How to make people think about something they don’t want to think about?
This is one of the great mysteries facing anybody seeking to persuade. Also: can we do it without being manipulative?
Hi, this is the third in a shortish series about Writing To Change The World (WTCTW).
I was lucky. Lucky in so many ways, but right now I mean this: I was actually asked to write How To Change The World, and with that title specifically.
This means I had a willing and interested audience of at least one person (the person who commissioned the book). And that can make a huge psychological difference, because writing into the void of indifference and hostility (assumed or actual) can be excruciatingly hard.
But even with this book I had a challenge: most people don’t go around thinking, “Gosh, I wish I could change the world, if only I could find a book telling me how…”
So I had to make some calculations about what they might have been thinking instead. And even as I type it, I find myself stumbling over that word “calculations”. If that’s not manipulative, what is?
I don’t want to pretend I don’t know how to manipulate. I’ve been around long enough to have picked up a few things. But I try not to be evil.1 I do that by asking myself if I’m writing in good faith, in service of the reader – whoever that is.
And who, actually, is it? Well, I won’t know unless I make a few calculations.
My first reasonable assumption, ten years ago, was that many people are significantly troubled, on any particular day, by two or three issues they’d like to resolve – some “local” (at home, in their work), and others more global.
And I assumed that most don’t believe these issues can be resolved – not by them, anyway.
It seemed to me that I should start by showing people in a similar situation, people who feel the frustration / pain / anger very strongly – and actually pulls off the change they wish for.
Why? Because when we encounter other people’s stories, we tend to put ourselves inside them, at least to some degree. When I watch Tom Cruise hanging from a skyscraper with one sticky glove, I get sweaty palms and find that I’m holding my breath – as if it’s me up there.
Stories are machines for creating empathy in the audience, for allowing an audience to share the fears and desires of the protagonists. I wanted to let readers put themselves inside the stories of the world-changing people I wrote about.I calculated that readers might be more easily drawn in if I used a combination of two kinds of story:
- stories about “great” people doing “great” things, and
- stories about “ordinary” people doing fairly ordinary things.
I assembled lots of material.
Can “Bad” Kids Turn Good?
I promised yesterday to tell the story of somebody who influenced me when I wrote the book. Someone who moved rapidly from obscurity to becoming the Today programme’s Woman Of The Year.
She became the inspirational figure at the heart of part iii, chapter 4.
I’d first come to know about her at The Financial Times, when the then-editor2 sent word that I should write a magazine story about her. As far as I could tell, he’d met her at some kind of charitable networking event. I don’t know why, but I did nothing for weeks – until he asked how I was getting on.
I made some calls, went to meet her, and over several months I spent a lot of time following her around and talking to people she worked with. I was really impressed.
I wrote a story, which began like this:
Not long ago, three teenagers boarded the No. 12 bus in south London: Cleo, Mandy, and Mandy’s brother Brian. At the top of her voice, Cleo said: “I’m going to mess someone up on this bus.” And the three of them started robbing passengers.
Cleo saw an attractive ring on one woman’s finger. She went over and started tugging at it, trying to get it off. In response to this, the woman behaved extremely unusually. She didn’t seem scared, for a start. She said, “You clearly need help.” She told them she wouldn’t allow them to carry on robbing people and asked them to get off the bus with her. They were scornful, but did as she asked. Then she told them about a place where they could find help…
If you want to read more, the full story is here: Can Bad Kids Turn Good?
Choose Your Own Adventure
I thought for a long time about the structure of How To Change The World. I wanted to make it absorbing and entertaining, but also entirely useful: so that readers felt truly empowered.
At the time, I was teaching at The School of Life as well as writing. I taught a variety of classes, including one I had helped to create, called How To Make A Difference. In the class, I tended to include a great deal of interaction, to enlist audiences, give them a sense of common purpose and agency.
That’s not easy in a book.
One idea I had came from thinking about the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ series of books published when I was young. In each one, readers were given the opportunity to make a choice. If you face a dragon, you can run away or fight it. If you run away, you must turn to page 94, and if you fight it you turn to page 46. Thus, readers could take several different pathways through the book, ending either in disaster (the goblins kill you) or triumph (you get home with the hoard of gold).
With this in mind, I started to draw up a flow-chart, so that readers of my own book could “choose their own adventure”. Those looking for tips on workplace difficulties could turn one way, global problems take you somewhere else.
It was fiendishly complicated. I remember reading each book several times, as a teen, determined to try every path and discover every outcome.
But as I continued to research the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, and how they changed from the first to the last, I made an interesting discovery.
Over time, the publishers gradually offered readers less and less choice.
The second book, Journey Under The Sea, offered 40 different endings, with 47 places for readers to make choices, and just 30 choice-less story pages. By the end of the series, A New Hope had just 16 endings, 14 choices, and far more story pages: 87.3
Had readers lost interest in the novelty of making choices, or had the publishers initially overestimated that interest? It’s impossible to say.
My own hunch is that readers, who can be skittish and uncommitted at first, become increasingly willing to hand over control. The longer they remain with you, the more they trust you. You can afford to be more directive.
And you can trust yourself. You don’t need to keep making calculations about your audience, because to some extent you have got to know them already – even when the relationship is one-way.
What does that mean? Well, the other day I watched a Netflix series set in the English Literature department of an American university. There were references to obscure literature such as the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood, which I read when I was studying English at university.
References like that made me feel very much at home in this drama. Other viewers, I daresay, will have been put off by exactly the same references.
In other words, as the series unfolded, people who love Eng Lit become increasingly devoted to it; and people who don’t, stop watching. Towards the end, the producers “know” they have my trust, even though they have no idea that I, John-Paul Flintoff, even exist. They can reward me for my loyalty with even more of the same kind of thing, creating an increasingly intimate world that is (also) increasingly impenetrable to outsiders.
I imagine that the same will apply to me, and you, as this series continues. And to you, in your writings for others.
Rhetorical figures: how mining at the word-face can yield gems.
1 ↩︎ I’ve come to the conclusion that “being manipulative” is largely in the eye of the beholder. One person loves what you do, and says it’s helpful; another finds it manipulative. This might even be the case if somebody actively sets out to be manipulative, positively full of malice – only to be thanked sincerely by the receiver; but I suspect that most things done with a dark purpose are received in the same spirit.