The communication secrets of Evan Mawarire

Last Friday, I had the privilege of interviewing one of Africa’s most influential activists.

It was 20th April 2016 and Evan Mawarire had had enough. A day earlier, Zimbabwe had celebrated 36 years of Independence. He felt in no way liberated. The excesses and corruptions of the government had decimated not only the nation’s coffers but his own finances too. He had school fees to pay but the cupboard was bare. “What was eating me the most was I felt like I was failing the most basic of fatherly duties, to be able to look into my daughter’s eyes and tell her that everything would be okay” recalls Evan. Forlornly, he wandered into his church office and noticed the Zimbabwean flag hanging in the corner. It reminded him of kindergarten where he and his classmates were taught the symbolism behind the colours. Evan was only 5 years old at the time but the lesson stayed with him forever. Grabbing the flag and his smartphone, he began to film - completely unrehearsed - his now-famous rant against the government of Robert Mugabe. Out it poured - the hurt, the disappointment, the vitriol. A rousing call to get off the sidelines. He did it again the next day. And for 28 days thereafter, culminating in a week-long national stay away - the biggest in Zimbabwe’s history. Thus commenced a spate of death threats, courtroom appearances and incarcerations (including a harrowing spell in the maximum security at Zimbabwe’s notorious Chikurubi prison). I spoke to him not just about the drama of the last 24 months but also about his journey as a communicator. You can listen to the full interview here but, for now, here are three things Evan teaches us about communication:

The power of visualI don’t move without my flag or my Bible” says Evan. The same flag that went with him into the bowels of a maximum security prison also went with him on a lecture tour of the US and Britain. The flag is a call to action, a visual reminder which, ironically, symbolises the failure of the very politicians that designed it. Evan has neuroscience to thank for this impact. Researchers at Princeton University have demonstrated something called “The Picture Superiority Effect” which holds that on average pictures are recalled with up to 65% levels of accuracy compared to words alone at only 10%. This all comes back to the way in which our brains work – words and data are decoded in a linear fashion by our short-term memory that, at best, can only retain about 7 bits of information. Images on the other hand travel directly to our long-term memory banks where they remain - for the most part - indelibly etched. As late art critic John Berger points out, “seeing comes before words - the child looks and recognizes before it can speak”. Though you may forget Evan’s words you can’t unsee his flag.

“This flag has become a symbol of reclaiming the promise of Zimbabwe”

Just do it Not surprisingly, Evan’s hero is Martin Luther King Junior. “When I first heard ‘I have a dream’ it floored me - I thought, no-one has come closer to explaining how I feel about Zimbabwe”. Most of us have heard the speech but not many know that the iconic riff only came to King at 2am the morning of the speech. It was a huge risk to incorporate it so late in the game but...the rest is history. Perhaps inspired by MLK, Evan is a big believer in spontaneity:

“I depend a lot on the spontaneity of the moment - there’s something about being able to trust your senses, your instincts - there’s a lot more you find in those spontaneous moments that helps you to communicate an idea. I don’t want to just give a speech. I want to give an experience. I want to get them away from where they are, teleport them into another place”

Never stop sharpeningWhat separates a professional from a part-timer,” writes behavioural psychologist Dan Heath, “is a fanatical attention to detail and preparation”. Though Evan is a master of improvisation (honed through years of moonlighting as a wedding MC), he is no part-timer. For some years prior to “This Flag”, the pastor had been condensing his 30 minute Sunday sermons into 4-minute video motivationals and posting them on Facebook. You can’t beat that sort of practice. Perhaps that’s why, when the chips were down, he had the fluency to condense the national mood into a simple and memorable idea.

“Yes, the gift of communication is just that - a gift - but everything I’ve ever done has allowed me to grow and sharpen that gift”

We could all do with a little help and practice in sharpening our arguments and pitches. Next time you have to present, try these simple guidelines: (But start early, it’s harder than it looks!)

  1. What do I want them to know? (head)

  2. What do I want them to feel? (heart)

  3. What do I want them to do? (hands)

I’m inspired by Evan’s simple message about democracy.

“If we cannot cause the politicians to change then we must inspire the citizens to be bold - I hope I’ve played my part in awakening a people to look for freedom”.

That’s not just a message for Zimbabweans. It's for everyone.

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