It started with a Facebook page. Wael Ghonim was haunted by the image of a man who had been beaten to death by Egyptian police. Ghonim didn’t know the dead man, Khaled Said. He could have averted his eyes and shrugged off the incident as something he could do nothing about in a country where police brutality was commonplace.
But rather than look away, Ghonim used the photo to launch a Facebook page. His title: “Kullena Khaled Said.” “We Are All Khaled Said.” That phrase articulated a fear that had gone unspoken among Egyptians: What happened to Khaled Said could happen to anyone.
One man, one message—and, ultimately, a government overturned. The page garnered millions of views, rallied thousands to demonstrations, inspired countless other citizens to find their voices in print, online and out loud. The Egyptian Revolution officially started on Jan. 25, 2011. Seventeen days later, President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power.
Ghonim’s tale shows the extraordinary power of a message, a deed, a single individual. The former Google executive is quick to minimize his role, writing in his memoir Revolution 2.0 that “I was no more than a guy with some marketing experience who started a Facebook page that snowballed into something greater than any of its thousands of contributors.”
Today as we’re bombarded with information delivered across multiple platforms, we can become desensitized, skeptical. We’re not easily moved by facts. Yet, those rare messages and experiences that strike an emotional chord can engage us in ways that transcend reason.
It’s the personal messages that can really resonate, and people who might never have considered speaking out now find a voice through social media. These online tools help amplify individual concerns, turning one person’s mission into collective action. They’ve put a new spin on old reformist techniques like civil disobedience, petitioning and protesting.
The time is ripe for reformers: Depressed economies, corporate and institutional mistrust, political despots abroad and political stalemates at home have extinguished public faith in institutions. Together, the timing and the tools have created a powerful stew for activism.
Examples include online petition drives like one started by 22-year-old nanny Molly Katchpole, whose appeal garnered more than 300,000 signatures and halted a proposed Bank of America debit card fee. Another petition drive by Nick Espinosa helped save his and several other homes from foreclosure by exerting public pressure on the banks.
“It takes one powerful individual, but you can connect with a community much faster than ever before,” says Sara Dines, an executive with change.org, the online petition platform Katchpole, Espinosa and millions of others globally are using to promote reforms.
Such social media tools have empowered people who might have considered themselves passive—even Ghonim.
“I was quite unengaged when it came to politics—a typically cautious, easily intimidated Egyptian who did not dare protest against the regime,” Ghonim writes. “When I created the ‘Kullena Khaled Said’ page, the whole point was to connect with others just like me.”
But social media is no magic bullet for the merely disgruntled. Yes, YouTube can amplify a voice, but there’s no guarantee it’ll make it loud enough to drown out the rest of the cyberspace noise. There’s a certain formula that change agents in both the virtual and physical worlds use. It has to do with the simplicity of the message, the timing, the overall mood of society, the credibility of the messengers, the strength of their established networks, the visions and hope offered, the emotional connections, the blending of online and real-world actions, and, often, the novelty of the messengers themselves. A child activist, for example, is certain to turn heads in a way that a Washington insider cannot.
By understanding how people make a difference, we can consider ways we can enact change. We can look at how successful messages resonate with people and then apply those lessons to our lives—whether in our own activism or in our businesses.
Picture the old-fashioned petition drive. Activists out in blazing sun and freezing cold, haunting parking lots and public parks to collect signatures. To make it work, you need something of an army.
Now imagine this: You’ve got something to say and you’re ready to act. You sit down at your computer, write a petition, send it to a website, share the link with friends, hope they’ll share it with other friends and, if your story is compelling enough, voila! You will have amassed enough virtual signatures to pressure politicians, big businesses, the legal system or any other official entity that tries to squash the little guy.
Change.org is allowing individuals to do just that. Not every petition will result in reform, but enough people are seeing enough victories for change.org to see some 2 million users per month and some 15,000 new petitions started each month around the world. “We want every individual on the planet to have the tools and have the understanding that they can make a difference,” Dines says.
