Two new Manuals for Activists, with some useful lessons

August 13, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been taking advantage of the summer lull to skim some of the backlog of tomes that have accumulated on my study floor. Some were so bad and/or obscure that they really don’t deserve a mention, but two on activism got my attention.

First up, Be the Change by Gina Martin. Full disclosure, I bought this by mistake, mixing up my Gina Martins with my Gina Millers. So instead of how to use the law to oppose Brexit, I got a guide to changing the law based on Gina Martin’s successful campaign to get a new law on ‘upskirting’ in England and Wales (Scotland already had one).

The blurb sums it up nicely: ‘In June 2017, a man took a photo up Gina Martin’s skirt at a music festival. The police told her that this was not a sexual offence; the man would not be charged.
The law had let Gina down, and her first reaction was resignation. It’s too big, too scary, too complicated for someone like me to challenge this. But something inside her had snapped. Gina was tired of accepting sexual harassment as a fact of life. Eighteen months later, she had changed the law and made upskirting a criminal offence.’

The book is a manual for activists (would be or actual), wonderfully upbeat and full of extremely practical advice. Although it does have some reflections on white privilege and activism, you won’t find all that theoretical stuff I write about power and complex systems in here. But you will find many of the ‘so whats’ in terms of campaigns and advocacy.

Along the way the book covers how to design a campaign; honing your elevator pitch; tips on public speaking; social media (how to deal with online abuse) and how to prep and handle interviews on radio (take your chewing gum out!) and TV (make sure they pay for the taxi to the studio); how to find and win over the celebs for profile and the gatekeepers you need inside the system to come over to your cause.

Yes it’s a bit northern and privileged (as she acknowledges) but a lot of activists are just that, and Gina Martin thinks there could be a lot more of them, working more effectively to bring about change. It’s not a book for academics, but it could make a lovely present for a young person you think might want to get more involved in changing the world (146 shopping days to Christmas, people!).

Joseph Romm’s ‘How to go Viral and Reach Millions’ is one of those books that induces a mix of queasiness and embarrassment in any true Englishman. Bigging himself up is not a problem for Mr Romm (‘use the secrets in my book and you’ll maximise your chances of going viral’).

But swallow your distaste (and maybe some other stuff) and there are some nuggets in here:

  • The importance of repeating the message til you are howling with boredom (by which time people will have barely started registering it)
  • The communicative power of chiasmus (‘It’s not the men in my life; it’s the life in my men’, Mae West)
  • The power of metaphor (‘candle in the wind’)

But the most useful section (for me anyway) was on the power of headlines, whether subject lines on emails, or at the top of a Facebook ad or blog post, or the first line of a tweet. As well as catching people’s eye/drawing them in, these are important in their own right – far more people see them than will go on to read anything else, so what kind of message do they get? So you should either test multiple headlines for what you are writing, or nick the rules of success from those that have.

In 2018, Romm tested these two very similar headlines on a piece on the ThinkProgress blog:

  • GOP congressman retools Tesla car battery to power his off-grid solar home
  • GOP congressman powers his off-grid solar home with a Tesla battery

Result? The second headline got three times more full reads than the first. The reason is that it gets to the ‘man bites dog’ twist earlier – Republican Congressmen aren’t supposed to have solar homes. So it draws people in.

I’m going to have to spend some more time on headlines on this blog, and see if we can do some testing – cd be fun!

Other top tips on headlines: the successful ones use alliteration and figures of speech (puns, sarcasm, irony, metaphor).

Overall, no I don’t think this blog, or anything else I write, is about to go viral, but Romm’s advice may help a bit.