Syzygy #12: being vulnerable, & recycling the truth.
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Syzygy #12: being vulnerable, & recycling the truth.

Please enjoy Syzygy #12. Do share with friends - they can subscribe below.

Good stories need vulnerability

I always found Superman to be a rather dull superhero. He's more or less indestructible, aside from a small bunch of green rocks few people can get hold of.

Most villains don't stand a chance against him: he can fly anywhere in an instant, he can shoot lasers out of his eyes, he can lift anything. He can even time travel by flying around the sun.


The flawed heroes are much more interesting.

Batman, of course, is mentally disturbed and not even super - he's just really rich.

But the likes of Spiderman and Wolverine are compelling because combined with their superpowers they also have one key human component: vulnerability.

Spiderman lost his uncle and surrogate father to a robbery, and Wolverine was left rough and hard edged by being forced to fight and kill in his younger years. Both are good people left scared by life and make mistakes along the way trying to make sense of what happened.

This came to mind while I was reading this beautiful piece by David Whyte:

This speaks to vulnerability not being a weakness but being the very foundation of what makes us who we are, the element that helps us connect and grow.

Art, says Whyte, cannot be created without connecting with vulnerability.

Vulnerability, then, is what makes a good story. Invincibility and perfection don't so much.

Too many people and organisations try to tell their stories like they are Superman, while too few tell stories like they are Spiderman (fewer still like Batman, which is probably for the best).

Telling your story as if getting from A to Z was all smooth sailing convinces no one.

Telling your story as if there were no doubts nor mistakes is not believable.

Telling your story without friction doesn't reflect real life.

When it comes to creating anything that needs to move people, vulnerability is the key ingredient.

Little big ideas: hearts over heads

I worked early in my career with charities and other organisations receiving public donations.

What's important to remember is that people donate money with their hearts, not their heads (connecting both is the jackpot).

Here are five tips I stick to when communicating for charities:

1. Ask for a specific sum

Don't just ask people to 'give generously' - ask for a specific sum such as '$100 will support a family for a year.'

2. The three act structure

Start with the problem, then show the solution, and make it sound easy.

Example: 'Children are in danger, for only $10 you can save the lives of ten children today.'

3. People, not causes

People give to people, so feature individuals. Preferably have them looking at the camera in photos/videos.

4. Be precise

Tell them what the money will do as specifically as possible, and reassure donors that most of it (or all of it) will go directly to help the people who need it.

5. Be fast

When emergencies hit, you don't have to worry about looking professional. In fact, that might damage you. What's important is to tell the story quickly.

How to recycle the truth

Manipulation happens all around us, and sometimes it can be so clever you can't help but be impressed. And then upset.

Over the weekend I was reminded of the classic story about the plastics industry using recycling to dupe us into buying MORE plastics.

Then later in the week there was a media storm about a World Health Organisation (WHO) report.

It was labelled sexist for, according to reports, suggesting women should be banned from drinking alcohol . This had the strong whisky-scented whiff of the alcohol industry behind it.

Let's start with the plastics.

Plastic fantastic

I remember as a kid seeing a rather modern looking wheelie bin arrive in my home. This, apparently, was no ordinary bin.

I was told by my parents, the government, and the television that I could help the planet by placing my plastic in this new bin. Great.

Another great thing: it was easy. I hardly had to change my habits at all.

All I had to do was throw the plastic in a different bin. Lazy Simon gets a pat on the back from Mother Nature several times a day through this small, simple act.

Except, nothing in life is actually that easy...

It turns out that only around 10 per cent of plastics can be recycled. Even if we could recycled it all perfectly, it's still cheaper to make new plastic. Companies had figured out how to make money while making me feel good.

Most of my garbage was in fact being sent overseas.

First to China, and then elsewhere when they had had enough. Much of the rest was just being incinerated.

Amazingly, I began to learn about this while working at Greenpeace years later - yet my habit did not change. It was so embedded.

I handled video footage of vulnerable people living among mountains of plastic waste. I saw how dangerous and toxic it is. I saw how this waste from from countries like my own.

Yet, after watching these videos, I'd go home and throw my plastic in the recycle bin, no questions asked.

That's because if there's one thing we love, it's convenience + feeling like we've done something good.

I felt good doing this small act.

By handling two bins rather than one, I was signalling that I cared and that I was doing something about it - with, as Seth Godin puts it, 'just the right amount of effort'.

The oil companies were brilliant marketers in this case.

They tapped into the environmental movements and had activists calling for governments to support recycling. Governments then got on board with the idea and footed the bill for collecting and managing the waste.

The public felt good about doing their bit, and began consuming more plastic than before because, well, it was all being recycled and it didn't matter - right?

The companies got richer while they looked greener and their customers turned a blind eye.

Alcohol ban

WHO last week got into hot water when their draft (I repeat: draft) report about alcohol was labelled 'sexist' because, said some news outlets, it proposed an alcohol ban on women of child-bearing age.

Spoiler alert: it did not suggest anything of the sort.

I've flicked through the draft and indeed it's not perfect. It's almost like it's a first draft or something. But it also doesn't say anything close to what the likes of The Irish Post and Daily Mail reported.

But the news headlines caught on and a stream of 'how dare they!' tweets started to roll in, with experts jumping in to add their 2 cents.

I can't help but wonder if, like the plastics conspiracy, someone - or some people - are behind this reaction.

They found a shocking headline and, knowing people don't generally read reports, knew that the myth will travel a long way before the truth can even get its trousers on to catch up.

And by then, people don't really care anyone as they're angry about the next thing.

Before long experts in various fields, who have likely never read the report, are asked to comment.

'Yes an alcohol ban on women is sexist', 'yes why focus on child bearing age?, 'yes why does this only focus on women of child bearing age?'.

Experts begin answering questions created by someone somewhere else, with very different motives.

What can be done?

Not very much. But we can learn from it.

While I was at Greenpeace, we worked on a Dove campaign targetting Unilever - a company with a multi-billion dollar advertising budget.

The original:

The Greenpeace version:

There's no way to compete, but there is a way to use ideas for good.

They have some of the most creative minds in the industry coming up with catchy adverts and slogans - so why not tap into that?

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