Communications Corner: The Problem with Problem Statements

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As NPH focuses on solutions-based messaging, we feel this article, “The Problem with Problem Statements,” by Thaler Pekar of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, helps articulate our messaging strategy. Please read our favorite excerpts below and click here for the full article.


“Forgoing the articulation of a problem statement and focusing on paradox leads to more effective communication with your organization’s supporters. When crafting persuasive messages, we’re often instructed to clearly state the problem we are addressing. But there are problems with the communication of problem statements. Problems are often multi-layered, and what concerns your audience about the problem may lie outside of your message about the problem. Also, exposing your listener to a problem—especially if that problem represents a new and strange idea—risks shutting down communication and igniting rejection. Emotions elicited by stating problems are jarringly different than emotions elicited by presenting solutions. You risk pushing your audience away, rather than pulling them toward meaningful engagement.

“To the extent people can’t solve a problem,” says environmentalist Tom Bowman, “they tend to ignore that problem.” And, most likely, your organization is not against something as much as it is for a solution.
“For example, many organizations exist to combat childhood poverty or air pollution. Your organization came into being because you offer a unique solution to a large problem. You want to be associated with that innovative solution. Your work is about more than simply reacting to a problem; you are actively shaping a response to it. Your audience will never (and will never need to) comprehend the problem to the extent that you and your colleagues understand it. This is where passion trips up even the best communicator: Your audience doesn’t need to be as concerned with the problem as you are. Rather, their passion for enacting change must be piqued. Your audience does not need to own the problem to own a part of the solution.”
“Paradox welcomes multiple points of view, pathways toward understanding, and complex arguments. Allowing for paradox respects your audiences’ existing knowledge and belief systems. Presenting paradox rather than problem is likely to be a much richer source of emotional and experiential resonance with your listener. Thinking about paradox helps you to meet your listener “where they are at.” Allowing for a discussion of paradox moves the conversation away from you, and your definition of the problem, to the audience and how participating in your solution may best fit within the complicated context of their experiences and lives. People will take action for many different reasons. To effectively communicate, you can and must tap into the complexity of your audience’s belief system.”