Some brief thoughts on effective communication about veganism

Very often, people I meet at Effective Animal Altruism London events are keen to discuss how to make their communication with non-vegans effective. What should I say when somebody asks me why I have gone vegan? How can I discuss this issue with friends, family and strangers?

Before I share my “advice”, it’s important to put this question in context. Most researchers in the Effective Animal Advocacy community agree that focusing on individual vegan outreach probably isn’t the best use of our time and resources – see this summary of the points on either side of the debate. So I’d encourage you to make sure you’ve spent a little time planning how to maximise your overall impact. Additionally, make sure you aren’t burning out as an activist by forcing yourself to engage in individual outreach at every possible opportunity. Your long-term impact is more important than those individual conversations!

Nevertheless, every vegan will have this sort of conversation from time to time.

I’m not aware of any extremely strong evidence on the issue, but in general, there is a lot of evidence from outside the EAA community which has relevance to the topic:

  • An understanding of humans’ cognitive biases, and findings from psycholgy more generally, will inevitably help an understanding of what sorts of communication work well. The best practical summary of psychology for EAA purposes that I know of is this book by Nick Cooney.
  • Literature on negotiations and sales techniques will also be useful, as long as this is used cautiously, and you recognise the differences between the contexts that they were intended for, and an animal advocacy context. You might find my summary of Neil Rackham’s book, with (relevant) research-based sales advice, helpful.

Within animal advocacy, many people have written about the messages we should share, both from moral and effectiveness perspectives. A lot of this work is based on the intuitions of (experienced) activists; personally I would place less weight on any of this advice than on conclusions from external, specialised fields. Here are a few examples:

  • Tobias Leenaert’s book and blog; he argues vegans should be inclusive and empathetic in their approach.
  • Melanie Joy’s talks and books; she also argues for empathy, and has a few specific tips about language to support this.
  • Earthling Ed’s advice; like Joy and Leenaert, he advocates empathy. His socratic dialogue technique could be easily combined with the research-based sales advice of Neil Rackham.
  • Others (Gary Francione etc) would emphasise the need for expressing a consistent moral baseline of veganism, and taking an uncompromising position. I can see why consistency might be persuasive over time, but I’m not convinced this is the most important consideration. See here for a summary of the debate on this issue.
  • Plenty of other resources, I’m sure. Here are some other people’s suggestions, when I asked them about this question as I was brand new to the EAA community.

I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert on effective communication, but here’s a brief summary of the perspective I tend to take:

  • I’m wary of the backfire effect, so I tend to avoid challenging people without invitation, and only discuss veganism with people when they ask me, or seem interested.
  • I lead by example, rather than explicitly conducting outreach. So I try to present veganism as easy and enjoyable enough that becoming vegan doesn’t seem like a burden.
  • I try to be inclusive and empathetic (although I’m not necessarily great at this).
  •  I try to be sensitive to my context and to the person or people I am discussing the issue with: some people might be more or less receptive to logical arguments arguments; some people might be more persuaded by ethical arguments compared to environmental and health arguments (note, however, I think its important we emphasise an ethical argument where possible, and use other arguments as supplementary).

So if people ask me why I’m vegan, I usually say something like:

“Most of the animal products that we eat involve raising animals in terrible conditions and cause intense suffering. These days, there’s more and more vegan food available, so it’s relatively easy to avoid animal products entirely, and to prevent that suffering from happening.”

Then depending on how people react, I judge whether to a) stop talking about it (often this is the best response, to avoid the backfire effect), b) explain more in depth some of the negative consequences of eating animal products, or c) just focus on the positives of veganism.

I don’t have any evidence that this approach works better than any other beyond the anecdotal: out of people I have lived with in the past, 2 have gone vegan, 2 have become consciously reducetarian. So I don’t hold any of these views particularly strongly. At the CEVA training that I attended, Melanie Joy argued that it a productive approach is to lead by explaining your personal vegan journey, as a way to reduce defensiveness; I think I will try this out in future. I hope some of the links and reflections on this short post are useful for a few people, however.


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