Matrix

At the dark end of the spectrum, there is truth here.  The movie industry, especially Hollywood, is a big corporate machine that doesn’t necessarily want active, empowered citizens.  Will they really want us to take the red pill?

Movie studios may feel allergic to the idea of being ‘political’ — especially if they worry it could dent profits.  And the film industry is still largely controlled by white middle-class men who (whether they realise it or not) may not want their world rocked too hard.  Or who at the least aren’t representative, don’t understand different people’s lives and struggles and will ignore, simplify, dilute or change the truth.

Blue pill, red pill

But remember back for a second to the magic you felt about that film you loved.  That stirring in our souls is undeniable.

I believe the power of film is so important that we can and must overcome these challenges.  And I believe there are many people working in film and in social causes who can cross the bridges to make it happen.  Surely our movie heroes would if they were here?

There’s also a cautionary tale that whether or not filmmakers embrace social justice, their audiences will.  Good causes are already reappropriating films that aren’t true to their story: look at what Greenpeace did using a parody of The Lego Movie as the centrepiece of their campaign, to try to get the toy-maker to end their relationship with Shell (very ironic of course as Lego’s film itself was meant to be about escaping corporate power and propaganda!)  As remix culture grows and grows, film studios will find it harder to tell inauthentic stories as people call them out with their own re-edited works on social media.

Not just back — to the future

Where films and social movements already meet it’s most commonly about documenting the past, like the brilliant Erin Brockovich, Malcolm X, Pride, Inside Job, Gandhi and Made in Dagenham amongst others. They have a really important place in documenting our shared history which so often leaves out people’s struggles.

But where it gets even more exciting for film-campaign collaborations, is that they don’t have to stop at what’s already in production.  Social issues themselves are ripe territory for great new films to be built around.

These are just a few of the many potentially captivating stories:

Inequality — the big gap between rich and poor and how people can fight back, see Gladiator, Robin Hood

TTIPshadowy plot by evil corporations to take more power over society, echoes of Secret State, The Insider

Scrapping the Human Rights Act — the slippery slope of government trying to take away people’s rights, check out V for Vendetta, The Last King Of Scotland

Immigration and intolerance — see Last of the Mohicans and Elysium

Corporate media power — e.g. major media outlets like the Telegraph and radio networks not covering HSBC tax avoidance, not a million miles from Tomorrow Never Dies

Climate change and environmental destructionErin Brockovich, Mad Max

And so much more.  Years of amazing films to be made about the great causes of our time.

(Practical point: I know there’s a timing challenge that some campaign issues spring up quickly while films can take years to get made.  But we can pretty confidently predict many things will still be big issues in the future.  And maybe where we need films and social issues to work together most is on the hardest, most long-term challenges like climate change, inequality and corporate power?)

Cinema screen

Coming soon?

This was just a trailer for what could be.

Have you been involved in a film-campaign collaboration you can share?  Or interested in creating one?

Please leave a comment below or get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

Why people watch the 100 metres, take part in marathons… and gasp at bungee jumps

Bungee jumper

Early spoiler: this isn’t actually a blog about sport or actual jumps from on high.

It’s about the thrill and unexpected wins of other varieties of risky participatory races like crowdfunders — and why I’d recommend a more no-fear approach to many more organisations in working for social or political change.

Yes?

My first Woo Hoo Yeah Yeah! project is a collaboration with No One Ever Told Me About Politics, a group of volunteers I’m also part of.  We’re trying to open up politics to people in their 20s and 30s — the ‘forgotten generation’ who are young enough to want something a league beyond today’s politics (it’s people our age who have done gamechanging things like inventing Facebook and sparking the Arab Spring) but mostly aren’t reached by youth political engagement initiatives (usually targeted at 16- or 18-24 year olds).

We’ve just had some fantastic success with our (and my) first crowdfunder — for a new app called Ask Amy.  It’s designed to respond to the big slice of people our age, more than 6 out of 10, who want to know more about politics — but don’t know where to turn for info that’s engaging, impartial and where they don’t have to worry about feeling stupid.  You can send Amy (who’s in fact a virtual person we’ve created with artificial intelligence) any question about politics, she’ll send you an answer right back.  (There’s more here if you’d like to find out more or see the prototype in action.)

Sounds like a great idea?  Sounds like a rubbish idea?  When I made the demo of the app, some of the people we showed it to loved it.  Some liked it but weren’t sure.  Some didn’t email me back (maybe they were nonplussed — or just had better things to do!)

I felt we were probably on to something, yet was aware we really needed money behind us to develop it.  But ours is a fairly new, loose group of volunteers — busy people with limited time to source donations, and no money at our fingertips already nor an established track record to go out to traditional funders for an unusual tech-meets-politics project.

At the same time, we couldn’t be certain of the levels of interest and support for Ask Amy.  Should we really be pursuing it at all or were the supportive people just being nice?  It was a relatively unusual intervention in the politics space, so did people really understand it even?

Think on it — or do it?

In more traditional organisations where I’ve worked in the past, the typical responses to a situation like this — uncertain demand and uncertain resourcing for a project — would probably be one or more of:

  • more investigation: research, focus groups, user testing
  • more meetings: discuss it and discuss it, probably bouncing it around different levels of management but with it being unlikely anyone will stick their neck out and support it
  • keep it hidden: don’t show something uncertain to the outside world, our reputation is built on strength and certainty not vulnerability and possible failure
  • eventually make a decision – or postpone a decision – but do it ourselves internally

These aren’t all bad responses.  But they’re not necessarily the right ones either.

What if you just don’t know if you’ll succeed?  What if you can’t know how something will be received in the outside world — especially something innovative and unusual you haven’t done before?  And what if you don’t have the resources for extensive testing and focus groups?

Too often I’ve seen potentially great ideas die at this stage because of the avoidance of risk.  What I feel I’m increasingly learning is the big upside to embracing risk and vulnerability.

We resolved to put more thinking on ice — and go do instead.

Two birds, one stone, little time, no fear, lots of chutzpah

I’ve often seen crowdfunders and never done one — but a crowdfunder seemed the ideal way to kill two birds with one stone for us: both roadtest our idea with a wider audience and (if they liked it!) bring in the budget we needed.

Now, people start crowdfunders all the time of course — we aren’t unique.  You might be thinking there’s nothing that impressive in our approach.

But in the charity and politics spheres I’d say crowdfunders are still relatively rare.  What’s in even shorter supply is a culture of risk-taking, collaboration and a fast-moving challenge is still by far the exception rather than the norm.

Coming from the world of charities and politics, it felt a little like a combination of a bungee jump (the unusually scary leap) and a 100m sprint (trying to achieve something ambitious in a very short space of time – no time to get it wrong and start again).

On top of this of course, as someone who was putting their idea out on the line, and with this being the first project for my Woo Hoo Yeah Yeah! start-up, I was nailbitingly nervous as any creator and founder would be.

But why not go for it?  Get ready all you can, then when the starting gun fires… go!

Sprinters

Races excite, marathons invite — and bungee jumpers have a cord of course

I won’t go blow by blow into our crowdfunder and how we did it — crowdfunder tips are well-worn territory.  We largely followed the playbook learnt from others (this and this are two of the best sets of tips I found, the Crowdfunder.co.uk team were also a brilliant help).  We put in a lot of energy and elbow grease… and crossed our fingers.

What I feel is much more interesting is what’s really good about trying a potentially risky approach, like a crowdfunder or anything else where you open up your vulnerabilities and cede power to others.

If you’re a social entrepreneur then this kind of it try-it-and-see mentality is much more common — but why don’t more people working on social and political change initiatives act like social entrepreneurs too?  Here are just a few of the benefits I found:

It’s exciting, thrilling even: putting something out there and not knowing if it’ll succeed or not.  Isn’t that how we want to feel in our work?  I appreciate the value of a secure plan as much as the next person, but it isn’t necessarily the answer.  Like going for gold in the 100 metres at the Olympics, the short timeframe of crowdfunders and the all-or-nothing setup of most crowdfunder sites increases the adrenaline no end.  It’s the same for anything ambitious that stretches you out of your existing comfort zone.

It attracts others: people love watching daredevil stunts — bungee jumps, crowdfunders and other risky activities are inherently eyegrabbing.  People love to see the uncertainty and the outcome of whether you’ll succeed or fail (be honest, haven’t you ever launched a project that’s just so boring by the time it’s out in the open because it’s been made so safe?).  That’s true of the people you reach out to in a collaborative attempt like a crowdfunder but the media too: off the back of ours we got coverage from BBC TV, the Metro and other local press.

You fuse other people into it:  by changing up the power dynamics of your project — making people the ultimate deciders of your fate, showing vulnerability and risking failure — people feel much more for what you’re doing (one of the best things was seeing people sending in messages after we succeeded, they were even more excited than me!).  It’s more human, less ego, more open, less 20th century, more 21st.  Like a marathon, it’s the runners who make it and it’s amazing for the people watching or taking part seeing many others being part of something.  It helped fuse us more as a team of volunteers organising it too, all pulling together fast and energetically and vulnerably.

It’s a great test of your idea.  Of course I’m writing this having succeeded with our crowdfunder.  What if it had failed?  Right up until the last couple of days of our crowdfunder I truly didn’t know if we would get there.  But you always have a bungee cord, you bounce back: if we hadn’t succeeded it would have been a great learning that there just wasn’t sufficient support for our project — that’s invaluable feedback from the crowd.  And I feel that people also respect the trying: of course you don’t want to fail every time, but put yourself out there on the line and a lot of people respond well even if it doesn’t come off for you every time.  You build a lot of trust too.

Step outside your comfort zone

Risk and fail and succeed bigger

There are much bigger risks you can take than the ones we did — it’s not the most adventurous thing ever, but a step in the right direction.

More than anything, I hope by talking about risks, vulnerability and what’s fabulous about them, I hope it helps inspire you to travel that road further.

See you there.

Communicating climate change: are we *that* kind of “friend”?

When I was a teenager in Luton, I did something for a friend that I thought was noble… but which ended up only distancing us. Are there important lessons from this kind of experience for the future of climate change communication?

From a nightclub in Luton to global meltdown…

image

So what happened?  It’s quite simple really — but it also isn’t.

My girlfriend at the time thought she saw the girlfriend of one of my best friends snogging another guy.  It was at ‘the Zone’, the club of choice (or rather lack of choice) in Luton when you were underage and wanted to drink and dance and (if the stars/Hooch aligned right) meet someone.

But I digress.  This isn’t really a story about Luton’s nightlife (although wouldn’t that make a good Irvine-Welsh-comes-down-the-M1 novel).  

It’s about: What do you do when you hear your friend is being cheated on?  What do you do with that kind of urgent, important news that impacts on someone else’s life?  

No-one else (apart from my girlfriend) seemed to know something was going on, so no-one else was going to tell my friend.  It was up to me to decide what to do, affecting someone I cared about.

So what did I do?  

I called up my friend, I told him what I knew.  I wanted to help him, not let him take the wrong path with this girl who — as far as I could tell — was leading him on.  I wanted to do the right thing.

His reaction?  

…Not what I’d hoped.  They didn’t break up as a result as he didn’t fully believe it or didn’t want to, so I hadn’t really helped, I’d just driven a wedge between us.  Despite what I’d thought we didn’t grow closer for me being a great mate who’d shared an important truth, in fact it chilled our friendship and was one of the early stages of a long-term drift apart.  Lose-lose.

Looking back, and in the hindsight of things that have happened since, I can see that I wasn’t just sharing information.  I was effectively challenging his choice of partner at the time, and as a result I was challenging him, triggering his own fears about their relationship and ultimately about his lovelife overall.  I’d inadvertently stabbed him in what was a fragile heart without even meaning to, when all he wanted and needed from me was the friendship and support to make his own mistakes.  I thought I knew best but I didn’t.  That’s hard to realise and to admit.

Thanks, but what’s all this got to do with climate change?

Hopefully you’re still reading at this point, and while of course I hope you have some sympathy with my late teenage self, that’s not the point of this.  It strikes me there are parallels with communicating climate change.

How to communicate climate issues better to the public has been on my mind for some time, and was reignited recently after hearing about the Thriving Planet Design Lab.  They’ve found 95% of people are disengaged from climate change as an issue and are looking to discover new ways of communicating environmental solutions.

Here’s where I feel there are some valuable parallels…

image

No-one wants to be told they’ve got it wrong.  Looking back at what I did, and looking at so much of how climate change is communicated today, it’s about telling people they’ve got it wrong.  If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll destroy the planet.  Even when the examples are specific, the message often is – or feels – like it’s about the overall lifestyle you’re leading.  Just like someone we’re going out with, we’re all attached to how we live our lives — which might include driving, flying and whacking the heating up without worrying about how much energy that’s using.  

But who wants to hear they’ve got it wrong?  No-one!  We all have an ego and we feel threatened or angered when someone tries to puncture it too sharply.  You might feel you have the most urgent information on Earth — whether it’s your mate’s girlfriend cheating or that there won’t be an Earth to speak of unless people change their behaviour — but it’s only that important for you; you can’t just foist it on someone else if they’re not ready.  By ramming it down someone’s throat, they’re just more likely to cough it straight back up again.

Especially from someone smug / sanctimonious / a bit of a bore.  My 17-year old self thought I was being noble, and that was certainly part of my intention.  But we can all — usually inadvertently — fall foul of being a bit holier-than-thou, and in retrospect I definitely had a dose of that going on (though it’s taken hindsight to see it).  I felt a bit pumped up and important knowing what I did.  When it comes to climate change, I’m not laying blame, I’ve met many people who care about environmental issues and they’re very largely good people (like all people!).  But smugness and sanctimoniousness are in the eye of the beholder, they don’t have to be intended.  How much do we think about how they’ll receive messages about climate change?

While we’re at it, who’s the best person to tell you something, especially something pretty major?  This is such an oft-repeated point that I’ll make it quickly.  For my teenage friend telling him about his girlfriend it wouldn’t be his teacher.  For telling people today about climate change it isn’t scientists.

image

Especially from someone who’s not living a life you’d love.  While we’re at it, let’s take on a harder truth… How are we the model for the life everyone should live?  What do you see when you see an environmentalist?  I’m not trying to make a trite point about crusties with dreadlocks (though god knows they’re not the people who are going to reach a One Show audience).  

What I mean is: have we really got it all sorted?  I’m concerned about the environment, have worked to further environmental causes, think about these kind of issues in my spare time and try to shape my life to some extent around them (though there’s lots more I could do).  But have I got life licked?  Not even close.  Am I happy?  Some of the time.  Am I wealthy enough to do the things I want in life?  No way.  Who am I — who are we — to tell the rest of the world how to act?  These are some of the fundamental questions we too often don’t stop to ask.  

We do have something valuable to bring to the world, but we’re muddling through life too and we’d do well to acknowledge it.  More importantly we mostly do not yet have a practical vision, that we’re actually living, of how people in Western societies can be happy, fulfilled and environmentally responsible.  If we did, people would be beating a path to live like us.  It’s a massive, massive gap.

Especially from someone you don’t even know.  Even though I was talking to a friend, I didn’t do a great job trying to get him to see something important I felt he needed to act on in his life.  And yet, every day there are organisations (I’ve worked for one and done it too) trying to tell the general public they’re making a massive mistake in how they lead their life and need to change.  Just stop and think about that for a moment, how presumptuous it is, how little of a relationship we’re starting from.  We’re trying to tell complete strangers they have to massively rethink their lives.  And we wonder why so few do.  Did we get to know them first?  Did we treat them like the amazing, wonderful people they are?  Did we try to understand what makes them tick, look beyond our differences and find what unites us?

image

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  This is the argument that’s been applied to the biggest possibilities in science — like nuclear weapons — and it’s as valid here.  Just because you have some vitally important information you’re dying to impart, and can go tell it, it doesn’t mean you should.  This is the hardest and most controversial lesson I could draw from my experience aged seventeen.  Maybe I shouldn’t have told my friend at all?  Maybe I should.  But either way, the experience of that — and the whole experience of how few people respond well to most climate change communications — should give big pause for thought.

My analogy doesn’t hold up — but to the person you’re speaking to, it kinda does.  You’re a smart person and you might have thought by now my story’s analogies are wearing thin.  In particular, in the case of my friend’s girlfriend her cheating only harmed him, whereas with climate change what someone else does also impacts on me — and billions of others around the world.  It’s a tragedy of the commons not a lovelife trifle, so it’s totally within my rights to scream and shout about it however I wish.  

Yes.  But… for the person you’re speaking to, I’d argue all the above points still ring true.  Just because you feel you have a moral imperative to tell them about the impending end of the world and how they have to stop driving an SUV, doesn’t increase your chances of success communicating.  At all.  In fact it probably only hampers you.  We need to turn our empathy dials up to 11 and tune into the people on the other side of the equation.  Urgently.

image

Hopes?

“Great,” you might be thinking, “another guy who’s written a negative blog about climate change campaigning.  It’s easy to criticise — much harder to create.”  If that is your inner monologue, I totally hear you.  I’m not writing this to snipe, I want to help.  Reflecting on the story that brought me to write this, here are some more hopeful thoughts.

Tread gently.  This seems completely counter-intuitive to communicating climate change.  When you’re faced with what seems like the most urgent threat to humankind and natural life, I know you don’t want to slow down.  But taking a step back from it, I feel that we need to tread gently and thoughtfully, seeing what effect (or none) we’re having on the people we’re trying to reach, feeling as we go and learning.  Otherwise we risk too easily being that “friend” — sanctimonious, shouty, presumptuous and ultimately neither effective nor actually a friend.

“Look at that gorgeous girl over there.”  In my day-job working on campaigns around disability, one of the emerging hopeful narratives has been the power of technology.  I’ve seen something similar on environmental issues too: the hope that we can invent our way out of the challenges we face.  As someone passionate about tech myself, I share some of this enthusiasm.  However, I feel it’s part of the mix not the heart of solution in itself, there’s not enough about the broader cultural and values change we need.  It’s the equivalent of helping my friend years back see there’s another girl he might fancy more instead, but it doesn’t get to the heart of what really happened in his relationship and his life, and what he might want that’s different in the future.

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“How are you?”  I increasingly feel the role of social change organisations — those who really want to engender deep, long-term, societal transformation (and who wouldn’t want that!🙂 — is to help people fulfil themselves first.  One of the big lessons from different religions and the wise people who inspire many of us, is that change starts from within.  (I’ll avoid quoting Gandhi in some clichéd way here, but hopefully you know what I’m getting at.)  When we do take that on-board, too often we rush in with our issue — but that’s not starting from within the person you’re talking to, it’s all about you.  

