A friend of mine who trains candidates for office teaches his clients this:
“If the other guy says your idea is too expensive, too complicated, too risky, or just plain wrong, here’s what you say: Maybe so, but just look at this starving child.”
Is that dirty pool? You could say so. The first guy is appealing to our confidence in higher reason – our desire to be mature or careful or thoughtful. If we choose that, we get to feel pride in our responsibility, and maybe fix the problem more thoroughly tomorrow.
The second guy wants only for you to feel the pain. If we choose that, a kid gets to eat today.
The second guy wins almost every time.
People are less persuaded by ideology and theory than they are by solutions (even bad ones) to problems they feel right now.
Yet arguments today are less grounded in pain than in pride: advocates associate ideas they don’t like with stigmatized people or movements, and hope the fear of association will be enough to foreclose on debate. But this approach has its limits. Consider these recent revelations:
• In growing numbers, Americans have more credit card debt than emergency savings.
• Nearly one in four Americans has no savings at all.
Translation: Most people live in the moment, not the future. And on this fact hangs a useful insight: Ideology, politics, and taking sides are easily overwhelmed by the apolitical discomfort of day-to-day problems. We can’t pay the landlord by taking pride in our ideology. That guy wants a check, and we had better have it.
Communicators must remember that, at bottom, people don’t want philosophy. They want answers.
This is harder to execute than it sounds. Those of us who advocate on behalf of others will always be tempted to sell ideas instead of actions, causes instead of remedies, philosophies instead of fixes. As writers, we love words and ideas – we live in our heads. But our audiences live in the world, where, compared to paying the bills, ideological exploration has only trivial appeal.