All real freedom springs from necessity, for it can be gained only through the exercise of the individual will, and that will can be ROUSED to energetic action only by the force of necessity acting upon it from the outside to spur it to effort.

- Anna C. Brackett

We’re busy. We have many demands on our time. We have our own lives to live, and present concerns outweigh numinous calls to action from distant causes. Sometimes, a well-designed ad or YouTube video will pique our interest, and we’ll spend a few minutes taking a look. But how often does that turn into real action? If we’re honest, how frequently do we rouse ourselves from the demands of the everyday to do something about a cause which matters?

Not often.

Why? Because action doesn’t seem necessary. We don’t feel that action has to happen now, and we don’t feel that it has to be taken by us. These are the two components of necessity: temporal and personal. We must feel action must be taken now – we must see the sand running through the hourglass; and we must know that that we are the ones called to act – the finger points squarely at us. Without both these components, it is less likely we will be roused.

If Not Now, When? – Temporal Necessity

Necessity - gsilva

In order to rouse people to action, it is essential to make them feel that something has to happen right away, that it cannot wait another second. If you don’t do this, we feel we an put it off a day, a week, a year. And action deferred is, so often, action untaken.

The Make Poverty History campaign provides an exquisite example of the power of necessity. Its iconic “Click” video powerfully dramatized the plight of the worlds poor, giving a chilling rhythmic urgency to the situation it frequently lacks.

The film is a masterpiece in making action around the issue of world poverty seem necessary. The simple symbolism – one click equals one death – combined with the incessant, rhythmic clicking – one click every three seconds – brings home the fact that this is an ongoing and urgent problem which is occurring now. The clicks continue throughout the call to action at the end, further reinforcing the the sense that a clock is ticking, the sand is runnin through the hourglass.

The sparse, simple voiceover, stressing that these clicks represent “somebody’s daughter, somebody’s son”, creates an emotional connection with the audience, encouraging them to imagine this might be their daughter, their son. And the final image – of a young boy clicking his fingers, and the screen going black as he clicks – reminds us that it is lives like his which might be snuffed out if no action is taken.

In all these ways this video reinforces the temporal necessity of action to end poverty. What it doesn’t do so effectively is reinforce the personal necessity of action.

If Not Me, Who? – Personal Necessity

Necessity - Uncle Sam

The Make Poverty History video does a great job getting us to feel that “something must be done” to end world poverty, but doesn’t really show us why our personal contribution is needed. Sure, it invites us to “make history” an that we “can change the world”, but it doesn’t answer the question “why me and not somebody else?”

This is an area where many calls to action fail – partly because, in truth, many of the ways we call people to act do not require the participation of one specific individual or group of people. If your appeal requires the assistance of people with specialized attributes, skills, or training, then you can easily make the case that your particular audience is necessary to your success. A drive to gather O- blood can  relatively easily be made to feel extremely urgent to people with such blood.

If your cause could be furthered by many people, however – for instance if you’e asking for small donations or volunteer time – it can be tough to generate a feeling of personal necessity. Nonetheless, there are ways to make any appeal gain a sense of personal necessity.

On way is to harness the “There But for the Grace of God Go I” factor – make people imagine what it would be like in another’s shoes, and you provoke feelings of empathy which make a cause seem more personally necessary. This video from charity: water does an exquisite job:

By extracting concerns over water availability and cleanliness from their usual location and putting people like the target audience in the picture, the call to action at the end – “help.” – seems to carry greater personal necessity (it’s also a great use of the counter-intuitive principle of persuasion). Because we can see ourselves in the same situation, it feels more urgent that we act, rather than leaving it to someone else. The finger is pointing squarely at us.


By crafting appeals that generate both temporal and personal necessity – by showing them the sand running through the hourglass and the finger pointing to them – it is more likely we will inspire people to act.

Further Reading

Marshall Ganz, What is Public Narrative, the section on “Story of Now”

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