April 4, 2018

Mastering communications for change — Les Robinson

Story and photos by Russ Grayson, March 2018

How many of us would like to convince people to make a change for the better?

Les Robinson would. Les is one of our most experienced trainers of people and organisations that want to effectively communicate and facilitate change. So would Fiona Campbell, Randwick Council’s sustainability educator who organised Les’ workshop as part of her Community Leadership training program. The program provides the skills that enable organisations and individuals to assume a leadership role in their communities.

We write. We speak. We encourage. Sometimes, we cajole. But all too often nobody listens. Even when they do listen they will not act. This is disappointing and when it happens time after time it discourages us. We give up and retreat into our own little bubble where we do what we think is right and ignore what is going on outside our garden gate.

Why is this when we have all the facts at hand? Why is it that people do little to make the changes in their lives that would contribute to resilient and sustainable towns, cities and communities?

Les knows that people will act when we communicate effectively. He knows that improving how we communicate, how we construct our messages, can either turn people away or recruit them as change agents to build better communities and better organisations.

All it takes is understanding how our words, our images, our video stories can be shaped to encourage this change in behaviour. It isn’t hard. All it takes is a little understanding.

That was what the Master Communicator for Change workshop was all about.


“The climate change campaigners gave all the facts but people wouldn’t reduce their impact. This was disappointing and discouraging for the campaigners”, Les said.

He was illustraiting how effective communication is about far more than facts and information.

Les took participants through the Iceberg Theory of Communications. What we see above the water is supported by what we don’t see below the surface. Effective communications:

  • grab attention by surprising us; this, not facts, is what people notice and remember, especially when we appeal to emotion in our messages
  • provide information
  • are attributed to a credible source so as to generate trust; do we trust the voice delivering the message? does the voice care about us? is it honest? this is about perceptions of those making messages
  • link to the audience’s human values; these are values we all share; they might be about the future of their family in an insecure world or the liveability of their neighbourhood; we frame our communications to show their values are our values.


Humans are emotional. Emotion, the gut reaction, is how we often react to something. For some, their reaction doesn’t move beyond the emotional to the rational. Emotion, then, is an important feature in making our messages effective.

In their book, Make It stick, Chip and Dan Heath identify how stories and rumours are spread. They ientify common characteeristics. A message that spreads is:

  • short enough to be remembered
  • unexpected and surprising enough to make it interesting and sharable
  • concrete, it is about real people and familiar objects
  • credible enough to be believable
  • emotional enough to create a positive or negative emotional response
  • story; it tells a tale.

(Yes, there’s an acronym there).


Facts are overrated in creating behavioural, organisational and social change, Les told us. Simply giving facts and loading our communications with them leads to denial and resistance. He used the potential of the onlne carbon footprint software, where people estimate their footprint, to make people feel bad about themselves and give up. Don’t make people feel wrong, Les advised.

Used cleverly, facts sometimes do lead to change. The meme about how many spoons of sugar are in a can of coke is an example. It uses surprise to ask a catchy question that few have an answer to about a common beverage. In doing so it encourages people to read on. It is about a fact but does not bombard us with facts. It is a simple fact people can easily relate to that can lead to personal change.

As well as offering too many facts in communications, persuasion, especially ‘don’t’ messages, can also cause resistance. They make people feed bad about themselves and become defensive. Such messages can produce a ‘boomerang effect’ of worsening behaviour. Evidence for this comes from anti-littering, anti-alcohol and other ‘anti’ campaigns.

Facts rarely travel. Stories do. We make a work picture. Word of mouth remains an effective communications channel.


In journalism, articles are designed to inform people about somnething that has happened or might happen, to familiarise them with some development and the arguments around it and, in some forms of journalism, to analyse an idea. These take a shortform (short article) or longform (long article) format depending on the space available for the story and on the need to fully report it.

There are other formats we can use to produce our messages that are catchy and memorable. We can format them as:

  • a movie poster
  • a character reference
  • a kid’s party invitation
  • a cooking recipe
  • a diary entry
  • a thank you letter
  • a royal invitation
  • a ‘dear John’ letter
  • a love letter
  • an obitiary.

Imagination is the only limit on innovative storytelling through message structure.


Workshop participants came mainly from community organisations and NGOs. They also included individual change makers who use the Ripple Effect in their communities whereby their example ripples out to influence others.

There was so much more to this practical workshop where we worked in groups to shape messages. Like his earlier Passion Mashin’ — Reviving Your Community Group and Changeology workshops, and his Facilitate With Confidence workshop the following Saturday, Master Communication for Change left participants with a different understanding of how to shape communications that are not bland recitations of facts that few remember and do not read like PR-speak.

Les Robinson is the author of Changeology — How to Enable Groups, Communities, and Societies to Do Things They've Never Done Before.

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