I love listening to podcasts. It started with a way to utilize my commuting time and evolved to the joy of getting a glimpse into issues and domains I never imagined I would be interested in. The episodes I like most are the ones that take me on a journey to somewhere I wasn’t expecting. And if the episode title is not revealing and I learn what the episode is about while listening to it, even better.
That was my experience when I listened to the discussion about policing in the US Sean Illing had with Rosa Brooks in his podcast The Gray Area. I am not a US citizen, and whatever I know about the subject is limited to random headlines of international news when something radical happens. It is a topic that has practically no impact on my life, and yet, I found myself immersed in listening to the conversation, nodding in agreement, or pausing in disbelief. It was more than just intellectual curiosity; it was deep engagement.
A side effect of listening to podcasts on diverse issues with little direct impact is the opportunity to reflect on what made me so engaged: what works and what doesn’t in terms of crafting an argument, building a thesis, and communicating it effectively. I can easily imagine a different conversation on the same topic leaving absolutely no impression on me. So, after listening to this episode, I took the time to consider how it can help me design better content; what made such an impact on me?
A New Mental Model
“And because we live in a society that has largely abandoned poor communities, and particularly poor communities of color, because we live in a society that has radically, drastically, embarrassingly underfunded, every important social service from education to mental health care, to transportation, to job creation, the police are often the only people available to call. Yep. So neighborhoods are over-policed, partly because they’re under everything else, you know?”
Each of us has a mental model of the world. The role of this mental model is to make it easier for our brains to understand the world and process information. When we see a car, we know what it is and what we can do with it; when we think of police officers, we know what their role is, what people they engage with, and what we can expect of them. We don’t need to carefully examine every car to understand what it is, nor do we need to know a police officer personally to understand their job. Or so we believe.
Humans cannot function without a mental model of the world. But our mental model often gets in our way and prevents us from seeing things clearly for what they really are. We are mostly unaware of how rigid and dominant our mental model is and how it affects how we see the world. So, when Rosa Brooks breaks our mental model and rewires our brains as to the actual tasks a police officer has to handle, she makes a profound impact.
Most of us think they know what a police officer does, but everything we know we learned from movies, TV shows, and news headlines. Some of it is fiction, but even the things that aren’t are far from representative. The reality, as Rosa Brooks sketches it, is that most of the time, police officers are replacing the greatly needed but absent social workers, educators, or health care professionals. Preventing or responding to crime is not the core of their work. Maybe it was supposed to be, but the reality is radically different.
When we hear that, something happens in our brains. The existing mental model — the one we take for granted to process the world more effectively — breaks. It is replaced with a new understanding we didn’t expect. This surprising new fact changes our mental model and leaves a strong impression. We realize we had it completely wrong. It turns this part of the conversation into a personal experience that makes an impact. Moreover, this new rewiring will affect us long after listening to this episode. The next time I see a police officer, I am likely to remember that and think differently about what they do, and it affects them.
When we break assumptions and change part of the audience’s mental model, our message resonates longer.
A Different Point of View
If someone had told me that being a police officer in the US is not dangerous, I’d have probably laughed. If that someone had later provided numbers and statistics to prove their point, I’d either be convinced or not, but I doubt that I’d remember any of it the next day. But when Rosa Brooks compared how dangerous it is to be a police officer to the risk level in other professions, I was blown away:
“ Policing does not even make the list of the top 10 most dangerous occupations in the United States, which are things like being a roofer. It’s a really bad idea to be a roofer folks because people fall off those roofs and they, they die. It’s a very dangerous occupation. Fishermen, sanitation workers, you know, they’re hanging onto the backs of trucks, incredibly dangerous jobs. Policing doesn’t make the list of the jobs where you’re most likely to die […] Even when it comes to intentional harm, taxi limousine, you know, Uber drivers are at more than twice the risk of being homicide victims on the job then cops. ”
Comparison, in this case, is far more impactful than any raw stat. It is both surprising and sends a clear message: being a police officer is not as dangerous as you (and police officers) tend to think. This comparative text makes the statement vivid; instead of abstract numbers, Rosa Brooks uses professions we know and don’t think of as dangerous as reference points. It is a remarkable way to say something quantitive without drowning your audience in numbers.
When you use comparison to something familiar, your message resonates more because it has hooks in the real world, as opposed to the realm of abstract numbers.
“What would we like community safety to look like in, in 50 years say, I would like there to be fewer police doing fewer things. I would like us to have fewer police who are reserved for the really serious violent situations where nothing else is gonna work. And I would like us to have cadres of wonderful social workers and teachers and doctors and you name it, who really are flooding neighborhoods where there’s a lot of need and who are responding to that stuff that right now comes to cops that doesn’t involve crimes. We just don’t have them right now. And we need to be thinking now in every city in the country, well if here’s where we wanna be in in 50 years, if we want to have a really different allocation of public funds and it’s set a public funds and et cetera, et cetera, like what do we do today to make it more like that? We’re there in 50 years and then what do we do next year and the year after that?”
No matter how strong your message is, adding a trajectory makes it stronger.
A statement focused on a single data point or a specific point in time is static. It doesn’t create movement; in a sense, it is just a piece of raw data. When you place it on a timeline and highlight how it has evolved (or can evolve), you create a story. Whether you connect the present to the past or envision a future, you bring the data and your ideas to life when you tell an evolutionary story.
Besides being more memorable, creating a trajectory invites your audience to fill the gaps and think of the next step. If we were at point A and now we are at point B, where would we be tomorrow? If we would like to be at point C in 50 years, what should we do next year? Such questions, which can even be implicit, make your content interactive and thought-provoking. When done right, it can even drive the audience to action.