Have you ever heard of Ignaz Semmelweis?
He was a Hungarian doctor in the 1840’s who found himself in charge of two maternity wards. One was a teaching school for the best and brightest where they learned birthing and autopsies and everything in between. The second was a less well funded clinic for women who couldn’t afford medical care.
Here’s the kicker.
The first clinic, well staffed and well funded, had a much higher mortality rate. The death rate was staggering. Women probably had a better chance of living if they gave birth on the streets.
It didn’t make any sense. And it drove Ignaz nuts. He did study, after study, after study...
Finally, for no real scientific reason that made any sense for the time, he suggested that maybe his students should try washing their hands after performing an autopsy and before going into the birthing ward.
Yes, death rates plummeted.
But at the time, germ theory was far from trending on TikTok. His peers lined up to ridicule him, upset because Ignaz’s hypothesis made it look like the doctors were the ones giving deadly fevers to the women.
So, they fired him. Then they sent him to an asylum at 47, where he later died of sepsis, the same disease Ignaz fought so hard to prevent in those women who died from child bed fever.
Oh, and when they replaced Ignaz at both clinics, mortality rates shot right back through the roof.
And, it was still more than 20 years after his research was proven correct before other doctors began to more widely adopt hand washing.
20 more years of people getting sick. 20 more years of people dying.
Fast forward a few centuries to London, Ontario, where a city councillor recently drew fire for his keynote role at an anti-vaccine rally that drew thousands of unmasked protesters. His position undermined the policies of the Council of which he is a member, and about two years after the majority of the planet had embraced proven public health measures. And, unfortunately, this situation is in no way unique in the world.
WTF does this all have to do with marketing and communications?
The skeptics aren’t stupid. Neither were the doctors that ignored Ignaz.
They simply see the world through a particular paradigm. And that paradigm is familiar and comforting. And so it feels safe. And it feels like something you don’t want to give up.
Two years seems like a long time to remain misguided by a mask mandate conspiracy.
But it’s only over time, and multiple repetitions of messages, that most people begin to be open to something that’s new or different.
So if your mission is to make change happen:
To level up a toxic culture; To bring science to the masses; To fight for inequality; To revolutionize your industry...
Don’t be shocked when it’s not immediately and widely accepted. Making the world, your workplace or your sector a better place is best done with patience and perseverance.
Because it’s hard work to get people to do things differently. And it takes a hell of a lot of intentional, empathetic communication. The evidence of that is all around us in our once in a century shared global experience.
It can’t be done through force, facts, name calling or shaming. Even though it feels like the right thing to do.
Instead, consider approaching a skeptical audience with something they’re actually open to hearing. The first step involves acknowledging that not everyone thinks the way you do.
It’s the only way to craft and tell a story they’ll actually hear.