On Saturday, my gorgeous, gutsy, sassy wife took her Lewes Ladies veterans football team to Southampton to play in the first round of the FA People’s Cup. They played six, won four, drew one, lost one. Runners up on the day, and through to the next round in March. I couldn’t be more proud.
Lewes Ladies Vets before their first-round glory in the FA People’s Cup. Super Saskia back row, third from right
This stellar performance came the day after Sport England issued the second ad in the current This Girl Can campaign which aims to increase women’s participation in sport. The current campaign is focused on older women. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Already the recipient of more plaudits, awards, and success than Lewes Ladies Vets had shots on targets on Saturday, #ThisGirlCan is a brilliant example of the power of effective communication. Here are five reasons why.
1. It’s purpose-led
Communication that knows its “why” – its purpose – is always more effective than communication that fumbles around in the “what” and the “how”. This Girl Can exists as a campaign to encourage, enable, and empower more women to take part in sport. The “hows” and the “whats” matter hugely, but when they come after the “whys”, they just fall into place naturally.
2. It’s data-driven storytelling
When planning what type of campaign and looking for their “why”, Sport England did some smart research and had smarter planners look through the results to find the nuggets of insight that would give the campaign real grist. They found that one of the fundamental reasons that women don’t get involved in sport after they leave education (when they have to do it) is because they are afraid of being judged on their appearance when taking part or ability to do so. By other women, and also by men.
This insight gives the campaign an immediate enemy to fight against: worrying what others think and – often wrongly – what they think others think. It sets up a campaign mission: to liberate women from judgments that hold them back by making their self-confidence greater than the fear of being judged. And it’s supported by a fundamental human truth: that you are not alone in your anxieties, but when you push through them, you’ll find that the benefits are transformational. Just look at the women featured in all the ads to date …
3. It challenges stereotypes
This Girl Can has always put stereotypes firmly in its sights. I know that more than one member of the Lewes Ladies Vets team loves the image and film of a woman playing football in the first campaign that carries the legend “I kick balls. Deal with it.” For too long, football and attitudes to women playing football has been dominated by the armchair sportif cohort of men who couldn’t bend anything like Beckham, but whose outdated attitudes have kept the status quo in place for generations. Well no more!
The new campaign even features the line “A right kick in the stereotypes”, with this powerful kick-boxer image.
4. It’s demonstrably effective
Since the campaign kicked off a couple of years back, two and a half million women of all ages have taken part in sport who didn’t before. Not all of them have done so regularly or continuously or religiously. Not all have taken up a sport and trained every Wednesday evening and featured as the victors in a short BBC documentary and been runners up in the first round of the FA People’s Cup, a joint venture between the FA and BBC’s Get Inspired programme. True, not all can or could be members of Lewes Ladies Vets. But 2.5m? That’s pretty unbelievably impressive.
5. It drives engagement through its use of energy, emotion, and empathy
If you want to engage people – say 2.5m of them who will take part in sport in a way they haven’t for years in many cases – you need to be a pretty powerful storyteller. Here at Insight Agents, we think there are three keys – and three Es – that are the cornerstone of impactful storytelling, three Es that This Girl Can has in abundance.
Energy – you can’t watch the ads without wanting to share in the sheer joy of participation in sport that we see on every face. The ads are each 90 of the most infectious seconds of film you’ll see.
Emotion – if you want to motivate change attitudes AND behaviour, you need to give people more than just rational facts. “You should do more exercise!” Everyone knows that. But by demonstrating the sheer, raw emotion of taking part, of a crunching tackle, of scoring a goal, of winning AND losing, of challenging yourself and winning. Well, that’s a whole lot more impactful than a lecture from a sports scientist.
Empathy – putting yourself in your target audience’s (running) shoes – understanding what it really means to be them, and showing (not telling) them what life will be like if they follow your path. THAT’S the key to overcoming barriers and skepticism and reluctance to get involved.
Put energy and emotion and empathy together, and you get engagement.
I love This Girl Can. And I love the impact that being part of a novices-veterans football team has had on the life of my wife and her teammates and their friends and families and community. Many of whom, Saskia included, hadn’t played team sports before.
The Olympian ideal suggests it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part. That of course is true. But winning comes in all shapes and sizes. It can mean a medal like this one that graces our mantelpiece from this weekend’s success in the FA People’s Cup.
And it can mean victory over fears or anxieties or inertia or excuses. And for 2.5m British women, this campaign has been a catalyst for positive change. Long live Sport England. Long live This Girl Can.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.