A cardinal principal of risk communication – and of all communication – is that people are not blank slates. They encounter what you have to say to them through the filter of their pre-existing knowledge, values, feelings, and beliefs.

Let’s assume you are trying to convince me of X. Consider four different situations:

(a) I believe nothing on this particular topic;

(b) I believe X already;

(c) I believe Y; and

(d) I believe X and Y simultaneously.

Each of these cases suggests a different risk communication “game.” What are the four games, and how do you play them?

Before we get to the games, pause to question the assumption. Are you sure convincing me of X is really your top goal? You might want to aim instead at building a long-term relationship with me. You might want to learn what I know about X, and why I feel the way I do about it. You might want to reconsider your own views on X, or your insistence that I join you in those views. You even might want to put X aside so we can talk together and work together on the larger issues. Persuasion is a legitimate piece of risk communication, but it’s limited, narrow, and one-directional. It closes more doors than it opens.

But in another sense, persuasion is one of society’s most humane inventions. If I believe Y and you think I should believe X, you have only three options. You can ignore me, coerce me, or persuade me. Say I’m a smoker. You can shrug off my bad habit as none of your business, demonstrating that you care little or nothing about my health. Or you can pass rules that forbid me to smoke, demonstrating that you value my health but not my freedom. Or you can try to persuade me to quit. Isn’t persuasion the most respectful of the three choices?

Okay, you’ve decided to try to talk me into X. You need to start by figuring out which of the four games you’re playing.

Follow-the-leader: Talking to people with no opinion

Follow-the-leader is by far the easiest of the games. I have no prior opinion on the subject of X. I’m still not a blank slate; I have other relevant knowledge, values, feelings, and beliefs you might want to address. But I’m a blank slate with respect to X. So just tell me what to think. Tell me X.

Of course you’re going to have to make it interesting. As a rule, people with no prior opinion have very little interest either. (There are exceptions. In a crisis, for example, people are extremely interested in your guidance, though they may have no opinion of their own.) The main roadblock in follow-the-leader is audience apathy. If you can get past people’s apathy, they’re not likely to show any resistance. They’ll cheerfully follow your lead.

Bear in mind that they’ll cheerfully follow somebody else’s lead too. Follow-the-leader typically generates a very weak level of support, easily swayed by later communications from opponents. So you have a choice. You may want to warn me that there are people out there who will try to talk me into Y, and give me some reasons not to believe them. This is called inoculation, and it makes sense if you see a hot controversy on the horizon. But there’s not a lot you can do to inoculate me against Y when I’m barely paying attention. And unless there’s a battle brewing, I may well never encounter a proponent of Y, or at least not while I’m in a mood to listen. On balance, most experts think, when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know about Y already and isn’t virtually certain to hear about Y soon, your best bet is not to mention Y at all.

The essence of follow-the-leader, then, is selling your strengths. Tell me, as briefly and interestingly as you can, why X is right.

Echo: Talking to people who agree

“Preaching to the converted” sounds like a waste of time, but it isn’t. When you talk to people who already agree with you, you are reminding them that they agree with you. They may have forgotten. Or they may be neglecting to take the actions that go along with their belief. Many employees who agree with the safety rules, for example, nonetheless forget to follow them. Reminding employees about safety is a major task in precaution advocacy.

Equally important, their belief may be weaker than you want it to be. You may want to bolster their resistance to the temptation to start listening to the advocates of Y. Or you may want to arouse their fervor so they will become more active on behalf of X – not just supporters but outspoken advocates. Much political communication is echo; that’s what get-out-the-vote is all about. So is much religious communication; think about the meaning of the word “revival.” (Missionary work is follow-the-leader or donkey, but most of what goes on in church is echo.)

