It’s the story, stupid!

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Liz Wainger, President of The Wainger Group.  Follow Liz on Twitter – @lizwainger.

Liz Wainger1In the days leading up to the Fall Communications Conference, I was looking forward to reconnecting with friends, checking the pulse of what my colleagues are wrestling with in their work, and learning a few new tricks.  And the conference did not disappoint.  But what I was  struck by most was the consistent theme in the plenaries and break outs that I attended: story matters.

Despite all of the new and exciting, wiz bang platforms that allow us to communicate with more people, more rapidly across the globe, good old fashioned skills to build a narrative, develop characters and put our narrative within some broader context are at the core of getting our grantees, our politicians, and our philanthropic colleagues to engage in our struggle to bring about social change.

The last few years has seen a relentless emphasis on data.  To be sure, data is an essential part of story telling, but without a narrative you simply have data – no passion, no call to action, no inspiration.  And without data, you have raw emotion hanging in the wind.

The plenary sessions each featured remarkable story tellers.  David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and now “Treme”, showed us that we can bring to light overwhelming and complex issues with story. If you thought that “The Wire” was only a great crime drama, you would be wrong.  It was, he said, the story of “diminution of labor in an American economy that no longer needs massive amounts for workers.” In that series, he revealed the “The Corner,” the only factory in urban neighborhoods where many urban youth can find work, which is unfortunately, selling drugs. “One America is trying to teach the other to ‘just say no,’ but what should I say yes to when only one factory is hiring and it’s the corner,” he said. “The Wire” brought the streets of Baltimore and the pain and struggles of its youth into our living rooms.  The series entertained but it also highlighted the complex forces at work in our cities and in our society and put a face on urban poverty.

Reporter and NPR host Maria Hinajosa spoke about the power of story to make issues and people who are otherwise invisible, visible.  Holding up a Time Magazine, she expressed her anger and sadness that the photo for a cover story on the Class of 2025 had no Latinos in it because they are invisible to the mainstream media. She looks for their stories everywhere—from the woman who sells coffee from a food truck outside her office to the STEM sisters, a group of young Latinas studying environmental science. In telling these stories, she hopes to make Latinos visible and to change the narrative.

“See if you can find the stories around you. Make people feel because if you feel, you might be moved to action, human action,” she urged.

Author Junot Diaz reminded us of the importance of injecting play as well as information and stickiness into our storytelling.  It is the play piece that allows the audience to make the story its own.  He also noted that “nothing is more alien than universal writing.”  Specificity makes the message more human and, therefore, more likely that people will connect to it.  We all know the importance of targeting our audiences but Diaz framed it extremely well.  “My strategic audience is my mold to make the sculpture.  The real audience is the people who come to see the sculpture.”

The conference also had some great sessions that offered some practical tips about how to tell stories more effectively, from digital storytelling to affect change to shaping messages using research to finding the right language.  Hinajosa said she has banned the word illegal from her discussions of immigration reform.  Why? Because Eli Wiesel once remarked that the Nazis had made the Jews an illegal people with horrific results.

Doug Hattaway and his team showed us the power of investing the time in research to understand attitudes and then using a disciplined process to build on that research to craft messages that can help shift the frame on which people see an issue.  Language is critical, urged us to wage  war on jargon.   Use words that people can see rather than only think about.  Instead of talking about programs, we should talk about tools.  Instead of talking about the source of problem, talk about the root.  And instead of talking about populations, talk about people.

At the end of the day, the big a-ha for me was that as communicators we bring great gifts to our organizations, grantees and clients every day.  We help them see the world and the issues through a different lens.  And we are highly skilled in capturing and conveying the aspirations of the people we serve to the audiences that matter.   Let’s not get overwhelmed by the dizzying pace of change and the array of new communications platforms and apps emerging every day. Let’s continue to do what we do best: guide our organizations and grantees in telling great stories that tap into emotion to inspire and motivate.

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