We’ve been fans of John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight ever since his now famous rant on Net Neutrality went viral and nearly broke the FCC website. But on one of his latest videos he’s managed to outdo himself again and teach us budding sense-makers a thing or too on how to distill complex ideas and make them sticky.
The Topic: Government Surveillance
How far into your private life should the government be allowed to go in an attempt to ensure your freedom? The revelation of a massive amount of data on secret government data collection programs sparked debates and had tongues wagging 2 years ago. And the policies that allowed that gave those powers to the NSA aren’t well understood.
The Challenge: How do make an uninterested, under-informed public engage with an important but complex issue?
NSA, Edward Snowden, PRISM. Each of these Google keywords were hot not too long ago, but their popularity has fizzled in a world where ISIL, mysterious plane crashes and naked celebrity photos rule the internet tubes.
Added level of difficulty: The topic itself has no easily defined “right answer”, or clearly labelled “call to action”.
We’re a distracted, under-informed, short-attention-span world now. That’s sort of one of our founding premises here at tWoS. Bring up a topic at Thanksgiving dinner dinner and almost immediately there’s an us – them debate erupting. We tend to want a quick “which side am I supposed to be on?” clue, otherwise it’s back to Tinder we go. So aside from, or maybe because of, how entangled and emotionally-wrought the issue of freedom vs privacy is, the best anyone can hope for is a “let’s at least have the conversation” rally. Which, let’s be honest, doesn’t make for a good hashtag or commemorative T-Shirt.
The solution: Tie it to Dick Pics
In other words. Make it personal. Throughout the interview John humorosly reiterated how little the American public cared, or wanted to care, about terms like like 702 surveillance, EO12333 even the fact that the NSA spied on UNICEF. But what they do care about? Their dick pics. Whenever an issue hits home, that’s when you get people’s attention. So for the next few minutes of the interview Oliver and Snowden outlined the salient points of the convoluted policy discussions and repercussions within the context of “can they see my junk?” And I have to admit it, it made a lot more sense. You can even tell that Snowden knew as much when they were through.
Aside from the specific politics, this lesson of make it personal should be one we all remember when next we have to distill boring, complex but vital issues, even if we don’t do it as well as Oliver.