BtC4A: A Note on Being the Change

It’s that time again!

Each quarter, Blog the Change for Animals participants write about a variety of worthy causes and how even small actions by the rest of us can actually affect positive change for companion animals.  Puppy mill awareness and pet store sales. Dog auctions.  Responsible spaying and neutering.  Fostering and volunteering at rescue agencies.  Heightened awareness of pet over-population and adoptable animals.  Just click for the blog hop list to check them out.

But I want to take a moment this time to put the changes aside and focus on the communications made about those changes – a frequent pet peeve of mine (no pun intended).

Because even though your message may be very important and passionate, how it is received is what causes not only the general public but also corporate executives and government officials to act.

I mean, we all know that pets with better photos on rescue webstes get adopted faster – that very concept should be expanded to the whole of animal advocacy.

Basically, what I’m saying is that the delivery is just as important as the message itself.

And this sentiment has two parts as I see it: technical and rational.

The Technical

This is most simple, if you ask me, but oh-so-frequently disregarded.  What I’m calling the technical is how you frame your message – literally.  I’m talking proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation and easy to navigate websites.

This kind of neglect irks me regularly when Facebook friends frequently show off how the public school system failed them and their inability to distinguish between your and you’re.  For some reason, sloppy sentence structure and punctuation abuse seem almost more rampant with the voices of animal causes.

Sure, we all can make mistakes and the occasional type-o – I get that.  Should an inadvertent error appear in my post here, the irony will not be lost on me.  And given most of the audience of Blog the Change is other bloggers who write on a regular basis, I may even just be ineffectually preaching to the choir here.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t still regularly come across websites, blog posts, Facebook groups, and online petitions advocating for animal welfare that have seemingly thrown concerns for the English language out the window.

And that kind of thing can make it hard to respect the author of the message.  In some cases, it even makes it difficult to read and understand the message.  Sure, you may have passion on your side, and may even be completely legitimized in your argument, but I hesitate to share or jump on board a poorly packaged cause.  This is even more the case when trying to appeal for legislative changes with your local government, since no politician will hitch his wagon to a sloppy campaign.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to rush off and complete a Masters degree in English.  You don’t even need to master “whom” or how to use a semicolon.  But I am saying proper capitalization goes a long way.  And for the love of all things furry, learn to restrain yourself when it comes to exclamation or question marks and ellipses.  Heck, these days spell-check does most of the work for you, so there’s really no excuse anymore.

An example of terrible web design from the list. I don't know about you, but I'm not buying what they're selling.

How you deliver the words is also more important.  Comic Sans font in sparkly yellow atop a camouflage background?  You’re begging not to be taken seriously.  Haven’t updated your website since 1998?  Have a 25 minute Flash intro with no ‘skip this’ option?  Just like any other organization, some web design common sense and logical, user-friendly layout should be priorities, especially given the web is the hub of so many causes.  I won’t pick on anyone in particular, but let’s just say that if your website at all resembles any of the ones on this list, you have a problem.

Basically, think of your writing as scenery on a drive, and the words and punctuation are the road that you travel to see it.  The drive is a lot smoother – and you can take in the scenery much better – on a nicely paved, error-free highway.  On the other hand, if you’re travelling on gravel with potholes and washboard, your attention is divided trying to navigate the bumpy road and you aren’t able to focus as well on the sights.   You want the reader’s drive to be easy.  (Thanks to an English prof long ago for this analogy that clearly stuck with me all these years.)

The Rational

This PETA ad, Everyday Dogs, sure stirs up some controversy and emotion, doesn’t it?

It’s no shock to see PETA try to push buttons, is it?  It’s kind of their ‘thing’.

But just because it works for them doesn’t mean that is the right strategy for your local, grassroots campaign.

“Activist” is a dirty word in politics and the media, and your opponents are going to do their best to label you as a crazy radical who shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Trust me – this “tofu-eating dolphin marry-er” knows from personal experience with ASLC.

Expect your message to be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and hyperbolized.

Starting with shock value can result in the focus being zeroed in to that alone and the rational argument and facts behind you may be ignored entirely.  If your goal is to educate ‘Joe Public’ on a certain issue or petition government for legislative change, like I’ve said, you and your cause need to be taken seriously.

Do positive, feel-good ads risk being boring by comparison? I doubt this particular PETA ad sparked the usual firestorm.

Pictures of the horrors of puppy mills, for example, may draw tears and spark outrage, and may even result in important media coverage – and I’m not saying they should necessarily be hidden away entirely – but I don’t think your campaign should rely on them.

Think, for example, of the ingenious I Hate Balls campaign that appeals to humour in a hilarious viral video that makes the point just as well as, if not better than, depressing photos to the tune of Sarah McLachlan.  Better, really, if you consider that I will actually watch and share the entire I Hate Balls video.

Too much in-your-face material, too much anger, slander, guilt, preaching, or reactionary rants can really scare off your intended audience.  You do need a well-presented rational argument at the heart of your issues to garner long-term support and a serious audience willing to take action on your behalf.

The Bottom Line

Animal causes are hot topics and speak to issues very close to home for many people, but they are rarely ‘sexy’ issues in the eyes of politicians that lead to quick legislative action.  Everyone knows advocates are passionate, but they are also intelligent, informed, and educated – I just wish those qualities were just as obvious.  There’s no point in creating bigger hurdles for ourselves by not packaging the messages as neatly as we could.

