We are in a storytelling workshop. Not just any storytelling, mind you. We are telling stories that move to act. These are stories that aim to make the audience get up and do something. Ayana Johnson, executive director of the Waitt Institute, an NGO for ocean preservation, has just finished her story and we are debriefing it with the audience, when it happens.
An audience member offers a comment that sheds new light on the meaning of a good call to action. He says that the speaker ‘had’ him with her story of wanting to be a marine biologist from the age of five and how, now that she was one, she discovered that the behavior of fish is not the problem for the ocean, it’s the behavior of people.
‘You had me and I felt the urgency,’ he says, ‘and then I was hoping so much you would tell me how I could help. I wanted you to give me something concrete to do. Now I’m left hanging.’
All dressed up with nowhere to go.
When you have done everything else right: connected with the audience, shown them why you are leading this effort, made the challenge and its urgency understandable - then your call to action is a gift to those that resonate with you or your purpose. Give them that gift. The gift of having thought out what minimal effort will have maximum impact. Give your audience the gift of the opportunity of meaningful action.
Many people are reluctant to give the call to action. They associate it with asking rather than giving. Please, please, do this for me. It goes in the direction of begging. That triggers all kind of status issues. Some are too humble to ask, some are too proud. In both cases fear of rejection is at play. By seeing your call as a gift we can bypass those unproductive emotions. And it is more than a mind-trick. There is a real gift to give. Because making your call simple and meaningful is far from easy. As Richard Branson said:
"Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to make something simple."
Consider the plight of two health researchers, Steve Booth-Butterﬁeld and Bill Reger-Nash, professors at West Virginia University. They are quoted in the Heath brothers’ excellent book Switch as looking for ‘ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet. From past research, they knew that people were more likely to change when the new behavior expected of them was crystal clear, but unfortunately, “eating a healthier diet” was anything but.’
As they were mulling this over and brainstorming approaches, they came across research on milk. They learned that besides being a great source of calcium, ‘milk is also the single largest source of saturated fat in the typical American’s diet. In fact, calculations showed something remarkable: If Americans switched from whole milk to skim or 1% milk, the average diet would immediately attain the USDA recommended levels of saturated fat.’
Their call to action became ‘switch to skimmed milk.’ They ran a two-week campaign in two regions and saw the market share of skimmed milk rise permanently from 18% to 35%. They worked hard to find a call to action that was simple and doable. In a sense, that was their gift to the people of West Virginia. The research and effort that went in to finding the right call to action is what made the difference.
Your call to action may be only 10% of the story you tell to further your cause. But perhaps it deserves 90% of your effort and genius to make it the right one. Remember, any fool can make it complicated or vague.
So what happened next in our workshop? The audience chipped in, considering and proposing options. Someone said that ‘Stop eating shrimp’ was something that Ayana herself had advocated. She smirked and said she hadn’t wanted to bother them with it again. Now we saw it differently, because she had done the rest of the storytelling right and got us all dressed up for a party. Giving the right call to action - simple and concrete -wasn’t bothering us. It was a gift. It was giving us all a party to go to.