While in the United States Peace Corps a stranger came to my small village in Kenya and stood on a box to gather my fellow villagers around him. He delivered a powerful and convincing story so that he could sell vials of water that he claimed would protect the people from the malaria that was ravaging the community.
For years that experience haunted me. I longed for the chance to go back to that moment and knock the man off the box he stood on, or at least step between him and the people with my hands raised in warning. To ease the pain of failing to help that vulnerable community, I imagined myself begging them not to listen to this man who was only there to sew a story laden in false hope to sell on their deepest fears: the health of their families. The science was clear; if they had only trusted my lessons and not his story, they could have real protection from malaria.
Wishing I could go back did nothing; it blinded me to a reality that took me years to realize. My small village in East Africa was not the only place that men and women stood on boxes, told captivating stories and took advantage of people’s fears. In fact, as I began to loose the blinders of regret, I began to see that there are men and women who will stand on boxes, use stories and sell fear any place where there are vulnerable people. People are vulnerable when they don’t know who to trust because they are the furthest away from answers. In our modern age, people in cities are the furthest from where their food is grown which makes them vulnerable to stories about things like the safety and sustainability of our food.
There is no way to knock these story tellers off their boxes, and in fact trying to only gives them what they need, more attention and a better story. Also, there is no way to plead with the people to ignore the story tellers, because the people are looking for something that begging won’t give them; they are looking for something to believe in, someone to trust.
The only way to defeat the man on the box is to build trust with the people that are vulnerable to his message.
People do not want to be fooled, but they also don’t have the time or the access to be able to understand all of the aspects of the world around them. When they look around and they see things about the world that they don’t understand, they will look to those they trust to ask “what should I know about this?” We all want help to form our opinions and we accept that help from those we trust.
Trust is built with those whose stories about their lives, their work, and their communities reflect the values and desires of their audiences. We love a comedian whose jokes hit close (but not too close) to home, we love stories of heroes who are fighting for values we hold, we bond with advice columnists who empathetically respond to strangers’ problems that we can relate to.
But your time is valuable. You have livestock to raise and likely don’t have time to stand on street corners to tell stories about your farm, family and values. That is why social media is so important—it allows you to tell your story without leaving the farm. The other day a man named Brian Scott posted a video of his kindergarten aged son learning to flip off the auto steer and turn their planter around for another pass. That video went viral, being seen by over 6 million people.
It went viral because it connected with so many parents, the feeling of teaching your child how to do the things that daddy does. The video isn’t controversial or complicated, it isn’t talking about genetics or herbicides, or even trying to make a statement. It just connected with people, and tens of thousands of them decided to “like” The Farmer’s Life Facebook page. This means that they now have a direct connection to a farmer, someone they can trust when they are confronted with a question about agriculture they don’t understand.
Farmers and ranchers see things every day that would delight a tired mom or dad who fights traffic, sits in a cubicle, and is so far away from tending plants and nurturing animals. Things that are so small to you, will capture their fascination and build trust as they begin to “know” you by seeing your story on social media. It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated: all you have to do is start, knowing that every person who sees your family, your ranch, your work is one less person who is vulnerable to men and women that stand on boxes trying to sell an alternative to what we grow and raise. You never know how far a video of a calf jumping for joy, a harvester threshing wheat, or a quick lesson on what you feed your hogs, could go. Whatever you share, know that each person that views it will have better resistance to the man on the box.
Vance Crowe is the Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto in Saint Louis, Missouri. Vance is a former Communications Strategist for the World Bank Group, a returned U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in Kenya, a former communications coordinator at a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate in Northern California and was a deckhand on an eco-tourism ship that traveled in the Western Hemisphere. Vance holds an undergraduate degree in communications from Marquette University and a Master’s Degree in Cross-Cultural Negotiations from the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy.