Walking the Emergency Preparedness Talk (Opinion)

Earthquake experience persuades others to action.

by / May 19, 2009

In 1988, a moderate earthquake shook the San Francisco Bay Area - an unremarkable occurrence for most, a poignant event for me. A tall, solid-oak bookcase nearly toppled onto a "fort" made of chairs and blankets my two nephews had constructed at the bookcase's base. They went home about 30 minutes prior to the temblor, but their fortress remained. Were it not for the groundswells of that quake literally catching the plunging bookcase and thrusting it back against the wall, and had those two little guys still been in there playing, it would have been catastrophic.

The next Saturday, we went to the hardware store and found L-brackets, lag bolts and stud finders.

We got home and I announced that I would be the one to do this task. I started by finding the stud, then drilling a hole ... and no stud. I tried again - no stud. Seven holes later, I found the stud. We were renters at the time. When we moved, we easily repaired the wall with toothpaste (I now recommend spackle) and received all of our deposit back.

My job at the time of this quake was to motivate the community to secure its bookcases, and I hadn't even persuaded myself to do so. That motivated me to help others with this easy task, and also to learn what behavioral research has to teach about constructing messages that motivate action. Here's what I've learned:

1. If you don't walk the walk, you cannot effectively talk the talk. You won't persuade people to take your message to heart and do something if you don't follow your own advice. Your message will lack emotion and passion, which are critical elements in any persuasive endeavor.

2. A poignant story is an invaluable teaching aid. Many have reported back to me - sometimes years later - that my stories motivated them to stop procrastinating and take action.

3. Peer-reviewed research has demonstrated the value of adhering to the following formula when constructing a message to motivate preparedness activity: Threat (i.e., consequence + probability) = Response (i.e., effectiveness + capability).

Threat must balance Response in the message. The threat's consequences and the likelihood of those consequences occurring inform the message's why (i.e. "Why do you want me to do this?"). This threat must match the response (i.e., "OK, I get the why. Now what should I do about it?"). Too much threat will scare people. Too much response will overwhelm people. Too little threat doesn't compel action. But the right amount of response will show precisely how the recommended action reduces or eliminates the threat's stated consequences.

The tipping point for a preparedness action ultimately hinges on whether or not the person accepts that she or he can actually do the recommended response. This is where most preparedness messages fall woefully short.

A staple of many preparedness campaigns is a comprehensive checklist of activities to complete. A checklist simply doesn't build my confidence to go to the hardware store, find the right stuff, spend the requisite $1.50, return home, find a wall stud, drill a hole and expend the necessary five minutes attaching the brackets and bolts.

My most persuasive message is my own preparedness story. I explain the details of the threat and response. I use my experience to answer the questions, and people walk out the door feeling enabled, empowered and motivated.

Remember, the passion that persuades stems from walking the preparedness talk.