Change.org helped propel 26-year-old Nick Espinosa from silent observer to outspoken critic, and then from potential victim to victor. Espinosa was captivated by the story of a single mom named Monique White, who had lost her job and was about to lose her house when she fell two months behind in the mortgage. White had taken her tale to “Occupy” protesters in Minneapolis during the demonstrations that had started on Wall Street and swept the nation in 2011.
Her tale prompted protesters to take up housing as their primary focus. Organizers with the newly born Occupy Homes Minnesota, including Espinosa, created a video of White narrating her tale and posted it on YouTube. Viewers were moved to tears, Espinosa recalls.
“It’s just such a powerful story,” says Espinosa, 26, a former social worker who lost his job working with the unemployed when budget cuts forced layoffs at his agency.
Along with the video, Espinosa used change.org to draft a petition calling for public support for White and pressure on her lender. It worked. White kept her house. Then Espinosa found his roles suddenly reversed.
The house his single mother had bought 16 years before was about to be sold off. The bank had refused to accept his mother’s late payment with money she had amassed and prepared to present on the final due date.
The house had been Colleen McKee Espinosa’s first; previously she had rented apartments in Minneapolis for herself and her three young children. “It’s her first shot at the American dream,” her son says. She had just six years left on the mortgage.
Nick Espinosa launched another online petition. Word spread fast. “It was a way to amplify our story and let people know what was happening to our family,” he says. “We were able to engage thousands of people and get them emotionally connected to our situation.”
The family prevailed. Now Espinosa says he and other Occupy Homes activists want to work toward systematic change of lending practices. According to his research, 8 million Americans have lost their homes since 2007 and 16 million more are underwater in their mortgages.
“Whenever we’re highlighting these cases we make it clear that it’s not just homeowner—it’s that they are emblematic of many people,” he says. “Housing is a human right and people should have a safe place to call home.”
So what makes a Nick Espinosa or a Wael Ghonim successful? Reform isn’t as easy as they’ve made it seem.
Messages that go viral are “one in a million examples,” says Joseph LaMountain, president of the Virginia-based SparkLight Communications and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. The campaigns that work are the ones people pour their hearts and souls into, the ones with carefully crafted messages and personal contact—not just online messages, he says.
Ghonim, for example, spent countless hours updating his page and organizing real-world demonstrations. “I had never exerted so much effort in promoting something so intensively and in such a short period of time,” he writes of the silent protests that he organized using Facebook. “I was quite stressed, yet my immediate passion for the idea served to bolster my energy levels, which in turn were reflected in my posts.”
It’s hard to know what messages people will latch onto. Timing and societal mood will largely dictate the phenomenon. And, the wording is key—you can have the best ideas in the world, but they’ll do you know no good if you can’t voice them in a compelling way.
The “most contagious” messages, LaMountain says, are the ones that adhere to six elements: simplicity, unexpectedness, specificity, credibility, emotion and personal narratives.
That’s what made Ghonim’s “Kullena Kahled Said” page catch fire. He ditched formal Arabic and wrote in common tongue. He didn’t pre-plan his posts but rather let his heart guide his words.
Still, there’s more to it than wording, suggests Professor Philip N. Howard, associate director of the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement at the University of Washington.
Social media empowers people because it’s personal, he says. Think about it: You’re not just responding to a cry for change from a stranger—you’re connecting with a friend or a friend of a friend. That’s why the photo of Kahled Said’s battered body elicited such deep emotional response; that photo was initially shared by family members, who sent it to their immediate contacts, who then passed it forward until the whole thing exploded.
In some ways, these personal connections supersede even the message’s wording. And the stronger your personal network, the more trusted you are as a source of information, the more likely your message will spread, Howard says.
“It’s not the clever rhetoric. It’s the fact that your buddy went down to central square to protest,” Howard says. That’s how the Occupy movement sprung legs, for example.
Perhaps the most critical factor is the messenger himself, someone others can relate to with an experience that could be theirs.
