How Trevor Manuel made his message stick

Government departments are famous their endless flow of abstract statistics which, in turn, shape nebulous and often hopelessly inept policies. But life is not abstract and people are not statistics. Sadly, most government ministers never get the memo.

One exception was former Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel. Depending on your political inclinations, many South Africans yearn for the “Trevor years“. Manuel presided over SA’s first budget surplus in 2007. 12 years prior, the World Economic Forum had already spotted his potential, naming him “World Leader for Tomorrow”. Under Trevor, things seemed stable and well run. Even predictable.

One notable aspect of his leadership toolkit was his skill as a communicator. He was (and remains) outspoken, unequivocal and courageous in getting his point across. As Chairperson of the country’s first National Planning Commission, Manuel was especially creative in his approach to sharing the outputs. It’s doubtful that any finance minister has so vividly depicted the plight of the poor and the challenges associated with poverty alleviation as he. In this sense he was not just “financier in chief” but “educator in chief” as well

Taking a leaf out of the TED-Ed and RSA playbooks, Manel minuted the planning commission’s relatively high-browed outcomes in a short form animated video that was posted to YouTube. In “Planning for Thandi’s Future”, he uses a fictional character to bring the country’s poverty cycle into sharp focus.

“Thandi” teaches us 2 things about persuasive communication

Velcro hooks for the brain

Always make it as concrete as possible. The economy (as Manuel’s video starkly illustrates) comprises real people facing real problems. Abstraction not only makes it hard to frame the problem but to shape the solution too. Because of Thandi, A black female school leaver is no longer a face in the crowd - she’s a real person who we come to know.

There’s another benefit to making your story more concrete: your audience can’t easily forget it. Even after a single viewing, it’s pretty easy to recall the fact that Thandi’s chances of getting through high school are less than 60%, that she has only a 13% chance of getting a university pass and then less than a 3% chance of getting a job that pays at the median of R4000 per month. This is an example of what Psychologists call “The Velcro Theory” in action. The more hooks you attach to your idea or argument the greater the chance it will cling to your audience’s memory. Standford’s Chip Heath explains, “Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain. A new credit card has one, if it’s lucky”

Be less like Stalin and more like Mother Teresa

It was Joseph Stalin who infamously said; “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Manuel’s video ignores the “million” in favour of the “tragedy”. It’s called the “Mother Teresa Principal”, inspired by the famous humanitarian who once said: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”. Indeed, “Thandi” inspired my wife and I to rethink how we remunerate and support our own domestic helper and her family. But don’t just take my word for it...consider the results of a Stanford experiment in which two groups of respondents were presented two very different requests for donations to the Save the Children Fund. The first request used high level UN data about West African food shortages, rainfall deficits and famine. A second request presented a simple pen sketch of an impoverished and vulnerable Malian girl named Rokia. It explained how her life could be dramatically improved by a small financial gift. Subjects who received the second request gave more than twice as much as those who received the first. Thinking and theorising about statistics might make people analytical but has virtually no power to make them act.

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