Homeless Signs: Communication Genius

3.26.15 homeless signsEvery day when I drive by the Park St and Forest Ave intersection there are homeless on each corner holding any variety of panhandling signs.  Ya gotta admire the creativity and marketing ingenuity of some of those signs. And the fight is on for the viewer’s attention and immediate action.

How do you communicate when you only have a few seconds to motivate someone to act?  That’s also the dilemma that online marketers face with their headlines.

The reallife experts who have this aspect of marketing down cold are the homeless who are panhandling in every major city.  Effective homeless signs are masterful in their communication marketing savvy.  But then they have to be.

Some homeless pros claim to make $182/hour, while $5/hr is a more realistic national average.  But regardless of the amount made, most homeless rely on panhandling as their major source of income.  To appeal, handheld signs are the required medium.  And those signs need to be spot on, delivering an emotional punch in the span of a glance.

What can we learn about communicating from these mini vignettes?  The story factor is the biggest takeaway; deliver an emotional story in a few words.  Can you really tell an effective story in the space of a handheld sign?  Ernest Hemingway proved it was more than possible when he was challenged to tell an ultra short story that would bring tears; he succeeded in 6 words with “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

Here’s another short powerful story, in 12 effective words. “Can’t speak. Can’t walk. No teeth. No job. Dirty diaper. God bless.”  The sign was propped against a swaddled baby lying on the sidewalk.

Humorous stories can work – “Obama is not the only one who wants change” – but humor in homeless signs is best used with walkers in groups, not drivers.  People walking together appreciate a good laugh and often feel the need to reciprocate a clever quip with a donation.  Drawing sympathy by tugging on heartstrings is stronger with drivers. As with most communication channels, you need to really understand what appeals best to your market.

Another hallmark of good communication is to make it personal.  By turning the reader’s eye inward reflects on our shared humanity: “Have you ever felt invisible before?” Or this effective sign: “What if it was you…?”    “Just don’t look away” recognizes the power of drawing the other person in to connect eye to eye.

And when you can do both – tell a story that moves the reader to their own personal interpretation, you score big.  A great example of that is the YouTube video that shows a seated homeless man whose sign (“I’m blind, please help.”) is being largely ignored until a passerby changes it to: “It’s a beautiful day but I CAN’T see it.”  The power of words to change worlds.

We live in a world that is more and more skeptical and cynical.  Yet deep down we all still want to believe.  Believe in miracles, believe in an ideal world, believe in the absolute goodness in all people.  Communication that gets through straight to the heart and makes us feel something real for the other person is effective.  We all secretly want to do our part to make the world a better place; a place where there is no homelessness, no need to beg on any street corner.

 

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