I call this game echo because you’re telling people things they already know and already agree with. That’s a little tricky. If you just tell them, they’re likely to get bored and start wondering why they have to sit through the same old stuff yet again. So the message has to be more than just “X.” Among the candidates: “Thank you for your stalwart support for X. We’re relying on you.” Or: “Please help us spread the word on X.” Or: “Here are some interesting variations on X you might not have heard.” Or: “Here is some ammunition to use when you hear people saying Y.” Or: “You already believe X, so you will probably want to start doing the following....” Or its more negative cousin: “You already believe X, so we can’t understand why you’re not doing the following....”

Be careful not to play too aggressive a game of echo. Efforts to rally the troops can backfire if you seem to be presuming a higher level of support than you actually have. Telling me I believe X when I’m not so sure I do is likely to offend me. Telling me I’m not doing enough on behalf of my belief may motivate stronger action (your goal) – but if it doesn’t, it may weaken the belief instead.

Donkey: Talking to people who disagree

What happens if you try to play follow-the-leader – or, worse yet, echo – with an audience that disagrees? It backfires badly.

I believe Y. When you tell me X, I naturally respond (sometimes out loud, sometimes just in my head): “No, Y.” So you escalate: “X-X-X!” And so do I: “Y-Y-Y!” The longer this exchange continues, the worse off you are. It’s not just that you’ve failed to convince me of X. You have actually reminded me, strongly, that I’m a Y supporter. You have rekindled and reinvigorated my belief in Y.

When people disagree with you, the game to play is donkey. (Of course they’re probably playing donkey with you too.) Donkey is a much tougher game than follow-the-leader or echo. And it’s counterintuitive. You must start where I am, with Y. That doesn’t mean you start by rebutting Y – that would just get me arguing with you, rehearsing all the reasons why I disagree. Instead, paradoxically, you need to say supportive things about Y. Then (and only then) you construct an illuminated path from Y to X.

“Many people in this room probably believe Y,” you might begin. “There are good reasons for that – this reason and this reason and this reason. I used to believe Y too, and I think I understand its appeal. So if I expect to convince anybody here of X, the burden of proof is on me.” Okay, you’ve paid your tribute to Y, earning you the right to my attention. Now start dropping breadcrumbs – that is, construct your illuminated path: “I didn’t actually start to wonder about Y until quite recently, when I got sent for training. And I learned some surprising facts – this fact and this fact and this fact. Little by little, I came to see that maybe I had been mistaken, maybe X was right after all....”

Your path from Y to X can be crafted of logic, evidence, emotion, or imagery; ideally you’ll use all four. However you build your path, the essence of playing donkey is the two-step process: First you ally with your audience’s prior beliefs, and then you start dropping breadcrumbs.

Is it manipulative to ally with an opinion you’re plotting to change? That’s your call; if you think it’s manipulative, don’t do it. I think it’s respectful. Instead of focusing on what you believe, it focuses empathically on what your audience believes. Instead of handing people your reasons for supporting X, it tries to offer them reasons that might work for them.

Notice that playing donkey with a follow-the-leader audience is just as bad a mistake as playing follow-the-leader with a donkey audience. If I have no opinion and you start out by telling me all the reasons to believe Y, by the time you get to the breadcrumb stage you’ve unwittingly made a Y believer out of me!

Seesaw: Talking to people who are ambivalent

Seesaw is in some ways the paradigmatic game of risk communication, and I have written about it before. This is the game to play when people are ambivalent – when they believe X and Y simultaneously, even though X and Y are not entirely compatible. Of course ambivalent people don’t usually have simultaneous, incompatible, firm beliefs in X and Y. More often they have knowledge or feelings that support both positions, and they don’t know which side to come down on.

