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Provocative messages

Posted by Gale Bernhardt Sep 22, 2008

I mentioned to that last week that I attended an open space conference. The keynote session on Tuesday was titled, "Making a Difference on Purpose: The Endgame of


Communication" delivered by professor Sam Ham. No, Sam is not a Dr. Seuss character; but he did mention that his mother had a sense of humor. It must be genetic, as his email is



The first slide of the presentation noted, "Making a difference by making meaning." I think this is the challenge of anyone trying to get other people to care and change behaviors. While the presentation was for those trying to make a difference for environmental issues, I'll apply the concepts to health and fitness.



The communication strategies he covered included:


  • Didactic paradigm

  • Infotainment paradigm

  • Meaning making paradigm





Didactic paradigm



The basics of this concept is that if people know what we know (all of "us" already hooked on health, fitness, exercise and simply living an active lifestyle) they will care as we care.



It doesn't take much looking around to see that providing loads of facts about the benefits of exercise and healthy eating in newspapers, magazines, online and on television does not have an impact on the majority of people. Knowledge does not equal caring and tougher yet, does not equal behavior changes or action.



That's not to mean that science and statistics are useless and we should quit publishing data and facts. Science is one of the tools to help us drive home important points.



Infotainment paradigm



This paradigm uses the EROT model that says if a presentation is enjoyable, relevant, organized and thematic it will get the desired behavior results. Dr. Ham argues that holding an audience's attention and creating an entertaining experience does not guarantee you will accomplish anything else.



Meaning making paradigm



This is really the challenge of all communicators looking for any audience to change behaviors. This takes the EROT model another step. Dr. Ham said, "You make a difference when your audiences make their own meaning."



I don't believe that NBC's goal ever was, or is, to motivate people to enter a triathlon; but a good number of people, including me, have been motivated to enter a triathlon because of that television show. What is it about the show that sparks viewer action?



I think different items within the program spark different viewers to action. Below are a few of the items from past programs that I think provoke viewers to think, "Hey I want to do a triathlon." Or they may think, "If that person can do a triathlon, I can too."


  • Stories of athletes that have overcome significant health odds such as battling a disease or losing a limb.

  • Those that take on triathlon to lose weight.

  • People that do the event to raise awareness for other issues.

  • Athletes that train and race the event in honor of another person.

  • The sheer difficulty of the event.

  • Wonder about one's own body and if it is capable of a triathlon. Intrigue.


I'm sure there are many more connections to the audience that are not listed here.



Many of you that read this blog are already very fit and healthy. If you want some of your friends and family members to be active and move to better nutritional habits, the challenge is find that communication tool or tools that spur people to think about how your message relates to them personally.



In short, your challenge is to craft a provocative message that stimulates your audience to make their own personal meaning, which can then be transferred to action. 



"The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation."  - Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage



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