How small nudges can change the world

Many communicators are hoping to make a difference in their community, whether through education or persuasion. Here’s how small steps can lead to big picture progress.

It’s easy to feel that making a difference in how humans act is possible only through seismic change.

Whether it’s building a massive wall or instituting a Green New Deal, big reforms now dwell at the center of our national rhetoric and politics.

Less discussed are smaller, but still meaningful changes that have shown to make a powerful impact on human behavior. We might call them “relatively small maneuvers,” or nudges. Consider a few:

  • By delaying the purchase of firearms—through so-called “waiting period laws”—by just a few days, we could reduce the homicide rate in the U.S. by 17%.
  • In an email campaign encouraging U.S. service members to enroll in a federal savings program, the most effective message doubled program enrollment, leading to $1.3 million in savings.
  • Charging customers a 10-cent tax for not bringing their own shopping bags to the grocery store—rather than refunding them 10 cents for bringing in bags—has led to greater reductions in consumers’ use of plastic and paper bags.

These tactics offer hope that with important—albeit not sweeping—changes, we can make dramatic, lasting reforms in important areas such as gun safety, consumer savings and the environment.

For communicators—especially those working in issue advocacy and public affairs—this has meaningful implications. At a time of heightened partisanship locally and nationally, it’s easy to feel that making headway on issues requires Herculean effort. That’s especially true when battles are framed in terms of large, all-or-nothing endeavors.

The power of relatively small maneuvers should tell us otherwise—and offer hope for driving real change in the way people think and act.

To maximize our opportunity for achieving this positive change as communicators, three key lessons should guide us:

1. We have the power to change hearts and minds.

Perhaps what’s most exciting about relatively small maneuvers is how they showcase power of communications. After all, many of these  interventions—whether it’s sending a government letter designed to persuade benefits recipients to change their course of action, or showcasing information that makes consumers use less energy—rely on the power of words and imagery.

This should offer hope that, at a time of increasingly entrenched beliefs, communicators have the ability to elicit a change in behavior.

 2. Small changes to language and framing can make all the difference.

Changing the length of your sentences, the choice of your verbs or the approach you take (i.e. using data versus an emotional pull) can dramatically alter how messages are received and whether audiences act on them. For a basic example of this, think about how minor modifications to email subject lines can make or break open rates.

It’s important to remember that creative strategies are only half the battle. The language and messaging we use matters.

 3. Behavioral science can be our secret weapon.

We used to rely largely on our knowledge, experience and insights gleaned through market research to help guide our communications planning and strategy. Now, along with those trusted tools, we have access to a new trove of information: reams of research that lend insights into the way people think and behave.

By applying lessons from behavioral science to our communications strategy and messaging, we can optimize our effectiveness and get closer to the desired result. That matters especially in an era when results are avidly tracked and measured.

Relatively small maneuvers can be revolutionary. As communicators, let’s use them to help reshape society for the better and put our power to good use.

Francesca Jarosz Brady is senior vice president at VOX Global, a strategic communications firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.

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