What if we looked at the fundamental things people want to change in their lives and how they want to become happier?  Imagine a nation, a world of more fulfilled people — where fewer had to deal with being unable to pay their bills, avoiding violence, working all hours (ironically, on a ‘zero hours’ contract) just to keep their heads above water?  Put it another way: if you’ve got those and many other things on your mind, how do you even have the headspace to think about far-off woes like climate change?  I know this would take ‘environmental organisations’ into a completely different space and so I don’t think this is ultimately, or at least not solely, their role.  But progressive organisations could do a lot more to join up their missions and come together in a common direction.  And there could be new models of movement that focussed on personal transformation first then linking through to societal change — Kiva and Avaaz, all rolled into one.  

In the example of my buddy years back, it would have been about seeing how he was first and foremost.  In my experience, you get cheated on (not that it’s happened to me much – I think/hope!) when the relationship isn’t happy, and you get into or stay in unhappy relationships when you aren’t happy yourself.  Being a great friend who listens and very patiently helps someone get happier — when and how they want to — by being there for them, is one of the most frustrating and best things you can do in life.

“Have you seen this scene?”  As I said above, ultimately if we want society to change I believe we need to create that change.  Create a life so awesome (and in tune with the Earth) that progressively more and more people will want to live it too.  There are loads of sparks of this, from community gardens growing veg for all with zero food miles to bikes replacing cars more and more in our cities.  There are people who are so much further along the path than I am and I admire them.  But as someone earning an above-average salary and without any kids depending on me, I still don’t know how my wife and I can live a full, free and enjoyable — and environmentally-friendly — life.  I can only wonder what it’s like if you don’t have the luxury of the same choices we have.

The campaigner in me (and maybe you) could say we need the kind of structural changes to business, our energy system and governance so that it doesn’t come down to individual action.  But I believe the only routes to that kind of change come from showing the change we want to see and/or building enough a groundswell to demand it — and I believe those start with a living vision of how we want the world to see.  We have to be able to touch and taste the transformation we’re looking for, and it’s got to feel freaking amazing.

What exactly is the vision we should be moving to?  I don’t know exactly.  The stories that have inspired me the most, and which feel like they have the most promise of changing real life on the ground and providing the model for systemic change, are about community (like the community energy project in the video above).  The pay-off is not just doing good for the environment, or even making environment/climate prominent on the tin, it’s about finding a new sense of community and having power over our own lives, both things that so few of us feel in a modern world but sorely wish for (irrespective of whether or not we’re passionate about environmental issues).  Is that the reality we can create and the new narrative we should be looking for?

The truth hurts

Part of what prompted me to write this blog now, was seeing a friend and pro-environmentalist post a gleeful cartoon (below) about fossil fuel addiction, based on the DABDA model of how people deal with grief.  

It’s meant to be lighthearted but to put it another way, it’s saying “you’ll find dealing with climate change as hard as a loved one dying — and I’m going to laugh at you for that, even relish it”.  

We have to much more compassionate, much more empathic than that — and we have to find new ways of communicating that aren’t about thrusting forward a painful truth.  Here’s to being the best we can be.

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5 things we can all learn from True Detective

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[Note: there are spoilers here about what happens in the show. Only read if you’ve already watched it. Or aren’t going to – but that’d be crazy.]

Were you as gripped by the dark and brilliant first season of True Detective?  Did it shake you, scare you, graze your soul just a little and throw you back into reality in the way only great works of art can — feeling like you can’t look at the world in quite the same way again.

Lots of people have written about why it’s so brilliant.  Here’s another take — some of the universal truths that come out of a gripping human story, brilliantly told.  We’re all part of it too: here’s why…

1.  We’re all fighting the Louisiana state PD, the church and the Governor’s family.

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I know, right?  Ok maybe we’re not taking on those people specifically, but lots of us find ourselves taking on institutions.  It might be as simple as trying to make change at work and running up against your employer’s aversion to risk.  Or it could be challenging a doctor’s decision.  Or trying to battle your way through any layer of government.

They’re not always intentionally corrupt, but apathy, inertia and yes corruption set into all large institutions.  How often have you encountered someone like Geraci (the sheriff they kidnap on the boat) who screams “I just followed the chain of command!”  How many organisations or institutions do you know who have shadowy power structures where a few people can get away with whatever they want?

2. We all have to meet up for a beer with the cop we used to work with and whose wife we slept with

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Yep, you know you’ve done it.  You follow Woody Harrelson’s car — even though he hasn’t seen you for years, since soon after you and his wife screwed.  You force him to go for a beer.  And you even make him pay for it.

We’ve all had to swallow the discomfort of speaking to someone we don’t get on with.  Hopefully they don’t threaten to beat you up, but you’ve still got to do something difficult.  You wronged them (even if not inviting someone to that work meeting isn’t as bad as marital infidelity), but you have to remind them there’s a higher cause at play and you both have to get over it.  Life’s not easy, but looking beyond grudges and committing to a more importance cause is some of the bravery we all need.