Here’s the paradox of the seesaw: When people are ambivalent, they will tend to resolve their ambivalence by emphasizing the half of it that everyone else seems to be neglecting. If you say X, in other words, I’ll say Y. If you say Y, I’ll say X. (Those who have raised teenagers understand this phenomenon. Teenagers are ambivalent about almost everything.) Among the many seesaws in risk communication:

  • When you’re meeting with people who are upset about something, they mostly want you to shut up and listen while they vent – unless you do shut up. Then, little by little, they’ll get around to demanding that you respond.
  • Worst case scenarios are horrific by definition; they are usually pretty unlikely as well. If you focus on how unlikely they are, your audience will probably focus on how horrific they are. If you focus on how horrific they are, your audience will probably focus on how unlikely they are.
  • In uncertain situations, there’s a lot you know and a lot you don’t. If you sound over-confident, your audience is likely to fasten on all the things you don’t know. If you keep insisting on all the uncertainties, people tend to think you really know what you’re doing.
  • When things go wrong, there are usually reasons to blame you and reason to forgive you. We blame you more when you forgive yourself too easily – or when you scapegoat somebody else. We forgive you more readily if you’re clearly blaming yourself.

Though seesaws are extremely common in risk communication, they’re not universal. If the audience isn’t ambivalent, there’s no seesaw. Think about discussing worst case scenarios with an activist group that’s trying to shut your plant down, or blaming yourself in a conversation with your bitter ex-spouse. But when there is a seesaw, you’d better know it. Imagine trying to play follow-the-leader with an ambivalent audience. Your goal is to lead them to X; instead, you’re likely to preempt the X seat on the seesaw, thus inadvertently forcing them to the Y side of their ambivalence.

So how do you get an ambivalent audience to end up on the X seat? You take the Y seat, all the while providing lots of evidence to support X. “Even though we have pretty good understanding of this and this and this, there is still so much we don’t know!” Or as the World Health Organization’s David Heymann said during the SARS crisis: “We are building our boat and sailing it at the same time.” People tended to have a lot of confidence in Heymann. It wasn’t despite his acknowledgments of uncertainty; it was because of them.

Whenever you’re playing donkey, there’s a good chance you’re playing seesaw too. In a typical risk controversy, for example, you spend a lot of time interacting with critics you’re pretty certain can never be reconciled to your point of view. Your game of donkey is a long shot. But there’s a group of genuinely ambivalent people watching you and your critics go at it. They want to see your critics win some concessions, and they want to see you concede that your critics were right about a lot of things. Then – but only then – they’ll let you get your way.

Is it dishonest to use the seesaw? It is if it means taking a position you actually think is completely mistaken, just because you hope that will nudge me toward the opposite, “correct” position. But when people are ambivalent, there’s almost always some truth on both sides. Where’s the hypocrisy in focusing on listening instead of talking, on the worst case scenario’s high magnitude instead of its low probability, on how uncertain you are or how much you feel at fault?

It is worth remembering, however, that seesaws are intrinsically unstable. When you take the Y seat on the seesaw, that temporarily inclines me to the X seat, where you wanted me. But I’m still ambivalent; I’m just expressing the half of my ambivalence you didn’t emphasize much. For a longer-term resolution, consider inching your way from your seat toward the fulcrum. In keeping with the exquisite geometry of the seesaw, my response will be move toward the fulcrum too. We can meet in the middle, where grownups live, able to keep in mind simultaneously the truth of X and the truth of Y.

Know what game you’re playing

What emerges most clearly from this introduction to the four risk communication games is that they’re different. What works best depends on whether the people you’re talking to have no opinion at all, or agree with you, or disagree with you, or are ambivalent. You need to pay attention to the audience in order to figure out which game to play.

And what if you’ve got a mixed audience? It’s not usually possible to subdivide them: “All donkeys please go to the other room!” So you need to make a choice or a compromise. In figuring out which game is highest priority, remember that it’s not usually the relative size of the four groups that matters most; it’s their relative importance to your goals.

In a hotly fought controversy, for example, you probably can’t win over your opponents, and the people who are sitting out the fight don’t much matter (even if they’re the majority). So the key games are probably seesaw and echo, not donkey or follow-the-leader. But when you’re introducing a new safety procedure, the majority who know little and care less are your key audience. Follow-the-leader is your game, and you don’t want to get seduced into some other game by a handful of partisans on either side.

Copyright © 2005 by Peter M. Sandman