More influencing lessons from a child activist

In my last piece, I unpacked the influencing secrets of child activist Greta Thunberg who spoke at the WEF’s annual conference in Davos last month. This week, a very different sort of child activist...

Some years after Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, I was at a lunch gathering where everyone was talking about Global warming. What triggered the topic was the soaring summer temperatures that year. Some raved about the film, saying it had gone a long way towards explaining a complex problem. Some expressed dislike for the movie not because they were deniers but because it made them feel so powerless to act. My cousin’s wife, in particular, said: “All it made me want to do was go home and retreat into my shell”. A devout eco-warrior, Jana was sorely tempted to give up. “With countries like China and America, even my best efforts are a drop in the ocean”.

Sometimes the big picture isn’t helpful. White papers, harrowing documentaries, expert studies… all plumb the gloomy depths of the issue. They are factual. They are detailed. They are well researched. They are analytical. But when it comes to inciting action, they are often anything but useful. “True but useless”: information that thoroughly primes you on an issue while lacking any guidance on where or how you should act to address it. And so we end up trying to boil the ocean.

In my last piece we looked at the crusade of child activist Greta Thunberg whose battle is with inactive or inept policy makers throughout the world. And then there’s Milo Cress who, when he was 9 years old, cut a very different swathe into the murk of climate change hyperbole. Up to that point, most of us had a hunch that plastic drinking straws were bad for the environment. Then in 2011, as part of a school project on conservation, the precocious fourth grader went public in a small town newspaper with a rough calculation on how many plastic straws are used per day in America. The number, 500 million, went viral even though many “experts” thought it was an exaggeration. Milo didn’t care. He was looking for action and the media was listening. At about the same time, Cress launched his “Be Straw Free” campaign at a local fast food outlet. It was a small and simple request: would the restaurant object to making the inclusion of straws optional rather than automatic? They didn’t. Soon, the little campaign would pop in the local Vermont media. Before long, more and more fast food outlets across the country joined the crusade. A year later, Cress teamed up Eco-Cycle, a conservation nonprofit in Boulder, Colorado. The partnership, coupled with publicity from the National Park Service, helped to further amplify his message. Milo’s thumb-suck statistic continued to circulate as momentum of his cause grew. In 2018, many big fast food outlets (including McDonalds and Starbucks) stopped using plastic straws altogether and local governments were banning them outright

What an we learn from little Milo Cress?

Shrink the Change

Cress’s approach was informed, probably unwittingly, by a well validated body of behaviour change psychology. While Greta Thunberg fights a behemoth, Cress opted to “shrink the change” - downsize it to an atomic challenge with a clear script for action. By breaking a big, abstract problem into a smaller, more concrete subgoal, Cress created a micro cause that everyone could get behind. More and more campaigners are using this technique. The Nature Conservancy in the United States now focuses its attention on critical “landscapes” - a contiguous plot of land with unique, environmentally precious features. By strategically “shaping” vulnerable geographies in this way, the area in question acquires a personality and, in the process, becomes something of an eco-celebrity. From there, it’s a short leap to mobilising funding and action. Another group that does this is The Commonlands Initiative, a Dutch environmental group.

Velcro Hooks for the Mind

In a previous post, I wrote about the Velcro Theory: it holds that the more hooks you attach to your cause the greater the chances of traction. Abstraction, on the other hand, not only makes it hard to frame the problem but also to shape the solution. By assigning a round number to diurnal US straw consumption, Cress made his idea stick. The fact that his estimate may have been a shade exaggerated was not the point. In fact, the ensuing debate that drove the number down to 340 million only helped to fuel the fire. As the campaign gained momentum, it gathered more hooks. A disturbing photo of sea turtle having a straw removed from its nostril led to an indignant headline in the UK’s Evening standard. “The Last Straw!” would soon morph into “Skip the Straw and Save a Sea Turtle” as a global call to action.

Script the critical moves

Not only did Cress build a cause, he had a simple script detailing the critical moves for would be activists. For restaurants: make the inclusion of straws optional rather than automatic. For the rest of us: stop asking for drinking straws. Pretty soon, others would add to the script: many fast food outlets are now selling “turtle friendly” eco straws which are either biodegradable or fit for multiple usage.

Milo Cress cuts through the murk of “true but useless” (TBU) information on climate change. We can do the same with our own audience:

  • How can you shrink a TBU scenario into something that’s easier to understand and act upon? What is the minimum viable change you want to see?

  • Does your cause have enough velcro? What hooks can you add to help shape and make it memorable?

  • Are you clear on the critical moves? Are you giving people handles to act?

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