Connection, Development, Dialogue, Learning, Reflecting, Story, Writing

The Poetry of Propaganda – (AKA when the “soft stuff” gets hard core)


How do you persuade the deeply entrenched to surrender their positions?
If changing systems requires changing behaviours and behavioural change is, typically, triggered by something deeply personal (unless you go super-coercive, but that’s not an ethical/legal position most organisations would go for.. (thankfully?)) what does that mean?

When someone has made up their mind about something. About what is right or wrong. About what they can and can’t do. About what is or is not fiction or fact – and their position is harming them, or an organisation, or a country….. what actions can you take?

These are some of the questions that were raised for me from Jose Miguel Sokoloff’s TED talk as he explains how he & his team helped persuade Colombian Guerillas to demobilise.
I was first made aware of his story through the This American Life Podcast.
Sokoloff is, by trade, an advertising exec – more used to dealing with selling soap or dog food than getting involved in gnarly political/social change issues…but his reasons for taking up the challenge were, in part, emotional ones: He had never known a day of peace-time in his own country.

Sokoloff talks about the roads toward peace already walked: military strategies, political strategies, legal ones….but where he could make the most difference was through the communications strategy – he saw that he could go off the roads already walked. He could think and act laterally to answer some questions: What sits at the heart of a Guerrilla fighter? What will move them to think differently or act differently? I guess I love this story because it fits with much of what I hold to be true – from the first fuchsia blue blog, to working with coachees and groups – that change starts in the heart. Not a logical reason to do a thing, but a personal, emotional one.

He and his team went for emotion-based action as the key to change behaviour – They created beautiful/crazy big gestures that stood out and touched people’s hearts – Christmas lights strung across trees in the darkness of the Colombian Jungle, rivers of lights, the use of authentic voices & striking imagery to move and stop folk in their tracks – to touch folk deeply, beyond words.

You could try to do this stuff cynically.. any notion of setting up propaganda or persuasion is open to manipulation, to darker reasoning, to ethical or moral questions; but within the work they undertook, there was a clear hard purpose to what they were doing, but also Sokoloff cared. A lot. About demobilisation and peace in his country. He wanted it to work. He and his team tried and failed many times… got the wrong voices on tape, misjudged how something might run…. but when they succeeded, people put down their weapons, walked out of the Colombian Jungle and re-joined society in a different way.

Sokoloft explains more during an interview I heard on This American Life Podcast (transcript here):
Someone in his team had noticed that, at Christmas, Guerillas were more likely to demob… so they recognised this was potentially a point of vulnerability – where folk would be more open to thinking about change or returning to their families. So in year one they ran “Operation Christmas” – where trees were wrapped in lights to remind the fighters of Christmas and tradition and home. People demobbed and when they did they said: we loved the trees, they moved us…and we use rivers a lot ore than the jungle to move round.


So year two “Operation Rivers of Light” saw the team collect personal items and notes for Guerillas and float them in lit-up small plastic balls, over 7,000 of them, down the rivers they then knew Guerrillas used as highways – this is a team who are worked with what they knew, who listened and paid close attention to what might work.

Year three saw “Operation Bethlehem” where they shone massive spotlights in the sky. The message was: “Guerrilla, this Christmas follow the light that will guide you to your family and your freedom.”

Here is an exert from the This American Life transcript:
Sean Cole
God, there’s a huge amount of staging and production involved in all of this.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff
Yes, there is. There is because I frankly believe that everything you do needs to be beautiful. The only element that cannot lack is beauty, making sure you like what you’re seeing. You cannot do ugly stuff.

When you see all these lights floating down the river, slowly floating down towards you, you can’t escape the thought of, this is a beautiful thing. Regardless of what it is, how beautiful is it?

Because had it been a thing that is not beautiful, I probably wouldn’t have looked at it. I would have said, this is trash floating down the river. But if it’s a beautiful thing that’s coming down, it’s coming down in numbers, then I’m drawn to it. I’m interested.

In 2012, the circumstances changed. Peace talks began in Cuba & the team judged a need to move onto other things – not wishing to repeat stuff, wanting to stay responsive. I’d recommend you listen to the Podcast or read the transcript for more information… but be under no doubt, this stuff worked. Numbers of fighters stopped fighting. People who, on the face of it, were deeply attached to their way of living, thinking and being, in fact wanted something else. Numbers of fighters joined the call to quit arms and live in peace. Numbers of these new ex-Guerillas then helped reach out to ask others to change. Change happened. Peace talks began.  Of course there are still deep divides and this is not a perfect story; of course fighting continues – this is an extreme tale in extreme circumstance.

What is interesting is one of the ways you can tell it worked – because part of the peace negotiation with the FARC (warring faction) saw the Columbian Government agree to stop trying to Demobilise at Christmas. Nothing says “this is working” more than resistance from the status quo…

It strikes me that we talk about behavioural change – but how many of us would be willing to do something so grandious in our organisations?
How many of us are too scared to take it out of the classroom, or the virtual space and think or act around what needs to be done? (It’s too weird/ it won’t work/ it’s too out-there)
How many of us research what moves or motivates people?
How many of us push for beauty?
How many of us try to capture the heart of our people?
How many of us take seriously emotion at work? (
Do we use everything available to us – sound, vision, art, creativity? How many of us feature “emotion” in our learning design ? How many of us are comfortable with our own sentiment – the stuff that moves us to tears or beyond?

These are big sweeping questions – but at the heart sits matters of the heart – and through those, we can effect change… far more than we perhaps think.


If you are more interested in these subject matters, you might want to look at the upcoming Emotion at Work Conference in London in June

And the SeaSalt Learning Social Age Safari in Bristol in May is looking at new ways to use creativity, conversation and co-created stories as a catalyst for change.

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