These unwitting change agents start by asking a “What if” question, says B.J. Gallagher, a speaker and author who co-wrote the recently released The Power of One, which features stories of everyday people who have made a difference. What if a home could be saved from foreclosure? What if the police protected rather than brutalized? Lots of people ask such things, but self-doubt stops many from acting.
In Gallagher’s research, the pattern goes like this: Someone starts musing out loud about a better future; she takes the first steps toward reform; and then someone else lends support. Two activists become four, become eight… and the movement takes off.
But, remember, it all starts with one.
We don’t have to think big to make a difference, says Julia Butterfly Hill, an environmental activist whose 738-day vigil in a 1,000-year-old California redwood dubbed “Luna” saved that old-growth forest.
“Every single thing we think, say and do shapes our lives and our world,” says Hill, who now works to help others realize their dreams of change through The Engage Network and What’s Your Tree? “So, we need to stop perpetuating this myth by asking questions like, ‘Can one person or one choice really make a difference?’ Instead, we need to ask the question, ‘What kind of difference do I want to make with my life?’ No matter what, we are making a difference.”
To her, the most important part of the message—be it large scale or small—is a vision.
“We need to turn off our televisions and go out into the world and tell a vision,” Hill says. “And a vision requires positivity. There is no vision in what is wrong and what is not working. True visionaries are the ones that not only see clearly and recognize the problem, but also have the capacity to see, articulate and begin to create the solutions.”
So let’s examine one last story, one that included most of those elements. This story starts before the advent of social media, but social media tools are now empowering a new generation of activists and helping children to understand that their ideas and actions matter.
In 1995, then 12-year-old Craig Kielburger of Ontario read a small article about a 12-year-old Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masik who had been enslaved at age 4 and sent to work in a carpet factory. When he was finally freed, Iqbal spoke out about his treatment. Then he was shot and killed.
Kielburger couldn’t stop thinking about Iqbal and the countless number of child laborers he represented. Who would speak out for these children?
Kielburger rallied his classmates and established “Free the Children,” an organization dedicated to eradicating child slave labor around the world. They signed petitions and faxed world leaders and funded their little group through garage sales, car washes and bake sales. No one on the board of directors was older than 18.
Two years later, Kielburger accompanied police on a raid to free children in a factory, and he got to help escort those children back to their parents’ homes and witness the joyful reunions. His life’s mission was firmly established.
Today, Free the Children has built more than 650 schools and schoolrooms; provided 1 million people with clean water, health care and sanitation; and assisted 55,000 children each day in getting an education. It has created “Me to We” a social enterprise that funnels sales of goods back into its mission of helping children, educates millions of children about volunteerism and holds annual “We Days” to empower students to create change. In the past school year, these newly engaged students raised $3.5 million to support various international causes; logged 1.7 million volunteer hours; and observed 1.3 million hours of silence in solidarity with children in developing communities silenced by poverty and exploitation.
Kielburger recently reflected on what made his mission and message work. “We found this untapped interest and potential and desire. For the first time in these young people’s lives they weren’t on the receiving end,” he says. “We view youth not as problems to be solved, but as problem solvers… I think young people feel very empowered by that message.”
Old or young, sharing ideas and creating change has never been easier. It really just starts with an idea and the courage to share it.
How to Make Your Message Resonate
Regardless of whether you are trying to change the world, relate an idea of any kind to your audience or promote your business, there are several rules to keep in mind:
· Big ideas need simple words. Consider Apple’s “Think Different.”
· Select a familiar frame to wrap your message. Look for easily recognizable word patterns that resonate with people, like Las Vegas’ tourism campaign, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Try repeating letter sounds or creating parallel structures with your phrases like New York’s “See something, say something.”
· Summarize succinctly and cut the clutter: The more information pushed toward us, the less we hear. Redundancy kills. Say it and stop.
— Diana Booher, CEO, Booher Consultants communication counseling and training firm; author of 23 books on communications including Communicate with Confidence