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About ThatJenK
Writing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 90% pictures of my dogs; 10% miscellaneous opinions nobody asked for.

17 Responses to BtC4A: A Note on Being the Change

  1. 2browndawgs says:

    If you want my honest opinion about what hurts the various animal causes, it is not the lack of spelling or grammar. It is ads like the one above from PETA: “Buying animals is killing animals” . People do not want to be preached to or put on a guilt trip. They tend to turn off to the message. A pound puppy is not right for every home, just like a purebred is not right for every home. The idea that PETA doesn’t understand the difference just speaks to their ignorance. The two “factions” could really help each other out. However, it is difficult to bring groups together when you have such over-the-top messages.

    • Tegan says:

      I took objection to the claim from PETA, too. I also find it ironic that PETA makes such ads, but kills a huge percentage of pets that come through their care. However, the packaging of the PETA ad is pretty, and it’s controversial enough to start discussion, which is probably all PETA was going for.

  2. Thank you for carrying the banner for grammar and spelling. Illiteracy ruins the message, no question.

    (Just to tickle your funny bone, here’s a very poorly-designed but dense list of writing do’s and don’ts by someone who is hardly an expert, just a pedant: http://www.greenigraphics.blogspot.com/2012/01/expert-speaks.html)

    Have fun on the hop! Get lots of hits!

  3. Pamela says:

    A piece of my post was going to touch on “couching the message.” But once I read your piece, I shortened my post and put a link sending people here. You put it so much better than I ever would have.

    There’s no shortage of good causes. But we can always use a few reminders about how to get people to listen.

  4. I love your point on correct grammar and spelling. I might also add clear organization. A post that meanders and is visually cluttered may make a wonderful point, but people may never find it.
    Peggy
    BTC4animals.com
    Peggy’s Pet Place

  5. Vicki Cook says:

    I agree that spelling and punctuation are important if you want your message to be taken seriously and also that humor or a feel-good message will do more to persuade people than beating them over the head with guilt (a la Sarah McLaughlin) or over-the-top messages (e.g. Peta). I think the Ad Council has done a great job of reaching people with their Shelter Pet Project.

  6. KimT says:

    Excellent reminder on what should really be basic for us all! The method of message most definitely affects the receipt of it – I do believe that various forms are most effective for various types of people, after all we’re not all the same, but the extremes are undoubtedly the least effective.

  7. Tegan says:

    Thank-you for this post. Love it! I think framing of a message is very important, and agree with most everything you posted. I’ve queued this post to go on my Twitter. 🙂

  8. Edie says:

    Great post except for the part about the ellipses… I love ellipses.

    I agree with 2BrownDawgs though that, in the general scheme of things, PeTa does more harm to animal causes than any ungrammatical blog post could. I will save the rant but both ads are off-putting in the extreme, more so than Sara Mclachlin’s — and she was the inspiration for my Pet Adoption Videos that Don’t Make Me Want to Kill Myself series. Most recently, Mitt Romney blamed all the negative attention he was getting for strapping the family dog on the car roof on PeTA. They make it so easy to put all animal welfare causes into the extremism box.

    And it’s not like they save animals.

    Oops, there was a rant after all.

  9. Kim Clune says:

    You are so right. “The delivery is just as important as the message itself.” Thank you for the reminder. People who make nice packages (balless or not) in social media get paid upwards of $75,000 a year – because the craft is that important. When a life depends upon it, we could all stand to step back and offer our little packaged messages a bit of proofreading and perspective.

    Thanks for Blogging the Change!
    Kim C.
    BTC4animals.com
    ThisOneWildLife.com

  10. uh-oh. I feel guilty this time.

    I chose to let a video speak for me….I chose not to use my own words 😦

  11. Kristine says:

    Thanks for sharing this important message. The medium is just as important, there is no doubt. Often even more so. Unfortunately, many animal welfare groups tend to overlook this and we are often perceived as “fringe” and “crazy cat ladies.” Unfortunately, I think PETA’s very impressive, very controversial, very offensive, campaigns are just as bad as other groups’ use of Comic Sans. They paint us all in a very negative light.

    In my opinion, it is vital to present a clear and professional front. The government isn’t going to take us seriously until we start speaking in their language.

  12. lexy3587 says:

    good points. I especially agree with not using a guilt trip to bludgeon people with your cause. The peta campaigns about not eating meat want me to sit in front of Pam Anderson’s house eating a burger. A valid argument about why I should reduce or eliminate meat from my diet would be much more likely to make me pay attention than a guilt trip.

  13. Pup Fan says:

    Great post – presentation makes a huge difference in how a message is received.

  14. lauren says:

    what a great post! i really can’t deal with peta at all. must they constantly be talking down to everyone? about everything? i mean, sheesh.

    on a side note, i do think we should start a campaign to teach people how to use the semicolon. it’s such a satisfying little punctuation mark. 🙂

  15. This was a really well written, well thought out post…and no errors that I caught. 😉

    I am mortified when I find typos on my own blog. Of course, it happens from time to time, but I try not to let it. As for what the pages look like, I personally have a hard time reading white or yellow lettering on a black background. It gives me a headache, and I often stop reading – even if it is about a topic that is important to me.

    That said, I really like Comic Sans. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing that I Hate Balls site – what a great spin on spay/neutering.

  16. Pingback: The Week in Tweets (25th January 2012) | Some Thoughts About Dogs

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