As a former journalist, I love statistics, numbers, data. I used to feel that this type of information is indisputable in proving a point. But as a writer, I’ve also learned that cold, hard facts often don’t move people. I remember an editor giving me guidance on a story I was working on and telling me to “write it with pathos.” Emotions, in other words, can be every bit as powerful as logic. This is why you often see articles lead with the story of a real person who perfectly illustrates what the numbers indicate. Data is important, but readers relate more to a human story.
A while back, Steven Russell, director of the San Diego Housing Federation, invited me to speak at their 25th annual Affordable Housing and Community Development Conference. The topic was message development for communications pros in the housing industry. We took the participants through the process of creating key messages to support why affordable housing is important and necessary, as well as techniques for bridging to and between those messages as part of interview prep.
In my presentation, I talked about the different types of messages and the importance of including “pathos” in campaign messaging. Emotional arguments are often ridiculed as being weak but research shows they can be very effective in changing opinions. For example, studies have shown that instilling fear works in getting people to pay attention and can even change their behavior.
In the case of our Housing Matters Campaign, one of our goals was to reduce NIMBYism around permanent supportive housing for people with a history of mental illness and homelessness. The facts supported the argument that permanent supportive housing was effective in getting people off the street. The data also showed that doing so was cost effective because it resulted in fewer emergency room visits, run-ins with the law, etc. These housing developments also represented a benefit to the neighborhood in terms of increasing property values, as they were well designed and attractive new construction.
But for neighbors of proposed supportive housing projects, those facts didn’t matter. They were afraid about what would happen to their communities as a result of supportive housing units being included in developments. They understood the benefits but didn’t want them in their neighborhoods.
To counter this, a key strategy of our campaign was to put a human face on the residents of supportive housing. The people who lived in supportive housing had compelling stories to tell about how having a home helped them get out of a seemingly impossible situation and put them on the road to becoming productive members of society. A lot of the residents were young, with the majority of their lives ahead of them. In particular, Alex and Sean were homeless, living off the generosity of friends until their untreated mental illnesses led their friends to seek help for them. That help was County-subsidized housing with support services (Supportive Housing).
With a permanent home and social services, both Alex and Sean were able to recover and begin to lead productive lives. We produced a series of client/advocate videos with these individuals telling their stories, had them speak at community meetings, posted their photos and stories on the website, included them in social media, etc.
The strategy was to trigger an empathetic response by highlighting individuals, rather than referring to the larger, faceless, group of “the homeless.” In addition, the campaign demonstrated that people in supportive housing didn’t look like the stereotypical homeless person who has lived on the street for years. They were clean, bright and articulate.
Evoking feelings of warmth and compassion for somebody who was in distress, as part of an overall educational campaign, proved effective in overcoming NIMBYism. Over the course of five years, none of the proposed supportive housing projects slated for construction encountered lasting opposition.
Statistics backed the argument for supportive housing, but emotions were critical to swaying opinion.