3. We all have to walk into a violent biker gang club sometimes

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Speaking of bravery, I bet you’ve had to do this.  You might have your best buddies, your best workmates, but you still have to step into terrifying situations together — and sometimes alone, relying on them to back you up.

Admittedly this mostly won’t lead to you heading off with some hell’s angels into the bayou then ending up in a fraught gang neighbourhood shoot-out and escape.  But if you’ve ever given a presentation at a conference, you too have a little of that feeling.

4.  We all get addicted to heroin and stare at the stars in Alaska

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Although you might not think it at first, we all have a bit of Matthew McConaughey’s character in us.  

We get so into what we’re doing that we do crazy addictive things and disappear into a darker place than we imagined.  I’ve done it myself – not heroin! – but getting massively absorbed in a project and thinking it’s the most important thing in the world, and drinking more than’s healthy to feed that addiction to the high you get from being so absorbed.

We also all have a philosopher, a dreamer in each of us.  That might not have meant you spent years staring up at the stars as you grew up in Alaska and didn’t have a TV.  But we all have the depths we see in the final scene, when Rust talks about the depths of death that nearly enveloped him while he was unconscious, and when he and natural cynic Marty stare up at the stars.  Remember a time you’ve lost a loved one – whether a break-up or a death – and you can feel it.  Ordinary life can let us forget that sometimes, but we all have a massive range of dark and light, and we need both.

5.  We have to fill everything we create with lingering shots of swamps

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This last one is a thought for all the creatives out there …which means you!  I believe we are all capable of amazing acts of creation, whether it’s music, art, a speech, a campaign, an article, an email, instagrams.

Whatever you do, do it completely.  True Detective reminded me of the power of a total creative vision.  It’s its own world – it looks, sounds, oozes that world from the first confusing and grotesque murder scene at a deserted tree to Rust’s near-bare apartment to the neverending swamps of the bayou.  It’s a feel of uncontrollable desolation and dark wildness that you believe only the darkly destructive power of the two heroes can take on.

Your next PowerPoint presentation might have a slightly different feel from that, but it can be as all-encompassing if you really go for it.  Anything we create can.  Though hopefully it won’t end with chasing a serial killer through the undergrowth of course…

A new story to strike out austerity

A new story to strike out austerity

It’s been an interesting week for new narratives on what’s happening in Britain.

Oxfam took time out of tackling poverty in Africa to tell us 2 million people in the UK will be officially poor by 2020, meanwhile it seems our attitudes towards benefits are surprisingly becoming more positive, yet not one but two campaigns launched to try to shift the benefit scrounger narrative we hear so much in the media and (in ever-so-slightly-different words) from politicians.

But what’s grabbed my attention more than anything is the New Economics Foundation’s new report Framing the economy: the austerity story.  Before I say anything else, I want to say well done.  It’s interesting, thoughtful, collaborative and it’s trying to do what so few on the Left do — go to a deeper level, learn how the Right are winning and try to do better.  It draws on really important insights into storytelling, frames and values.

The Right (is scarily great at communicating)
I’d definitely recommend reading the report.  There’s a good analysis of the brilliantly untrue-yet-convincing story the Right are telling about what’s wrong with our economy and why austerity’s the only cure (and sadly too many of the Labour party are reinforcing it).

Come on, you know it: “Britain’s broke, everyone knows you have to balance the household finances, we’ve maxed out our credit card, now we’ve got to be responsible and pay it back.  And it’s made worse by all those skivers addicted to benefits unlike us hardworking strivers.  We have to fix Labour’s mess, they should have made hay while the sun was shining.  Austerity’s a painful medicine but it’s necessary.”  Fear, fear, fear.  Cuts are the only answer, no alternative.

The Left (is rubbish…)
I won’t retell it all here, but they do a good job of summarising the main arguments being made against austerity and why they aren’t working.  (Spoiler: the Left is rubbish at telling simple, vivid, memorable stories that explain the world.  One of my favourite quotes in the whole report: “The right talks about people on benefits with ten children and a horse.  We talk about 85% taper rates.  My second favourite:  ”Where progressives are going wrong at the moment is only talking about what they’re against.”)

The Left (…there is hope)
The authors, Carys Afoko and Dan Vockins, take a good crack at a new story with better frames and values, something the Left could rally around.  There’s some good stuff in there (go on, read it if you haven’t by now), it’s a tough and brave thing to do, and they are humble about how big a challenge it is to get really right.

The casino economy idea is not bad and I’ve seen it before.  On a gut level it doesn’t work for me.  I don’t think it’s just that the casino in my hometown of Luton is one of the nicer places for a night out (even/especially if you don’t gamble), but casinos make me think of James Bond and Monte Carlo.  Casinos are cool at least in popular culture (I know how damaging they are socially and I’m not a fan, but we’re talking about popular perception – which is at least mixed as far as casinos are concerned).

