The power of individuation

The front page of this morning’s New York Times shows a picture of a child. The caption? “A malnourished child at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. More than 500,000 Somali children are verging on starvation.

The message hits home. It’s hard to get your head around half a million children. Half a million children is abstract and overwhelming. But you can easily feel empathy for the individual child that is pictured here. Perhaps you’ll even feel compelled to help.

When you want to persuade on a large scale – maybe even change a culture – individuation is one of your strongest tools. Be concrete, specific, and individual; not abstract, complete, but thereby necessarily diffuse. Tell the story of one, not many (“a child in Somalia is starving”, not “hundreds of thousands are dying”). And if you need action, point your finger at one, not many (“you in the black sweater, call 911” rather than “help!”; “Mr. Smith, please set the example”, rather than “everyone should role-model the change”). Individuals respond to individuals; and that insight might just help you change the direction of the crowd.

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