Stop Telling Me What to Do

When my husband frames a good suggestion in a directive statement such as “Eat that yummy casserole in the fridge,” I jokingly respond, “Don’t tell me what to do.” It’s my way of holding on to my inner-teenager, I guess. He knows my response is in good fun. But almost every day, on the other end of the email, strangers get me saying the same thing in earnest. When men and women write subject lines that say, “Tell your senator…” or “Force them to…” or “Stop the…” I delete each one with a defiant click.

I join a variety of email lists to see what environmental issues are being worked on today. Whether it be a coalition to protect our national parks or an advocacy group for the respect of climate scientists, most of them send regular emails as promised, to keep interested parties informed. And most of them, it seems, have limited their campaigns to that of the activist’s tone. Their announcements all lead with – as the marketing advice says – a direct call-to-action in the subject line, one that’s designed to motivate me.

But I’m not part of the group of people who need to be moved and directed. And I act because I care, not because a communications manager told me I should.

I already know that my elected official needs to hear from me in order to understand how I want him or her to vote. I agree that the next march against fracking won’t be worth its existence if nobody shows up. And I realize a nonprofit cannot be effective without my support.

The sad part is any email I deleted may have deserved my attention. It probably said which bill the senate was soon voting on or what territory the oil spill has seeped into. I would have appreciated the news and taken down the information about the steps required to make a difference. But since it came at me shouting, telling me how to act before it explained why I should, I reacted to its clear attempt at manipulating my kindhearted nature.

Activists are needed because they vigorously get people in motion. But they lose many opportunities to rally support when they begin telling well-informed, mild-mannered, unaffectedly realistic people what to do. It all comes down to understanding and writing for your audience. We cannot forget that sometimes the best way to reach people is to stop instructing and start informing.