Changing minds by reaching hearts


Canada’s recent election offers a master class in change communications.

At its essence, the election was about change – the Liberals set out to convince Canadians that a change was needed, and that they were the best alternative. They succeeded, in large measure, by recognizing a fundamental truth of change communication:

Experience tells us that it’s futile to try to change people’s minds – the key is to work on changing the conditions, such that they change their own minds.

Consider this: If you had decided who you were going to vote for at the beginning of the election, could anyone have changed your mind? If your spouse, neighbour or colleague told you that you should really vote for another party, what effect would that have? What if a candidate told you to do so? Likely that would merely serve to entrench your original position. But if you read various articles, followed social media feeds, listened to interviews and engaged in conversations, you might just find yourself immersed in conditions that cause you to change your view.

And this is exactly what happened in Canada last month, millions of times over.

Through a sophisticated campaign with tight messages spread consistently and repeatedly across multiple channels, the Liberal party created an environment that was ripe for citizens to change their minds. And change they did – when the writ was dropped on August 2, 2015, 26% of Canadians reported an intention to vote Liberal, a figure that rose to 39.5% of the electorate supporting the Trudeau bid on Election Day.

What were the change communication dynamics at play? Here are a few key aspects:

  • The Liberals reached the electorate’s heads through their hearts. By evoking a compelling, visceral message of hope and change, the campaign successfully triggered an intellectual and behaviour change through the door of emotions. This is a classic, effective formula for communicating change, which the Liberals executed with near flawless precision.
  • The campaign acknowledged that change exercises are based on the polarity between fear and hope, and artfully set out to craft messages appealing to the precisely right point along that spectrum – the narrative was one of hope, set against the backdrop of a shadow of fear. Interestingly, the fear that was evoked was not the traditional thematic of economic or safety concerns, but rather the fear of the incumbents winning another mandate.
  • The Liberal communication strategy recognized that while people like to “buy”, they don’t like to be “sold” on ideas. This was particularly striking in engagements with youth audiences, in which Trudeau encouraged young people to vote, suggesting that it didn’t matter who they voted for (“but of course, we think you should vote for us”). This tone of humility and reframing the electoral issue as one of electoral participation rather than partisanship achieved the objective of creating the conditions for voters (particularly in key strategic segments) to change their own minds.

As federal communicators will increasingly be called upon to lead transformation through their work, these lessons in change communications from the new government are instructive, both in their approach, and in their remarkable efficacy.

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