Several years ago, the ASPCA aired an animal-cruelty commercial featuring Sarah McLachlan and her song, “Angel.” The TV spot (see the B.C. SPCA version here) showed image after image of sad-looking dogs and cats that had obviously been abused, and the song track added to the emotional charge.
My youngest son was just an infant at the time and every time the commercial came on, he started crying. He was too young to understand the words on the screen or the awfulness of animal mistreatment, yet somehow he had a deeply emotional response to the message.
For the adults, the images were upsetting (and the music did its job too) but we didn’t necessarily show it — perhaps because we’ve become more jaded after years of experiencing these kinds of messages, or perhaps because we can more appropriately control our emotions.
Why did the commercial strike a chord?
Humans are emotional creatures.
I wrote earlier that in some cases, we can’t help it because the emotional response we experience is driven by pure neurochemistry. Long before scientists figured that out, storytellers knew it.
Aristotle, for example, said that for stories to be effective, they have to arouse an emotional response. (In my son’s case, even such a simple element as a collage of images was enough to trigger emotion.)
As the human race has evolved through the centuries, stories have remained a consistent communication tool. And we’ve been conditioned — scientists would say wired — to respond to them.
They bind us together — whether as a family, a group or a nation — and yet they allow us to express our individuality. We’re more likely to pay attention if we can understand, emphasize and sympathize, and there’s no device more powerful that can do that like a story that tugs at the heartstrings.
For professional communicators, stories create opportunities to deliver a message that can accelerate our audience’s understanding, help people relate — and, hopefully, take action as they see fit (though sometimes that action simply entails tuning the message out).
How do you deliver a message that tugs at the heartstrings?
First, let me be clear. I am not talking about manipulating people by employing techniques that will make them emotional and therefore more responsive. The marketing world has more than enough messages that take us on guilt trips or incite compulsive consumerism.
Rather, what I’m suggesting is that you examine your message and level with your audience. How can you create a better understanding of what you’re doing as a brand? How can you build trust and help people relate? Manipulating emotions, just because you know it works, doesn’t build trust. Is a quick sale worth the loss of a sustainable relationship?
Almost all organizations, whether nonprofit or for-profit, start out of someone’s passion, a desire to fill a need. They all struggle at some point, no matter how well-positioned and financially sound they are (struggles don’t all relate to cash flow). They’re all driven to success — or failure — by human beings.
Those are all aspects we can relate to. Following a passion, struggling to survive and succeed, spectacularly failing (and hopefully rising for the next round) — all these are stories we love because they give us hope and they inspire us.
If your organization learns to tell these stories authentically, by humans and for humans, you will inevitably tug at the heartstrings.
It’s that simple.