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Crafting Memorable Messages that Capture the Public's Attention

WASHINGTON (AFP eWire - Feb. 2, 2004) - Studying urban legends can teach nonprofits how to craft appealing and galvanizing messages, according to an article in the winter 2003 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Urban Social messages often become lost because they are bland and clichéd, but six aspects of urban legends show how nonprofits can get their point across and make their message stick, said article author Chip Heath, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business who has spent the past seven years studying urban legends.

Urban legends are stories or incidents that are circulated into society through various anecdotes and secondhand accounts. Most often urban legends are untrue or unverifiable, but have a life of their own because of their sensational nature.

In the article 'Loud and Clear: Crafting Messages That Stick - What Nonprofits Can Learn from Urban Legend,' Heath explains six keys to the success of urban legends, using the acronym SUCCESS:

  • Simple -use analogies
  • Unexpected - develop jarring, unexpected messages
  • Concrete - use specific language and details
  • Credentialed - develop messages that rely on authorities or testable ideas
  • Emotional - craft messages that tap into negative or positive feelings
  • Stories - tell stories about real people

'Urban legends succeed even though they lack many advantages enjoyed by organizational messages,' Heath writes. 'They don't get a boost from top management. They don't have advertising budgets, newsletters or PR teams. People often don't like them and websites actively debunk them. But still they spread.'

So, how do nonprofits use the lessons of urban legends in their organizations? Heath credits the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) with taking the idea of simple messages seriously. The center educates the public on nutrition, and in doing so, doesn't try to explain the government's recommended daily allowance of fat, calories, sugar, etc., the article says. Instead, the center crafts messages that compare food servings to Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, something everyone understands. When alerting the public to the high fat content in a dish of fettuccine alfredo at an Italian restaurant, CSPI compared the meal to five Quarter Pounders and called it a 'heart attack on a plate,' according to the article.

Nonprofits also need to present concrete ideas and avoid jargon frequently used in the sector. 'Unfortunately, nonprofit language is not concrete,' Heath writes. 'From 'best practices' and 'outcome evaluations' to 'capacity' and 'empowerment' - nonprofit jargon is often so vague it's meaningless.'

In the mid-1980s the New York Transit Authority avoided jargon and convoluted messages in an effort to tackle graffiti in the city's subway system, according to the article. The transit authority's simple slogan soon became a mantra: No Graffiti.

Heath's article also describes the other key elements to urban legends and presents examples of how they were used effectively by nonprofits. AFP members can receive a free copy of the article by visiting the Stanford Social Innovation Review website.

Stanford Social Innovation Review was launched in the spring of 2003 to chronicle the social sector and promote innovative solutions to social problems. Published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the publication is the first by a leading school of management. The magazine frequently includes ideas and tools to help fundraisers in their philanthropic efforts.

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