Involve in order to convince!

A couple of days ago, I came across the following quote: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may not remember, involve me and I will understand”.

I cannot confirm who the author is, as it has been attributed to brilliant thinkers such as Confucius, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin or an unknown Native American. It does not really matter.

This quote brought me to start thinking about what it could mean for the agricultural and food sectors, as they are under fire on a regular basis. Why cannot it convince the public of its message(s)?

Opponents of agribusiness tell a lot about their opinions, they also show a lot of pictures, documents or footage of what they criticize, and they certainly are very active involving as many people as they can. The agriculture and food sector, including aquaculture, also tells a lot, shows some, but not enough about their daily operations, and they seem to have a hard time involving enough outsiders of the industry.

I read many blogs and articles from both sides and I regularly come across the “agri-food” authors wondering why the public is so difficult to convince. After all, the industry claims to have the scientific facts that prove its points. The industry is wondering whether the difference in communication effectiveness is linked to budget amounts or whether it has to do with the quality of the PR officers from both sides. I do not think that it has much to do with either. I have concluded that it comes from the ability to make people understand the story. Therefore, it has to do the ability to involve the public with the industry.

To involve the public, it is necessary to create an emotional connection first. This is critical and, unfortunately for the agribusiness, this appears to be a difficult area. Indeed, how to connect with people who have little, if any, connection with the agricultural world and who rarely get to see the reality by themselves. Media and internet are the channels where they find information. Opponents of agriculture have an easier job in the sense that they want to change the system. The worst that can happen to them if they fail is the status quo. They win nothing, but they lose nothing, either. The industry is the one that has the most to lose. Generally, this translates into a defensive approach, and that does not communicate well. Per definition, being defensive means having lost the initiative. Only the ones who have the initiative can lead, and only the ones who lead have followers.

Connecting emotionally means exactly what it says. Rational arguments do not work. At least not until the connection is made. The typical response of the agri-food sector is about bringing scientific facts, but how to convince people who 1) do not trust you, 2) who are worried about their food and 3) who do not have the scientific knowledge to comprehend these scientific facts? Cold scientific explanations will not work. All this does is creating distance. Not ideal when you need to connect.

I always like to make a comparison with parents of children that just had a nightmare. The children’s fears are not rational, but they are quite real, as you certainly can remember. Normal parents try to comfort the children. And how do they do that? They ask what the problem is. They listen. They empathize. They tell the children that they will go with them to the bedroom and show them that there is no green monster hiding under the bed. They will lie down on the floor and look under the bed. Then, they will take the child to have a look, and that is involving the child! This is how they connect emotionally, which allows them to switch to rational arguments and get the child to go back to sleep. Of course, they will not close the door and leave a little light so that the child does not feel thrown back at the green monster again. They empathize again.

Do you think that telling the child that there is no scientific evidence of green monsters would work, or that research has showed that nightmares are not real? And do you think that dismissing the child’s fear as unfounded and therefore about stupid would work, although that is pretty much the truth? Of course, it would not work, and the child would remain fearful and possibly lose trust in the parents in such a case.

If the agribusiness wants to win the public’s trust, it will have go look under the bed and, together with the public, take a peek at it. The public could hardly care less for the industry’s scientific facts, but it cares about being listened to and being empathized with. Interesting challenge, is it not?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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