Beyond War: Now in Video

You’ve read the prose and heard the audio. Now watch the video, starring Ben of Ben & Jerry’s fame. This is very effective communication — it brings emotion to what deserves to be an emotional issue (the stockpile of nuclear weapons and the destructive power it holds). (Thanks to Matt V for the link.)

Beyond War: The audio version

In the book, we tell a story about a group called “Beyond War,” which tried to mobilize public opinion against the nuclear arms race. As part of their anti-nukes presentations, they’d do a demonstration that involved dropping BBs in a bucket. (See full passage below for context.) Now you can hear what it sounds like for yourself. (Thanks to Dan O’Day for the clip.)


The use of vivid details is one way to create internal credibility–to weave sources of credibility into the idea itself.  Another way is to use statistics.  Since grade school, we’ve been taught to support our arguments with statistical evidence.  But statistics tend to be eye-glazing.  How can we use them while still managing to engage the audience?

Geoff Ainscow and other leaders of the “Beyond War” movement in the 1980s, were determined to find a way to address the following paradox: When we see a child running with scissors, we wince.  We shout at them to stop.  Yet when we read in the newspaper about nuclear weapons—with the power to destroy millions of children—it only provokes, at best, a moment of dismay.

“Beyond War” was started by a group of citizens who were alarmed by the arms race of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  By then, the combined Soviet and American nuclear arsenals were sufficient to destroy the world multiple times.  The “Beyond War” participants went door-to-door in their neighborhoods, hoping to  galvanize a public outcry against the arms race.

They struggled with how to make credible their belief that the arms race was out of control.  How do you make clear to people the staggering destructive capability of the world’s nuclear stockpile?  It’s so intangible, so invisible.  And yet telling stories, or providing details, seems inadequate: To grapple with the nuclear arms race requires grappling with the scale of it.  Scale relies on numbers.

“Beyond War” would arrange “house parties”—a host family would invite over a group of friends and neighbors and invite a Beyond War representative to speak to them.  Ainscow recounts a simple demonstration that the group would use in its presentations.  Ainscow would carry a metal bucket to the talk.  At the appropriate point in the presentation, he’d take a BB out of his pocket and drop it in the empty bucket.  The BB would make a loud clatter as it ricocheted and settled.  He’d say, “This is the Hiroshima bomb.” He would spend a few minutes describing the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb, the miles of flattened buildings, the tens of thousands killed immediately, the larger number of people with burns or other longer term health problems.

Next, he’d drop 10 BBs into the bucket.  The clatter was louder and more chaotic.  “This is the firepower of the missiles on one U.S. or Soviet nuclear submarine.”

Finally, he’d ask the attendees to close their eyes.  He’d say, “This is the world’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons.”  Then, Ainscow would pour 5,000 BBs into the bucket (one for every nuclear warhead in the world).  The noise was startling, even terrifying.  He says, “The roar of the BBs went on and on.  Afterward there was always dead silence.”

This approach is an ingenious way to convey a statistic.  Let’s unpack it a bit.  First, ”Beyond War” had a core belief: “The public needs to wake up and do something about the arms race.”  Second, they determined what was unexpected about the message: Everyone knew that the world’s nuclear arsenal had grown since World War II, but no one realized the scale of the growth.  Third, they had a statistic to make their belief credible—i.e., that the world had 5,000 nuclear warheads, when a single one was enough to decimate a city.  But the problem was that the number 5,000 means very little to people.  The trick was to make this large number meaningful.

The final twist was the demonstration—the bucket and the BBs which added a sensory dimension to an otherwise abstract concept.  Furthermore, the demonstration was carefully chosen—BBs are weapons, and the sound of the BBs hitting the bucket was fittingly threatening.

Notice something that may be counter-intuitive: The statistic didn’t stick.  It couldn’t possibly stick.  No one who saw the demonstration would remember, a week later, that there were 5,000 nuclear warheads in the world.

What did stick was the sudden, visceral awareness of a huge danger—the massive scale-up from World War II’s limited atomic weaponry to the present worldwide arsenal.  It was irrelevant whether there were 4,135 nuclear warheads or 9,437.  The point was to hit people in the gut with the realization that this was a problem that was out of control.

This is the most important thing to remember about using statistics effectively.  Rarely will statistics be meaningful in and of themselves.  Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship.  It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than to remember the statistic.

J.C. Penney: If you make your wife mad, buy your way out.

I know this “Doghouse” campaign is supposed to be funny, in that Bud-Light Man-Humor kind of way, but it’s hard to escape the ickiness of the core message: When you do something really bad that makes your wife furious at you, buy her a diamond and it’s all good.

Nor does this interpretation involve a deep-feminist critique of the text. No, in fact, here’s what it says on the site: “Here are three perfect diamond gifts that are essentially ‘get out of the doghouse free’ cards.”

You wonder whether the whole concept would seem as cute if the message were slightly revised to read: Next time you do something harmful to your relationship, just write your wife a check for $500 and watch her grateful little eyes light up!

What it’s like to be an alcoholic

After 16 years without a drink, Jim Atkinson confesses that the urge is still strong at holiday times. How can an alcoholic describe to a non-alcoholic what it’s like to crave that drink? Atkinson uses analogies:

There’s something in the alone-in-the-crowdness of the holiday party circuit, the forced pleasantries and laughter, the charge to be friendly and engaging — but only in a trivial and superficial way — that is very much like the existential condition of the alcoholic psyche. So the holidays not only remind me of drink; they remind me of how it felt to be a drunk.

In fact, I have frequently been overheard to explain to the sort of person who still finds it good sport to ask me how I came to be addicted to alcohol and what it’s like now to be stone cold sober, “You know how you feel at Christmas at the umpteenth family gathering or company cocktail party. You really need that drink, right? That’s the way I used to feel all the time.”

Then later in the piece:

If you are among the 80 percent of people who drink “normally,” think of your relationship to booze as a minor friendship that strikes up at certain times of the week, or even the year. Think of the drunk’s as a torrid, reckless and self-destructive affair. Whiskey she is a bad lover, and all that. It is a decidedly adolescent affair, a kind of puppy love that overtakes all good judgment and reason. In that sense, I’ve come to understand that, if compulsive drinking is about different genes, it also about a certain arrested development that can’t be liberated until the addict takes the cure.

Tutoring your kid in math

I loved this story sent in by Lila M and got her permission to post it here.

My six year old son, who just started first grade, was having a bit of trouble with math – his teacher had given out a set of (rather complicated, in my opinion) problems, where the kids had to figure out the missing number: 2 + X = 5; 3 + X = 7, etc. He was having a hard time conceptualizing the whole thing, and I was having a hard time explaining it to him.
After several frustrating minutes, which ended with him throwing the book down and whining, “I can’t do this!”, I suddenly remembered: make it concrete! I asked: “Imagine you have two candies, but you really want seven. How many do you need to get?” He looked at me with a “no duh” expression on his face and said, “five, of course”. And so it went.
Several days later, we sat down to do a page of homework, and he was whizzing right through it, no trouble at all. I asked him what had happened, why he suddenly found it so easy.
“I’m thinking of candies, Mommy.”

Perfect use of concreteness. (And as a side note, who knew 6 year-olds were doing algebra these days?)