Sonia Jalfin: the Tech Communicator

28 October 2020
SERIES Narrative power & collective action: conversations with people working to change narratives for social good 12 items

[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]

Sonia Jalfin is Founder and Director of Sociopúblico, a communications studio focused on public issues. She has a BA in Sociology and MSC in Media and Communications and was Head of the Culture Department at Telefé, a TV broadcaster. Sonia is a journalist and writes a regular column on innovation at La Nación newspaper.

First you have to open the window of opportunity with your audience. But once they are there, they are ready for complexity.

At Sociopúblico, we work with think tanks, international organisations, NGOs and fact checkers to communicate complex ideas about public issues.

In the last few years, I’ve been researching and experimenting with technology, and how to bring ideas from behavioural psychology into our work.

I’ve always been intrigued by narratives. Even now, working with technology and data, great copy and the story you tell are still the most important things. You need to get that right to make a connection.

The public discourse gap

Today, we see a big gap in public discourse, with people on either side of the gap – a separation of two camps.

Then you have ‘opinion bubbles’ on social media. We tend to gather with people who think like us. We’re not exposed to different ideas.

As communicators of ideas, when we want to bring out a message, we have to bridge that gap to reach everyone. That’s hard and you need strategies to do it.

There are also many examples of how diverse relationships can spark creativity and innovation. So even if you don’t think of it politically (as a way to have a more vibrant public sphere), from a selfish creative perspective, it’s important for us to be in touch with different ideas.

Telling a story: data visualisation and chat bots

Sociopúblico does a lot of data visualisation work. I’m really interested in how to convey data in a way that is accessible for people who aren’t familiar with how to read a chart.

It’s about telling the story behind the data. Putting numbers into context. Using the data to answer questions that the audience has, instead of just throwing all the data at them.

We are also working with simple chat bots that tell stories in a more participatory way. We have a game where you become Argentina’s Minister of Economy. You start chatting with the President who appointed you and have to make decisions.

In one way it’s an explainer, helping you to understand different variables in the economy and consequences of different decisions. But it’s also a game, will they fire or hire you?

Another is called Share, Not Share, which we co-created with the Google News Initiative and Red/Acción. You receive news that’s been published in different spaces and you decide whether to share it or not, depending on whether you think it is misinformation or real.

After you decide to share or not share, it tells you if it was true. You get clues to help you decide or find out if it’s fake news. It’s an educational tool that helps you understand misinformation through experimentation and making your own decisions.

An insight coming from behavioural economics is that we tend to believe in things that confirm our existing opinions. We don’t question it. And now with social media, we also share it.

Laura Zommer, Executive Director of the fact checker Chequeado, talks about how in Latin America, people tend to share things on WhatsApp ‘just in case’. For example, you receive something about your local hospital running out of supplies, or supermarket running out of milk and you share it with family or friends ‘just in case’ it’s true, even if you doubt the source.

When someone receives it from you, they trust it because you are giving it authority. It would work better if we did the opposite: don’t share, ‘just in case’.

How tech can boost complex connections

Our bots show us that people tend to stay for a relatively long time: three to five minutes on average. And we got feedback asking for more complexity. This was surprising to us because we were focused on making simple quick games.

We learned that first you have to open the window of opportunity with your audience. But once they are there, they are ready for complexity. That’s important for us because we work with the communication of complex ideas. And when you summarise or over simplify, you lose something important.

Yes, we scroll through our social media feeds without stopping on a piece of content for more than three to four seconds. But it’s also true that at weekends we stay watching Netflix for five hours. So, we are capable of staying when we feel it’s the right time. Technology helps you make that connection at the right time.

For example, sending out messages to people at the time they are most active online. It was much more difficult when you had the morning newspaper and that’s it.

Design thinking helps to build around your audience

Design thinking is putting the audience at the centre of whatever you do – at the beginning of your process.

All our innovations are inspired by the question: how can we reach our audience with something that is important to them, that’s going to solve a problem for them?

Even for a report, you can ask: what job is this report going to do for someone who reads it?

We tend to be egocentric when we consume information, only paying attention to things that interest us or solve a problem for us.

Sometimes knowledge producers are absorbed by the importance of their ideas. They have trouble thinking about how those ideas can be useful to others.

Build bridges for your audience

Bots and other tools help us bridge the gap between the idea and the audience. They offer a playful moment and help you to learn something.

If you organise your ideas and data around the audience, then it’s more likely to be consumed by them. Data is particularly flexible and can be organised around your audience’s interests.

Nathan Yau’s data visualisation blog FlowingData does this very well. He got access to a database of all the causes of death in the US over a large period of time.

Typically, a newspaper would use this data to present main trends. But he allowed you to add your age, gender, race, location and his tool will tell you when you are going to die.

Of course, it’s an average. But because I’m putting information about me in before I receive information back, it’s relevant to me.

We do these kinds of things a lot. And technology helps us to make those ideas happen quickly.

Thinking fast and slow

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on behavioural psychology. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow he talks about the brain’s two systems.

Our system one brain is always on. We use it to decide and act fast, to make sense very quickly of what’s going on around us based on images, memories, and so on.

But we have also our system two brain. That’s what we use when we are concentrating on something. System two consumes a lot of energy and we can’t have it turned on all the time.

When it comes to the communication of complex ideas, we tend to think that everything relates to system two. We forget that audiences spend most of the time going through their lives on system one.

Narratives happen in system one. We can use narratives to connect more easily with our wider audience, and then some of them will also enjoy using their system two to go deeper into our content.