The economy being somewhere we’re treading water right now didn’t work for me.  The idea’s coming from the right place — the idea we’re not going anywhere — but at a time when a lot of the news is about the country going up the spout, treading water doesn’t sound too bad and it’s certainly something I think most people would feel they could do comfortably for a while (it also makes me think of being in a swimming pool or in the sea which sounds quite nice).

Redividing people into the big guys and little guys makes sense — but also left me feeling powerless.  (I’m a little guy? Shit!  I’ve no chance to change things then.)  Big bad banks and the jobs gap — yep but I feel I’ve heard it all before, and it hasn’t stuck.

Their suggestion of time for renewal I liked for being positive, but I feel it was getting into that vague territory that’s not about stories and metaphors which (as they very rightly say) is what sticks.  It smacked of being a little naive too, in the way that the Left gets accused of just wanting to spend, spend, spend.  Where does the money come from for investment?

I feel the development of a story that challenges austerity also needs better policies — can’t we put forward something bolder than just building more stuff?  Otherwise we are in fact implicitly accepting the Right’s argument that paying back the debt is important, we just get there by a different route that’s about ‘growing the economy’ first, even though you and I mostly don’t benefit from that (the rich mainly do) and it ignores the environmental costs.  One of the things that strikes me is that paying back our debt is essentially about paying back to the few rich people who got us into this mess in the first place.  It’s a stitch-up, a system that’s hedged against us: for example, the credit ratings companies that said sub-prime investments were triple-AAA before the crash are the same ones we’re now dependent on to keep our good rating and not have to pay back higher interest payments.

Overall I found there was good in their version, but it was too complex, and I felt lacked the bold policies to go with it (which is a bigger problem on the Left).  Especially with the success of the austerity story so far, and the terrible discipline of progressives, a new narrative certainly needs to be really simple, powerful and sticky (memorable).

I’d like to offer an alternative.

In the spirit of their invitation to others to put forward suggestions, here are some from me — very much inspired by and trying to build on the ideas in NEF’s report where possible.  See at as version 1 (I’m sure I’ll wake up in the middle of the night soon with something better!) and I’d love your comments on how to improve it.

One of the interesting things I hadn’t expected to come across, is I feel ultimately this needs to land in a different solution than just investing rather than austerity (how do we deal with the debt?).

Here goes…

In the 2000s, the bankers gambled away money they didn’t have in a dodgy backroom poker game.

The Government told us they were a good nightwatchman and would keep an eye on what the bankers did, but in fact they were like a lazy security guard who turned a blind eye to these dodgy poker games — because the bankers were lining the Government’s pockets.

The bankers kept putting more and more poker chips on the table even though even they didn’t have the money to back it up.  The Government thought it seemed fine for a while when the bankers seemed to be winning.  But then they started losing — and losing big…

So the rich mates who the bankers were playing poker with called time on the game.  They wanted the bankers to pay up.

But the bankers had gambled so big that even they didn’t have the money to pay.  So who could they get it from?  Who better than the rest of us who rely on the banks for our country to function?  So the banks held the Government to ransom demanding they cover their debts or the country would grind to a halt.  In a panic, the Labour Government paid up.

But the Government didn’t have the money either, they had to borrow it — and now we’re having to pay it back.  But we weren’t at the poker game and we don’t believe in being held to ransom — so we shouldn’t have to pay back the debt.  

It’s scary, but we the people could take control of our economy . The rich and powerful know this, and they’re worried because they are relying on us to pay back their debts.  Many of the politicians running our country, the bankers and their rich mates we’re paying debts to, are all in the same club of the rich and powerful.  They’re all looking out for each other’s interests.

So they’re trying to scare, distract and divide us — like the Nazis did so successfully [too much?].They know that united we stand, divided we fall — that’s why you hear so many scare stories in the newspapers and on TV.

It’s a smokescreen to cover up the problem they created.  And we’re too smart to fall for it.

Now what we need to do is…….
– cancel the debt? or some of it?
– rein in the banks and their dodgy gambling
– more?

And here’s a longer version told more as a story — I wonder could this make a good short animation like The Meatrix?

Our country’s like a village.

For quite a long time it was getting better.  It was becoming a nicer place to live for most people, there were jobs for everyone, the schools were getting better.

We had a Village Council that wasn’t bad, it wasn’t perfect but it looked after the important things pretty well.  Everyone in the village paid into the village kitty and the Village Council spent it pretty fairly on the things that mattered to us.

There was the Lord of the Manor who lived up the road.  We felt a bit weird about him having so much more money than the rest of us, but mostly it was ok as he kept himself to himself.  And the Village Council said they’d make sure he didn’t get up to any funny business.  All the villagers deposited their money into the village bank he owned.  Why wouldn’t you?  It was what everyone did.

