“There’s a secret to creating change, and it’s this: that
you, we—all of us—are smart, capable, and good.“
And, if you want to drive action with your messages—if you want people to actually act on or in favor of your ideas—you can turn that secret into a simple test that can help make all of your messages stronger. But let me explain…
The quick version
- GOAL: Deliver a message that drives action.
- PROBLEM: By and large, how people behave reflects what they believe… doesn’t it? Yes… but not always the way we think. As counterintuitive as it may seem, in certain situations people will actually change their beliefs to match their behavior. That can create big problems when it comes to figuring out what information to include in your message.
- TRUTH: For most of us, though, there’s one belief that doesn’t change. Most of us need to believe, deep down, that we are smart, capable, and good.
- CHANGE: That’s why it can be so helpful to draft your message from the perspective of “unconditional positive regard,” with the assumption—and belief!—that your audience is smart, capable, and good already… regardless of what they’re doing or thinking now. It can help you frame any new behavior in a context that reinforces their “smart, capable, good” beliefs.
- ACTION: To make sure you’re doing that, test every element of your message, and even every touchpoint with your audiences and clients, through the lens of the “SCGT”—the “Smart, Capable, Good Test”:
- Does every element of your message, including how you’re delivering it, make your audience feel smart, capable, and good?
- If not, what can you do to make it so?
- GOAL REVISITED: When your message passes the SCGT, your audience is much more likely to act, because the action helps them feel more smart, capable, and good in the moment. Even better, your audience is more likely to keep acting—to achieve true, intrinsically motivated change—because they want to keep feeling smart, capable, and good. And, thanks to the big heaping dose of empathy an SCGT-passing message requires, you might even feel even more smart, capable, and good yourself. DOUBLE WIN.
If you want to go deeper
Full disclosure: the idea for creating a Smart, Capable, Good Test came as a result of a mastermind I was invited to speak to, a lovely group of folks who work with my brilliant friend, Phil Jones. (Want me to come speak to your mastermind or book club? Email Jen, the Tamsen Whisperer and she can help us set something up!) It’s a great way to put the idea of “smart, capable, good” into action.
And isn’t that what you’re hoping to have your messages do? Drive action from your audiences? (You’re reading this, so I’m guessing yes.) The challenge, as you may well know, is that not all messages do that. The reasons are varied, but one cause of message failure comes up over and over again: the often flat-out weird relationship between beliefs and behavior.
It’s true that often our behaviors are a result of beliefs—”Because I believe you’re a good person, I’m going to do this nice thing for you”—but in certain situations, the opposite is true.One cause of message failure comes up over and over again: the often flat-out weird relationship between beliefs and behavior. Click To Tweet
In certain situations, it’s our behavior that determines our beliefs.
Yep, mind-bending, I know. But that not-so-little switcheroo our brains pull on us is a HUGE influence in whether or not your message will be successful.
The discovery was first made by a psychologist named Leon Festinger, who was studying what happened with doomsday cults. You know the ones—they say the world is going to end on Date X. But, since those groups haven’t yet been correct about their predictions, Festinger wanted to know: what happens to “true believers” when the world doesn’t actually end?
What he found out: they double down. For those who were most invested in the end of the world—those that sold houses, said their goodbyes, etc.—they became even more convinced of the “rightness” of their actions even though the world didn’t end. No, instead, they took the world not ending as a sign of that rightness. In one case, the new story they told themselves was that the world didn’t end—and the spaceship didn’t come (!)—because they had been so devout and so successful getting the word out. Not only that, their devotion and effort was rewarded (they now believed) with a new mission: continue to spread the word.
The way I like to think about is this: We don’t do something because it’s right, though we believe we do…
We believe what we’re doing is right because we’re *already doing it*.
After all, if it wasn’t right, why would we? (At least that’s what we tell ourselves!)
So what’s going on here? Festinger had a name for it: “cognitive consonance.” It’s the need all we humans share to have our “cognitive elements”—our thoughts, beliefs, values, and actions—be consistent with one another. And our minds will go to incredible lengths to keep that consistency in line. As Festinger discovered, we’ll change our more lightly held beliefs in the name of that consistency, and as the philosopher Nietzche famously described, our memories:
“‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable.
Why does that happen? It happens because we have an essential human need to feel accepted, and valued, for who and what we are—regardless of our behavior. Or, as I like to say…
We need to believe—and we need others to believe—that we are smart, capable, and good.
So now you can see what sometimes happens when messaging goes wrong. If someone hears your message and it reinforces that smart, capable, good belief, they’ll likely take the action you recommend so they can continue to feel that way. But if something about your message doesn’t make them feel smart, capable and good, or worse, makes them feel not smart, not capable, and/or not good… yeah, bad things happen.
First, they likely won’t change their behavior, and second, they likely will change their beliefs… about you (the “shooting the messenger” effect is REAL). They—or rather, they’re story-seeking brains— will discount both you and your message as inconsistent with how they see the world, or want to.
You and your message aren’t doomed, though it may mean you need to work a bit more on what you say, and how. More importantly, it may mean you need to work on how you think about your audience in the first place.
Specifically, you need to…
Act (message!) as if your audience is already as smart, capable, and good as they want—or see themselves—to be.
The American psychologist Carl Rogers called this perspective “unconditional positive regard.” While he was recommending that therapists use this approach with their clients, it works well in any situation where you want or need someone to come to their own realization or conclusions about things.
When I spent 13 years moonlighting as a Weight Watchers leader, we had a similar approach. It was embodied in one of the tenets of the program, that “there is a positive intention behind every behavior“—yes, even not smart, not capable, and not good ones.
In other words, even when something or someone seems not smart, not capable, or not good to you, the idea is to look for the reasons that would make sense to them. Ask yourself, “Why would a smart, capable, and good person do or think those things?”
That perspective can help you start to better understand why and where your audience might be open to doing or thinking the things you want them to do or think instead, which can give you new ways to frame or articulate your ideas.
That perspective can also help you check your message once you’ve built it.
This is where the “Smart, Capable, Good Test” (the SCGT!) comes in. I outlined the test in the “quick version” above, and it’s pretty simple. Ask yourself:
“Does every element of my message—including how I’m delivering it—make my audience feel smart, capable, and good?”
If the answer is “no,” rework it until you (and they!) can say, “yes.” Notice that this isn’t about giving your audience pats on the back for anything and everything they do—it’s about helping them find the basis for an even better story to tell themselves about themselves. A story that not only aligns with their beliefs, but aligns a new behavior with the most important belief of all: that they are smart, capable, and good… and this will help them be even more so.
That usually leads not just to a one-time action, but again thanks to the need for cognitive consonance, more often than not people continue the new thinking of behavior.
But there’s one other benefit to the SCGT.
You might just feel more smart, capable, and good, too.
That’s because doing the work of unconditional positive regard and of crafting your message from an SCG point of view helps you build the skill of cognitive empathy. That’s the ability to understand what others are thinking, which, given the relationship between what we think and how we feel, also helps you build emotional empathy, the ability to understand what others are feeling.
So, not only are you validating—and empowering—your audiences with your ideas, you’re building your own capacity for change.
And that sounds pretty smart, capable, and good to me.If someone hears your message and it reinforces that smart, capable, good belief, they'll likely take the action you recommend so they can continue to feel that way. Click To Tweet
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