In addition to vet, accountant, soil scientist, mechanic, HR manager and… we’ll stop there because it would take the whole blog to just list what hats farmers wear(!), a farmer’s job description now includes “communications officer”. In an age where most of us live connected to the online world, farmers have taken up their phones to participate in conversations around food and farming in an effort to bring balance to the glut of misinformation and myths.
While persuasion is often the underlying goal of those conversations, I hesitate to use the word ‘persuasion’. Thanks to ethically questionable Mad Men era ad campaigns, I always imagine notes of back alley coercion clinging to the word like an old lady’s overstated perfume. The true definition of persuasion, however, is relatively innocuous: “to prevail on (a person) to do something, as by advising or urging; to induce to believe by appealing to reason or understanding; convince.”
And when it comes to the farm to consumer conversation, we are certainly attempting to advise and appeal to reason. But therein lies another rumple in the tablecloth: how can you advise in such a way that is engaging and offensive, not defensive and off-putting? How can you appeal to reason when critical thinking skills are shed in favour of a quick (rigged) Google search offering ready-made answers?
As a farmer, you know that to get a job done successfully you need the right tools for the job. Communicating is no different. Certain methods will work in certain situations and each method (tactic) requires specific tools. Here are a few tools you should add to your communications toolbelt:
- Simplicity is vastly underestimated: making something easy to understand is directly correlated not only to ease of comprehension, but to its appeal. Or, as Simon Lancaster, owner of Bespoke, Britain’s leading specialist speechwriting agency, put it “If you speak using long words and sentences, it’s like giving someone a steak and asking them to swallow it.” Processing fluency is what makes language easy to comprehend. Trying to explain the science behind what you do on your farm can be met with blank-eyed stares if your descriptions are more complicated than need be. Rhyming is an easy tool to implement and it helps increase the processing fluency of your words; numerous psychological studies have shown that what is easy to understand is perceived as more truthful. Simple words and rhymes can help you help them help you.
- Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle explored the art of persuasion through rhetoric, that is, the art of effective or persuasive writing or speaking. He discovered that there are three tools we can use to spark change through deliberative rhetoric, which focuses on the future rather than the past or present:
- Ethos: how you convince your listener/reader of your credibility
- Pathos: appeals to emotion
- Logos: the use of logic and reason – but not just facts and figures. It employs devices like analogies and examples to structure dry content and hard knowledge into something more palatable for your audience.
The trick is to know which one of the above – or which combination – should be used when and where, and recognizing that it’s dependant on who your audience is and the ultimate goal of your communication.
- Repetition not only drives a point home, it creates the balance a brain craves. Lancaster says that “If the sentence sounds as if it’s balanced [e.g.: by using the Rule of 3s], we imagine that the underlying thinking is balanced, and our brain is tuned to like things that are balanced.” The pattern of repetition is as pleasing to our brains as the sound of rain pattering on a tin roof is to our ears. For example, a bulleted list of three items is an old trick for distilling a barrage of new information into key takeaways that are easy to register and remember.
- Before humans could write, stories were how we shared information. After millennia our brains are trained to perk up and process information received in story format (including metaphors, exaggeration, analogies, etc.). As children, we learn important concepts and lessons about the world through bedtime stories or grandparents’ tales. We’re pulled to binge-watch Netflix because of the story buffet before us. Great storytellers manage to cut through the noise and captivate their audience while simultaneously educating and influencing. Ultimately, stories can influence our way of thinking. By simply telling a well-honed story, we can ethically inject ideas, thoughts and emotions into our listeners’ brains to affect change.
- Cognitive biases are those sneaky, mostly unconscious systematic errors in thinking that affect our decisions and judgments. People typically assess information based on their own experiences and preferences, resulting in distortions of reality. A common example is the Confirmation Bias which happens when we favour ideas that confirm our existing beliefs and what we think we know about something. (Sounding a little too familiar? You’ve no doubt come across this bias when talking to people about food and farming.) Realizing that people have inherent biases can help you figure out how to work around or override them.
- The brain has so much going on at once that it has learned to take shortcuts, also known as heuristics. Understanding how the brain receives, processes, stores, and retrieves information, you’ll have an array of tools on hand to rebut, reframe, answer and persuade.
- You know the old expression “Common sense is not so common?” Well, you can now add critical thinking. With information at our fingertips 24/7 it’s easier to just let Google tell us what we should know. But we miss out on crucial bits and bytes if we don’t think for ourselves, ask questions, and cultivate curiosity. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you (and others) learn to think more critically: http://bit.ly/2oNqMfx
- Brené Brown, an expert in vulnerability, defines it as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Why in the name of all that’s holy would we want to be more emotionally exposed?! Because vulnerability can make you real and relatable. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” (Italics mine.) ‘Nough said.
- There’s a lot of research that points to one’s emotional intelligence (a.k.a. EI or EQ) being even more important that cerebral intelligence. EQ is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” If you want to encourage dialogue that ends in solutions or compromises rather than shouting and stomping, honing your EQ skills will help you get there. EQ consists of several skills and as such, can be learned. Here’s a test to check your EQ quotient and here are 50 tips to help you sharpen your EQ skills:
- If we’re talking about being all fuzzy and receptive, we need to mention empathy. EQ and empathy go hand-in-hand since empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – the ‘ole “put yourself in their shoes.” If you add a pair of shoes to your tool belt, you’ll be in a better position to understand why someone believes what they do, asks the questions they do, and subsequently provide you with the critical insight that allows you to meet your audience where they’re at – that is, offering the right information at the right time, in the right manner.
- There are several types of listening, but dialogic is probably the most important for the farm to consumer convo. Stemming from Greek roots (‘dia’, meaning ‘through’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘words’) dialogic listening means that we can learn through conversation by engaging in an interchange of ideas and information with the intention to actively learn more about the other person and how they think. Key to this style of listening is employing active listening skills which includes tactics like establishing rapport and trust through nonverbal cues like nodding, eye contact, leaning forward, and paraphrasing to demonstrate understanding.
Equally important in assessing which tool you should use, is noting which ones work better online and which in person. If you use a certain tool in one place and it doesn’t seem to do the job, try another. Like anything else, trial and error is how you’ll find the right fix.
Photo: Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash