Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity.
Most people think that to change the world, you need to have a superpower. But I argue that most people already have a superpower: they have the ability to communicate.
It doesn’t matter if you are communicating for business or for a cause you are passionate about – to communicate effectively, you need to be able to answer three questions:
- What is the problem?
- How will this problem affect your audience?
- What do you want people to do?
Let’s break these down.
What is the problem?
You have to show people that the problem exists. After all, if I don’t know about the problem, I can’t do anything about it.
Sometimes, people know about the problem but haven’t done anything about it. Your job is to present the issue in a way that makes people want to take action.
For example, I know that plastics are a problem in the environment. That is not new to me. But this week I read an article that said storks are dying in record numbers because they are eating plastic. You see, the plastic looks like worms – the stork’s favourite food. A stork’s stomach can’t digest plastic, which means it can’t get the nutrition it needs. Eating plastic “worms” causes these beautiful birds to die a horrible, painful death.
Until I read the article, I knew plastics were bad, but I didn’t know it caused birds to die because they were eating them. Now that I know this, I might want to do something about it.
How will this problem affect your audience?
This is a more difficult question to answer, particularly if the issue doesn’t directly affect your audience. Let’s continue with the example of the storks eating plastic. Many people will think: It’s a shame the storks are dying, but what does that have to do with me? We don’t have storks where I live. Why should I care?
Getting people to care is necessary if you want them to act. Here are some ideas:
- You could point out that the storks are not alone. Find a creature in their area affected by plastics so you can talk about a local issue. I hate to say it, but the cuter the creature, the more people will listen.
- Talk about how plastics have made their way throughout the food chain – including things we eat. That could affect public health.
- You could discuss the cost to the community because of environmental changes and/or health issues caused by plastic.
Each problem needs a different approach. Sit down and brainstorm ideas for the thing you want to change.
What do you want people to do?
Ok, you’ve convinced me. Plastics are bad for wildlife and my health. I’m ready. What should I do about it?
If you don’t have an answer to that question, all you will get is sympathy for the problem, but nothing will change.
And just like with any goal, your answer has to be specific. You can’t just say: let’s use less plastic. It’s too vague. Look for specific actions you can ask people to take.
- You could start small. Let’s say the canteen in your workplace serves drinks with a single-use plastic straw. You could propose that the canteen either switch to paper straws or, better yet, stop giving out straws altogether. If people really want a straw, sell multi-use metal straws they can use. Run an awareness campaign to show people the damage that little straw can do.
- Or maybe the birds are eating plastic they find on the street. Where is this litter coming from? Are people not using municipal trash cans? If that’s the case, maybe the solution is a public awareness campaign to keep the city clean.
- While you are doing all this, you could draw attention to the problem by having a “Clean Your City” day. When you are finished, you could display all the non-recyclable plastic you picked up to convince people of the problem. As you are collecting trash, stop and talk to people as they pass on the street. This would be a great time to have them sign a petition.
The language(s) of change
The next thing I am going to propose might be controversial, but here it is: Even if your issue is a local one, it benefits your cause and your message if you can communicate it in your native language AND English.
Because in our multicultural world, more people will hear you if you can communicate it in both.
If your issue goes beyond local borders, it is absolutely necessary to communicate your issue in English.
There are 1.5 billion English speakers in the world today. That’s 20 per cent of the world’s population. So whether you love it or hate it, knowing how to communicate effectively in English may be the only real way of getting your message to the world.
Think about Greta Thunberg. What if she didn’t speak English? Could she have inspired millions to join her on her Fridays for Future school strikes? Would she have been able to address members of the UN, the US Congress, or the press? I doubt it.
You don’t have to be fluent. Learn the keywords. Listen to others speak about your subject in English. Practice with your friends explaining your positions and imagine the kinds of things people will say, or questions they might ask, and figure out how to respond.
Language is power, and that power can change the world. So, use it!
Helping people communicate is my passion, particularly for those who want to affect change. So look for more articles like this over the coming weeks and months.
I am also developing a free course specifically to help people understand the world of non-profits and activism. I’ll let you know what it’s finished.
If you have questions – either about activism or English in general – send them to me either here or via my website www.marshallsayenglish.com. I’d love to hear from you!
And, if you enjoyed this article, please do me a favour and share it with your network and friends.
Stay safe, and I’ll see you next week!