What we didn’t realise was, the Lord of the Manor was having some really dodgy poker games late at night with his rich mates.  To start with, he betted his own money and he seemed to be winning for a while.  Then he got greedy.  He started betting more and more, telling his rich mates he was good for it.  But of course he couldn’t win every hand at poker, and as he started to lose he bet more and more to try to win back his losses.

The Village Council knew something might be up but turned a blind eye — after all, the Lord of the Manor did them favours too so why should they stand up to him?

He bet more and more and more and more…… until one day he was in so much debt his rich mates called time on the poker game.  ”We want our money back,” they said.

Gulp.  What could the Lord of the Manor do?  Even he didn’t have that much money (he owed a lot).  ”I know,” he thought, “I own the village bank — so all the villagers, the shops and even the Village Council rely on me for the village to run.  I’ll scare the crap out of them by threatening to shut down the village bank with all their money in unless they all help me.”

What a dastardly plan… so evil it worked!  The Village Council got the fright of their life when the Lord of the Manor threatened to bring the village to its knees.  In a moment of panic, they submitted to his demands to pay back his dodgy poker debts.  ”Ok whatever you want, we’ll do it, we’ll take on your debt just keep the village running” the Village Council said.

But the Village Council didn’t have as much money as the Lord of the Manor needed either.  So they borrowed it.  But who could they borrow it from?  Not the Lord of the Manor in their village as he was broke himself.  They had to go to someone and the only people who did have money were the rich mates the Lord of the Manor had been playing poker with.  They happily lent the Village Council the money as they knew how much of a fix the Council was in and that they could make a profit by charging some hefty interest on it.

So the Village Council were in lots of debt, they were borrowing money from the rich poker players with interest, then paying it to the Lord of the Manor.  He paid some of it back to his rich mates (who were the same poker players).  But he also still liked playing poker and the Village Council were feeling pretty timid and didn’t seem to be brave enough to stop him, so he carried on gambling.

Meanwhile, where were the ordinary villagers in all this?  They hadn’t had any say in what happened.  But they were feeling the effects of it as the Village Council were now in loads of debt — and the only way they said they could deal with it was to take the money the villagers paid into the village kitty and give it to the Lord of the Manor to pay off his debt instead of spending it on the village’s doctors and schools.  The villagers were also reeling from the new way the Lord of the Manor was running the village bank now.  Whereas he used to lend the villagers money to run their businesses, now he was calling in all their debts and not helping anyone with new loans.  That meant there were fewer jobs working for the Village Council or with the villagers’ businesses.

All the villagers were losing out — but they hadn’t caused any of the problems!  They’d been living their lives like they always had.  Scared about what was happening, they voted in a new Village Council who said they’d deal with the village’s debt the quickest.  It kind of seemed like a good idea at the time — after all, no-one else standing for the Council seemed to have a better idea.  But things just got worse and worse with the new Village Council — yes they paid the Lord of the Manor more quickly, but there were less and less of the services the villagers relied on, and hardly any jobs too.  The Lord of the Manor hadn’t changed his ways either, he was carrying on with his dodgy poker games pretty much like before.

Why wouldn’t the new Village Council change the way things worked?  A rumour started to spread round the village that the new Village Councillors were actually mates with the Lord of the Manor and his rich poker playing mates.  Hang on, it’s a stitch-up… how do we get out of this mess?

First off, the villagers weren’t at the poker games, they didn’t rack up the debt — so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.

Second, the Village Council (despite what the current Councillors say) run the village — they’re elected to be in charge, so they need to take control of the situation.

So, the villagers need a new Village Council, they demand a brave group of leaders who will take on the village’s challenges with the villagers’ backing:
A) cancel the debt, simply refuse to pay it back to the rich poker players: it’s their problem and the Lord of the Manor’s
B) rein in the Lord of the Manor: stop him playing his dodgy poker games that have caused the village so many problems, and forcing him to lend properly to the villagers again
C) start investing in the village again, providing the services the villagers rely on

Go on, brave villagers — it’s your village!

And just to finish off this really long post… here are a few of the ideas I started playing with but didn’t develop (yet)…

David and Goliath.  This could be a more powerful alternative to ‘big guys and little guys’ from the NEF report.  It keeps the size metaphor but makes the little guy seem powerful, makes us agents of change who can take on the entrenched power and injustice.  We Are All David – a bit like We Are Spartacus?

Robin Hood.  Could we use and expand on the Robin Hood / Sheriff of Nottingham / people’s hero story somehow?  It’s worked so well for the Robin Hood tax, is engrained British, popular and well known and love.

They Jimmy Savile’d our economy.  With all the horrible high-profile paedophile, rape and abuse revelations/allegations coming out about Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford and more, people are understanding how powerful, smiling men can use and abuse power so badly.  Can we relate this to the terrible injustices with our economy?  [It just felt too raw and horrible to go into that space.]

Would love any comments you have.  I hope this is a useful contribution to the debate.