Once more, with feeling? Emotional communication in think tanks

The most effective communication is the one that work on both a rational and an emotional level. The one that engage both your heart and your mind. But in our think tanks, we sometimes downplay our emotional propositions in order to prove how rational we are.

In advertising, you test your messages before you buy your ad space. The more you spend on media buy, the more you test your message. That’s why well tested messages, otherwise known as global ad campaigns, engage with an emotional proposition at the same time as a rational proposition.

I tell my wife that I bought my new razor because it has five blades: it is efficient; and I am rational. I work in a think tank for heaven’s sake! But actually, I bought it because it is blue. And emotionally, I like blue. We’ve all been there. The rational proposition allows you to submit to the emotional proposition. Without one, the other doesn’t work. You need both. It’s a fundamental principle of advertising in particular and marketing in general. If you watch Madmen, and you listen to Don Draper pitching ‘creative’, you totally get what I’m on about.

Politics works in a similar way and political communication does too. Those of us who work on communications in think tanks often feel compelled to maximise our rational propositions and minimise our emotional ones. It is part of the way we build our brands: rational, respected, robust, rigorous. But actually, these are hygiene standards for a think tank, not unique selling points. The reputation we should really be trying to build is of being influential and a lot of the time it is politicians with influence that we are trying to persuade. Politicians are themselves engaged in their own battle for hearts and minds and our influence requires us both to convince them and emotionally engage them.

Emotional communication in action: the Apartheid Museum

On a trip to Johannesburg earlier this year, I visited the Apartheid Museum, mainly because my mum told me I had to. But she was right. As well as the obviously factually powerful content that the museum curates, the way it is presented is an incredible manipulation of your emotions. Even from the outside, the architecture of the building speaks to you. And that’s deliberate. The museum’s promotional video explains that “steel and concrete speak a universal language of oppression”.

At one point, you are directed outside the museum on to the roof and presented with the Johannesburg skyline, split in half by a concrete barrier. Look right and you see the high-rise sky scrapers of South Africa’s economic capital. Look left and your seen the low-rise housing of Soweto. It’s an actual, living representation of the museum’s message. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, the museum simply puts a window on the city and invites you to judge for yourself.

Towards the end of the museum, the ‘riot room’ uses three huge screens running news footage on a loop, to immerse you in the sights and sounds of protests being violently broken up. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It is so loud, that you can’t spend more than a few minutes in the room. The facts of this period of South Africa’s history are these: during the four years between the ANC being ‘unbanned’ and the country’s first elections that brought them to power, 14,000 people were killed in political violence, several times more than had died in the four decades before. But the noise, from three separate screens, showing real news footage of the time, with people running for their lives, grabs you by the heart and squeezes the emotional life out of you.

When you leave that room, you “emerge into the sunlight of election day”. But again, after the exhibit which celebrates the 1994election day, the museum once again kicks you in the mind. The final room simply contains newspaper cuttings, with no commentary other than highlighter pen which flashes up individual political stories. Then you realise, these front pages are familiar. Yes, they are familiar because they are newspapers from yesterday. “There it is,” says the museum. Nothing more, nothing less. And that’s it. It’s over. And you leave.

Bringing emotion into wonkcomms

Back home, I find myself attending events on ‘the future of the national minimum wage’, or on the ‘effectiveness of zero-hours contracts’, or on ‘the cost of childcare’ and being bombarded with stats, facts, charts and graphs. Don’t get me wrong. We need these. We mustn’t stop being think tanks. But let’s put parents on our panels so they can explain their personal trade-off between nursery fees and unpaid leave. Let’s get a care worker who can explain how their zero-hours contract affects the way they care for our elderly relatives. Let’s watch videos like this 10 minute film made by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and then discuss housing policy and welfare reform.

Let’s bring our evidence to life and remember that the best communications include both rational and emotional propositions.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at the think tank IPPR and a founder member of the WonkComms editorial board. He writes here, as he tweets, in a personal capacity: @RDarlo

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5 comments on “Once more, with feeling? Emotional communication in think tanks
  1. jdavidhobbs says:

    What a great topic. I think this bumps into fundamental tensions for think tank websites: 1) who is the audience, and 2) what actions do you want that action to take? On the one hand, even the most analytical researcher will be affected by emotional appeals, but at its core the research needs to be as objective and rigorous as possible. But if you are targeting the general public, for example, then adding the emotional element may cause them to take action (to donate money, for example). This really depends on those two questions of audience and desired action though. Perhaps emotional aspects can help to show why a think tank prioritizes certain research over another too.

  2. Paul Hebden says:

    This is interesting. I wonder if there isn’t something that think tanks can learn from the ‘spectacle’ approach adopted by groups like UK Uncut or The Yes Men? They seem to enjoy some success in staging events / manifestations that promote some important key messages.

  3. Joe says:

    Really great piece. David asks precisely the right question, and it’s one we struggle with daily. If you’re looking to influence the influencers, then the emotional appeals might be rejected out-of-hand as advertising rather than as real analytic wonkery. But if you’re going after a wider audience–say, shifting the terms of the debate kinds of projects–then adding an emotional appeal to your charts and figures is a crucial part of the project. Figuring out a way to blend those in a way that doesn’t lose your audience (or your own researchers, for that matter) is the real trick.

  4. Thanks for you comments. You’re all right, finding the balance is key. Too wonky & you’re too dry but too commsy & you’re too fluffy. This is one of the existential questions WonkComms is exploring

  5. […] the Digital Age’ conference, for CharityComms. We felt that charities pretty much lead the way on emotional comms, but we thought we could teach them a thing or two about rational and evidence based communications […]

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