Are the copy and images in your nonprofit marketing materials drugging readers into ignoring you and your issue entirely? It’s a process called narcotization.
Here’s how it works. People were shown pictures of gum disease. One group saw photos of a mouth just a little rotten. The second saw photos of moderately rotten gums. The third saw horribly blackened mouths. The impact on dental care? Group one did what they always had. Group two did somewhat more flossing and brushing. Group three gave up entirely and stopped taking care of their gums and teeth. The idea is that if you think a problem is inevitable and overwhelming, you shut down and stop trying to fix it.
I read this example in Chuck Palahniuk’s book of essays called Stranger than Fiction while on vacation recently. In an essay called, “Dear Mr. Levin,” Palahniuk describes narcotization and then goes on to show how author Ira Levin beat the process by charming people into thinking about complex and difficult social problems through his incredible storytelling, way before the issues were a mainstream concern. Rosemary’s Baby, published in 1967, is about abortion rights. The Stepford Wives, published in 1972, is about the backlash against feminism. Sliver, published in 1991, is about electronic voyeurism.
These varying levels of information and our responses to them reminded me of the research that shows a powerful story about one person works better in fundraising than stories about multiple people. I talked about this recently in 10 Ways to Use Storytelling in Your Nonprofit.
Here’s how I see the connection between the two. Using a bunch of statistics about your issue is like showing a mouth that’s just a little rotten. It doesn’t motivate people to change at all. Showing them the suffering of large groups of people is like the blackened mouth. It’s just too much to take and people throw up their hands and don’t see how a donation to you will make a difference. But talking about a single person’s plight is like the moderately rotten gums. It’s bad enough to motivate people to want to help, but not so bad that they feel helpless.
So what can nonprofit communicators learn from Mr. Levin? Palahniuk says he uses metaphors that slowly reveal the issues and solutions without blatantly hitting us over the head with them. He uses humor to charm and worst-case scenarios to scare (Against a woman’s right to choose? Well, what would you do if you were pregnant with the Devil’s baby??) Says Palaniuk of Levin: “You created a fable to get our attention and inoculate us against the fear by creating a metaphor, a character that models the wrong behavior . . . That method gives the reader the moment of realization, the emotional moment of ‘ah-hah!’ And teaching experts say that unless we have that moment of chaos, followed by the emotional release of realization, nothing will be remembered.”
We may not be capable of writing some of the best-selling suspense novels of all time, but we can certainly apply some of these concepts in nonprofit communications. Bring your potential supporters along through your story. Build up to that “ah-hah” moment. Show that one donor what he can do to help, without making him feel helpless. Use anecdotes to let your volunteers learn from the mistakes and successes of others.