The power of effective activism

The power of persuasion for making a difference is often underappreciated. If you can convince just one other person to care about a cause as much as you, then you’ve easily doubled your impact. But peoples’ efforts at influencing others often aren’t as efficient as they could be. Just as people tend to give to the charity that resonates with them most personally, they often spend years trying to convince friends or family of a cause they care about. What many people don’t realise is that by stepping outside your circle of personal contacts and choosing a strategic approach, your time and influence can go ten or even a hundred times further.

Triple your impact in an hour

Joe_ar2008_award
Joe Espinosa

Over the past 10 years, Joe Espinosa has likely convinced somewhere between 4,000 and 13,000 people to turn vegetarian.1 The estimates of animal advocacy organisations suggest that one person turning vegetarian saves around 100 animals from factory farming per year, mostly poultry. (In fact, this may turn out to be a very conservative estimate.) Given this, we can estimate Joe’s impact as saving at least 4,000 * 100 = 400,000 animals from factory farming each year. Supposing each person he convinces remains vegetarian for on average 5 years, the number of animals saved from a life in a factory farm is closer to 2 million. And this doesn’t factor in the ripple effect: that many of the people convinced will likely influence others themselves. Safe to say, the guy’s overall impact in terms of improving animal welfare is huge to say the least, much more than he could have achieved just by becoming vegetarian himself.

What voodoo magic does Joe use to have such an enormous impact? He goes round US university campuses and hands out Vegan Outreach flyers. Simple but incredibly effective. For every 300 leaflets an activist distributes, its estimated that around three to ten people turn vegetarian. 2 This means you could at least triple your impact on the animal suffering cause in little over an hour’s work, if you do it right.

Going out and talking to people you don’t know about your cause might seem intimidating, and it might take some time to work out how best to do it. But if you do it well it’s a pretty surefire way to have a huge impact.

The hardest part is getting over the initial awkwardness of approaching strangers with a cause you care about. But it only takes a few days’, or at most weeks’, experience for the process to become natural and even enjoyable. Having learned how to approach strangers and make a good case for what you care about, you will be able to achieve more through advocacy for the rest of your life. Effective advocacy is a method for doing good that is accessible to almost anyone who is willing to practice what works.

How to be an effective advocate

Leafleting
Jon Camp leafleting with Vegan Outreach booklets at Slippery Rock, U in PA

1) Choose your target audience carefully

Part of what made Joe Espinosa so effective was that he chose his target audience carefully. You’ll clearly have a much greater impact if you think carefully about what kinds of people will be most receptive to your message. There’s a good case for targeting university students.1 They’re likely more open-minded and willing and able to change. People are hugely influenced by the norms of their peer group, so young people whose peer group is more in flux are most likely to reconsider their views. Influencing people at a young age also simply increases the full impact, as they have more of their lives ahead of them to enact change. The nature of a university campus in itself also means it’s a good way to reach large numbers of people in a small amount of time.

2) Appearances matter

In Change of Heart, Nick Cooney tells the story of an environmental campaigner speaking at a rally to an enthusiastic group of young campaigners:

“He shouted to the crowd, “Are you ready to get out there and fight for the environment?”
To which they responded an enthusiastic, “Yeah!”
“Are you ready to get arrested and go to jail for the environment?”
“Yeah!!”
“Are you ready to give your life for the environment?”
“Yeah!!”
“Are you willing to cut your hair and put on a suit for the environment?”
The crowd fell silent.”3

You may well feel that the way you dress is pivotal to your sense of self identity, and so be reluctant to change it. However, the way you appear to others undoubtedly has a huge affect on how persuasive you are. Attractive people are more persuasive, but it’s not just about good looks: research also shows that people are much more open to persuasion by people who look similar to them.4 Changing the way you dress so that your target audience take you seriously could therefore be incredibly important.

3) Be friendly

As well as your physical appearance, the way you present yourself to others in terms of your attitude is vital to being effective in your advocacy. Always be kind and courteous: even if others are rude to you. Never tell someone they’re wrong in their view, but rather express acceptance of others’ views: if possible help them to see how what you’re saying is consistent with what they already believe. Above all, smile, be optimistic and outgoing: this makes you attractive and is much more likely to make people listen to your message.

4) Position yourself carefully

If you catch people at the wrong time or in a bad mood, even if you’ve targeted yourself perfectly to be persuasive in all other ways, you probably won’t have much luck. Whilst people’s moods are pretty much out of your control, there are ways to position yourself to try to optimize how receptive people are to your message. Studies suggest that positive associations are very powerful: people are more easily persuaded when the message is accompanied with good food for example, suggesting why business meetings are often arranged over lunch! 4 Obviously you’re not going to take every person you hand a flyer to out for a (vegetarian) meal, but positioning yourself in a cafeteria might be a good way to take advantage of this. Other positive associations are worth bearing in mind: people will be likely more receptive to your message on a sunny day than on a rainy one.

People tend to follow the crowd. It’s been shown that if a sequence of people in a row turn down a flyer, the next person is more likely to say no too. So if you get a stream of “nos”, better to take a break or move location and start afresh.1

5) Hone your message

The same cause can be much more or less compelling depending on the way in which it is presented. Just as it is good to dress like the people you are trying to influence, it is best to adopt on their beliefs and ways of speaking insofar as you can, rather than try to change their mind on too many things at once.

Joe Espinosa knows that the vast majority of people are already opposed to whatever they consider ‘animal cruelty’. Framing the issue of vegetarianism as one of animal cruelty simplifies his task, because whoever he speaks with starts by agreeing with him that it is wrong to treat animals in a cruel way. All he then needs to do is persuade the person you are speaking with that the way animals are treated on farms is cruel. Research also suggests that people who become vegetarian because they are concerned about animal welfare are more likely to remain vegetarian and convince friends and family to join them, than those who become vegetarian out of concern for their health, or the environment. A little bit of work learning things like this can ensure your time is well spent.

It can be hard for people to change their mind on these issues quickly. Rather than insist on a full conversion immediately, get your foot in the door so they can begin persuading themselves. For instance, encouraging people to reduce their consumption of the products worst for animal welfare – eggs and meat from caged birds. Having taken that step, the person is more likely to view themselves a person who cares about the issue and investigate it on their own.

You will also do well to let the people you are speaking with talk most of the time. Ideally, they will persuade themselves of the issue you raise, with just a little nudging in the right direction. For instance, rather than monologue about why he is vegetarian, Joe asks people why they choose to eat meat – something they have often not thought about. After listening carefully and politely, he can choose further questions for whoever he is speaking with.


With thanks to Robert Wiblin for the idea and for editing!


You might also enjoy:

What’s your true impact?

Why most charity fundraisers cause harm

How to be a high impact volunteer


References and further reading


  1. Based on the fact that Joe has handed out over 400,000 leaflets in total, and the estimate of 3-10 people turning vegetarian for every 300 leaflets handed out (quoted in the Animal Activist’s Handbook) 

  2. The Animal Activist’s Handbook, Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich 

  3. Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Tell Us About Spreading Social Change, Nick Cooney 

  4. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini