Sugarcoating, straight up or… adaptive?

My last post (you are not your audience) was about trying to get to know your audience, and adapting your message to what you know is interesting to them. Some people interpret this as me saying you should always be very gentle and even kind of sugarcoat your message. One person replied to the post as follows:

“Personally I prefer a Yourofsky-esque method. Be bluntly honest, do not fluff it up. Some people won’t like it but those generally will be the people coming in to it with a closed mind.”


This comment got a lot of likes. A lot of people, I think, love to be blunt (and hate sugarcoating). That’s an interesting phenomenon that I’d like to investigate at some point, but right now, I want to talk about something else: my point is not that people make a once-and-forever choice between a gentle approach and an in your face approach. Rather, I suggest that you are adaptive: you have the ability to change your approach according to what you think your audience likes.

When you don’t know what your audience likes, or when your audience is so big that there might be many different sorts of people (I call it broadcasting, as opposed to one on one or little group conversations), then I think it is good to use the approach that we have reason to believe works for the biggest number of people. You have to look for the lowest common denominator, as it were. For that we have to look at research. I’ll give an overview in a future post – for now I can recommend chapters 14 and 15 in Nick Cooney’s Veganomics. But I’m pretty confident that in general, when you go in blind and have to choose between a gentle (even sugarcoating) or an in your face message, the soft approach is the safer and more effective option. You have to take into account that you are bringing a very uncomfortable story, that has big consequences if people take it serously. Read more about a very recent study explaining how people just don’t want to know.

So: if you know enough about the person or people you are talking to, adapt your approach to what you know is a fit for them. If you don’t know, and/or if the audience is heterogeneous, I believe it’s best to err on the side of caution.



14 thoughts on “Sugarcoating, straight up or… adaptive?

  1. It makes perfect sense Tobias. I understood you the first time (and agreed) and I understand you this time (and agree again). It may feel good to be “bluntly honest” but when I advocate, I’m not worried about what feels good for me or what I think people should hear. I’m more interested in asking questions, listening, and tailoring the message in a way that best reaches an audience. Body language and verbal responses go a long way in determining the impact of our face to face advocacy. More people should take them into consideration. Indeed, we are not our audience.

  2. Agree with adaptive! the person’s use of the word “sugarcoated” is loaded and unfair tho. first of all when we think “blunt” we think of a “blunt instrument” of the kind you hit someone over the head with. As Tobias and commenter Andrew point out not everyone is positively influenced by that. And the opposite is NOT sugarcoating, which implies a lie or equivocation, but tact and sensitivity. Some will denigrate these ideas, but they are essential to effective communication, especially when the content is challenging.

    As they say in the nonviolent communication movement, “Pedagogy without permission is violence.”

    And they do not mean you’re not direct or truthful. If you’ve ever seen a pro activist (or other communicator) do this it is amazing. They state the truth up to the point the person is willing to receive. And perhaps a tosh more. They invite them back for more discussion. But they don’t bludgeon them.

    Also there’s a difference between bluntness and confidence. Bluntness is often bullying and repels people, but confidence is very appealing and persuasive.

    Ultimately the audience decides. As a native New Yorker, I personally love to give and receive bluntness. But my strong experience is that it’s a barrier to effective interaction with others elsewhere, and not conducive to great relationships. You can definitely do a New York shtick that seems blunt without being challenging. People love that. But if you get it wrong, you’re doomed.

    1. to be fair, it was me who used the word sugarcoating (though “fluff it up” i guess means more or less the same thing).
      i’d say there’s some kind of scale with sugarcoating on the left, all the way up to being an asshole on the right, and tactfulness, bluntness, directness etc somewhere in between 🙂

      anyway, agree with all you said. lots of different terms involved that can create confusion 🙂

    2. Geezzzzus! Whaddya talkin’ ’bout, lady??!? 😉
      Hillary, I’m embarrassed to say so, but you summed up in three words what took me a huge long-a** comment to express: “Ultimately the audience decides.”

  3. Since you referenced Veganomics by Nick Cooney, I’d like to include a link here to a related 49 minute video by Nick on this topic. I’m sure you’ve seen it, Tobias, but many others probably haven’t. I’ve watched it many times as a continual reminder to myself of what helps me to become the most effective advocate I can be. It’s a continual learning process, in my opinion, for anyone who strives to be as effective as possible, whether the audience is an individual or a large group of people.

    1. Thanks a lot for the link to the video, Jeff. I missed that one, so I’m glad you mentioned it.
      And you are definitely correct about it being a continual learning process. I think I now have as many human psychology-related books as I do animal welfare/rights books now. 🙂

  4. I think an important thing to take into consideration is that, like it or not, people have their own free will…they have the free will to join our cause or to reject it or anything in between.

    In many ways it’s like we are in a battle, but we can’t simply draft people like in a real war, and tell them they have no choice but to become vegan or face jail time.

    We are left with the cold hard fact that we need to recruit as many other people as we can to “our side” if we want to see change. If we already had the numbers we needed, the “war” would already be over. Unfortunately, we still have a long, long way to go.

    Army recruiters offer signing bonuses, the GI bill, etc., to “fluff things up” and entice people to sign up. Why do we think we can get people to join our “army” if we don’t do the same kind of thing, especially when possible recruits have the free will to sign up or not?

    We are the recruiters for the animals and a more humane world, and if we recruiters want to enlist the people we need, then we need to do what actually makes that happen in the real world, not what we think should work.

    In the end, it’s not up to YOU if somebody becomes vegan, it’s up to that person and THEIR own free will and choice. But if you frame things in a way in order to best reach that person, you may be able to influence them in their decision-making.

    Nobody likes being being bluntly told or informed that they are wrong, or what to do or what not to do…and if they possess the free will to reject that message, most people will do just that.

    This doesn’t mean we can’t be “bluntly honest”, but it’s also very easy to take just a bit of extra time to “fluff things up” and present that honesty in the most effective way possible to reach your audience and not have your message end up being rejected.

    In many ways, it’s like giving medicine to a child. Why do you think they add flavoring, like cherry or grape? If flavoring and fluff and sugar coating make the medicine go down easier, then I’m all for it. And I’m sure the animals are all for it, too.

    What’s the point anyway if the medicine (a.k.a., “your message”) will just be spit out? Maybe a little will get down to where it needs to go, but if you have fluff and sugar at your disposal, why not use it?

    “We went down to the demonstration
    To get your fair share of abuse
    Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
    If we don’t we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse”
    You can’t always get what you want
    You can’t always get what you want
    You can’t always get what you want
    But if you try sometimes well you just might find
    You get what you need”
    -The Rolling Stones

    Let’s try sometimes to give the animals what they need…not what we want.

  5. I would normally say that your own personality would educate the tone of how you advocate, but the internet – where most advocacy takes place, I guess – muddies the water a lot there. We’re rarely the same people offline as we are online. Personally, I try to be, but I’m probably a lot funnier (and more handsome) online than I am offline 🙂

    So, anyway, now we have a situation where quietly-spoken, gentle folks (offline) can be loud-mouthed and aggressive (online) and that makes the whole thing problematic. In fact, the most common approach I’ve seen involves a lot of echo chamber infighting within vegan groups alongside some angry shouting and meme sharing on one’s own timeline, often largely ignored. And I don’t think any of that does a bit of good.

  6. Great post, Tobias and such an important topic for activists to talk about! There will be those that bring up examples of how the “shock and awe” model worked for them, but I have to wonder, at what expense? For the few that were positively affected by that style, how many people did it turn off and shut down? When I am advocating and educating, I am also representing the vegan/animal activist community. Often times, I am the first and only vegan/animal activist my audience has interacted with so I find it extremely necessary to model my message of compassion and open-mindedness in how I advocate and educate. As a trained classroom teacher and humane educator, the first step in educating is to assess where your student (audience) is and go from there. The whole “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” approach is unnecessary and damaging – we owe it to the animals (and other humans and the earth) to be the best activists/educators we can be and part of that is knowing our audience and teaching accordingly. There’s also the concept of the “backfire effect” that plays a role in all of this as well: Thanks for all the work you do to help animals, Tobias!

    1. thanks for your thoughts lexie, i agree entirely.
      one thing though, a bit off topic: i know that “to educate” and “education” (and also “humane education”) are very standard and often used terms, but somehow, when we use the context of us talking to omnivores (us educating them) i shiver just a little bit, and i dislike the use of the term in this context. it sounds too know-it-all and holier-(or smarter at least)-than-thou. it seems to confirm some prejudices omnivores have about vegans (oh you’re gonna educate me? really?)
      What do you think, as a trained humane educator?

      1. As you might know, one of the Latin roots of the word “education” is “educare”, which means, “To draw out that which lies within.”

        I like this image of education much more 🙂 It doesn’t require the other person to know less or be less smart.

  7. With vegans being perhaps the most universally hated minority on the planet I too share Lexie’s concern that obnoxiously overbearing advocacy can close many people off from the plight of animals. Pointing out even 1 person moved to positive change by any tactic without accounting for the negative effects is dishonest, unthinking advocacy.

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