‘Take a note – any note!’

 Church in trouble:  ‘Ask not what thy God can do for you; ask what thou canst do for thy God’. But surely God doesn’t need our help? Well, perhaps not, but his vicars on Earth sometimes do. Such was the situation Reverend Steel found himself in. St John’s was a Victorian-era church and badly in need of maintenance. Reverend Steel had tried everything – charity appeals, fundraisers, the lot. Yet he was still far from having collected the funds he needed. And the bills kept mounting. Things sure looked gloomy. And then he had an inspiration. Yes, that was it! The answer was in the Bible – Matthew, Chapter 24:14-30. The parable of the talents! If that didn’t do it, nothing would. In any case, it was worth a try…

CS Uncollection 5 Hard times call for extraordinary measures:  It was an ordinary November Sunday in Kirkheaton.  The weather was bracing, the sky was overcast and the faithful had gathered for Sunday mass. As everyone knows, it is the custom that at some point during such services a collection box or a collection tray is passed around and the congregation are asked to make a contribution – bills after all need to be paid. Only that particular Sunday in November 2012 things were different.

The plate was indeed passed around as it had always been. Only this time there would be no contributions. This time the church was giving money away! The tray was full of crisp, £ 10 notes. Not quite believing their ears, the people present heard their priest actually encouraging them to take a note each! Tentatively, hesitantly and looking around to check that they had not misunderstood anything, the people did as they were bid.

Then from the pulpit, Reverend Steel reminded his flock of the parable of the talents.  And he told them all about the man who was going on a journey and who called his servants and ‘entrusted to them his property’. And how when he came back he asked them what they had done with it. So Reverent Steel urged his parishioners to do as the servants had done. They were to go away, use this money in any way they saw fit, and then perhaps in the future they could bring back what money they had made…

…So how did it go? Six months after that memorable event, a BBC crew who had covered the original story, went back to see what had happened. To say they were stunned would be putting it mildly. After their initial shock, the congregation had risen to the occasion. A parishioner had used the money to make some cakes and then held a cake sale; some children had used the money to buy seeds which they had planted and then sold the produce at a profit; others had bought things on e-bay and then re-sold them at a higher price. The result of all these efforts was that Reverend Steel was left with twenty times the original sum he had given away! His initial investment of £ 550 had yielded £ 10,000! Brilliant! 🙂  (The story appears in Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini 2014 – pp. 158-163) 1

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Applications in the field of ELT:  So what can we learn from Reverend Steel? There are three important principles here:

Reciprocity: The Moral: ‘If you do something for others, they feel duty bound to return the favour’. This is hardly surprising, but there are two things which are less clearly understood: a) the urge to reciprocate is so strong, that we do this even if we do not particularly like the other person and  b) people often return the favour with interest – ‘you scratch my back, I’ll give you a body massage!’ (Regan 1971) And people like you more. So, if you want your students (or your teachers, if you are a DOS) to do things for you, make sure you do something for them first! NB: For the mechanism to be triggered, what you offer has to be offered without any strings attached; ‘Take the money now – it’s yours. In the future, IF you want…’

Incongruity: Can you imagine the effect that ‘the uncollection’ had on the congregation? I am sure people were completely dumbfounded! Incongruity (jolting people by violating their expectations) is seriously underused – perhaps because we think of it as a cheap trick. But it is much more than that. Dutton considers it one of the 5 key elements in instant persuasion 2 (Dutton 2010 – p. 215). Incongruity helps people notice things; when they notice things, they remember them better; the message that follows a surprising event / statement is more likely to be persuasive; and as an additional bonus, people are more likely to share the experience with their friends – so your message travels further (Berger 2014 – p. 42). The Moral: ‘To make things memorable and improve your standing with your students / staff, surprise them!’

Personal investment: The most devilish part in Reverent Steel’s otherwise laudable ploy was this phrase: ‘use it in any way you see fit’. Notice he did not say ‘return it’. The idea is that people had to do something with this money – something for the church. So you can imagine people going ‘Hmmm… What can one do with £ 10?’ But this is just the thing; the moment you start thinking about it you have moved from being a passive supporter to being an active one. The moment you make those cakes to sell, you have changed your self-perception and this is likely to go far beyond a mere £ 10 and extend far into the future. 3 The Moral: ‘If you want your students / staff to change and become more active, get them to do / invest / sacrifice something’ 4.

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Final words:  Real life is unfolding all around us. And it is full of lessons. It pays to go around with open eyes and ears so you make a mental note whenever you come across something interesting. The hard bit of course is applying those lessons. Sometimes however the ideas are directly transferrable. Take the ‘uncollection’ for instance. Why can’t we do the same at the next TESOL Greece Convention? Instead of selling raffle tickets to people, they could get some AND receive a € 10 note for each of them!  Then they could spend the next few weeks thinking how they could raise money for TESOL Greece! Yes – the more I think about the idea, the more I like it. I think I’ll have 5 of these tickets myself! 🙂

If you are interested in reading more about the story, just click here

2 The 5 key elements are: Simplicity (Keep it simple); Perceived self-interest (What’s in it for me?); Incogruity (Wow! What’s going on here?!); Confidence (If I say so – that’s it!); Empathy (I know how you are feeling…) = SPICE! (Dutton 2010 – p. 215).

Perhaps the best known study on this is the one where some people innocently agreed to put up a 3″ x 3″ sticker on their window which read ‘Drive Carefully’. A few weeks later, a staggering 76% of them agreed to put up a huge, ugly sign with the same message on their lawn! (Freedman et al. 1966)

4  The mechanism is that of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger 1957). Subconsciously, our brain thinks: ‘Oh, I have just spent 5 hours trying to find something to buy and re-sell on e-bay so that I can give the money to the church. Either I am stupid, or I really do care about this old building. (Which of the two explanations do you think our brain will go for?)


Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013

Dutton, K. “Flipnosis” Random House 2010

Festinger, L. (1957). “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”. California: Stanford University Press.

Freedman J. L. & Fraser S. C. (1966) ‘Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4, 195-203

Martin, S., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. “The Small Big”  Profile Books 2014

Regan, R. T. (1971). “Effects of a favor and liking on compliance”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 7: 627–639