Last week, I attended the annual Communications Network conference in Seattle and picked up some great ideas from some of the best and brightest in philanthropy-related communications. After sessions on storytelling, using data and analytics, and media in the community, three ideas in particular stayed with me.
1. Be more authentic. Author Sherman Alexie, the plenary speaker, delivered a powerful speech on storytelling. In it, he made the provocative suggestion that “the key to really communicating is narrowing the gap between your public and private lives.” We connect when we are authentic, when we speak from a place of genuine commitment and concern—even though doing so makes us vulnerable. He used the podium on stage as a metaphor, calling it “armor” and arguing that he shouldn’t be standing behind it. “Politicians use these,” he noted, “so you know it’s wrong.” (Turns out humor is key to communicating, too.) As people pursuing social impact, we have powerful stories to tell. Too often, the niceties, proprieties, and formalities of our positions stand in the way of simple testimonial—of telling the honest truth as we see it. “Don’t be shy,” Alexie suggested. And that struck me as right.
2. Integrate story and data. In a later session on using data and analytics, discussion turned to the relation between “big data” and “storytelling.” Nearly everyone in the room seemed to accept that an implicit tension exists between them—what I would describe as the tension between analytics and anecdotes—yet everyone also seemed to accept that the tension need not exist. In fact, these two “opposed” poles increasingly need each other: data needs to be effectively interpreted and shared (classic elements of storytelling) to have impact, and the stories we tell increasingly need to be supported by data to be truly persuasive. Given the growing interest in data across our culture, meeting both of these needs is likely to become more critical.
3. Recognize information gaps as opportunities. In a session on “The Art and Science of Strategic Storytelling,” the presenters described their effort to disrupt stereotypes of American Muslims and pointed to the importance of information gaps that existed before they began their work. Simply put: many Americans lacked personal experience with Muslims and had no understanding of how and why they had come to the United States. Obviously, this information gap was a barrier that enabled stereotypes to function. But it was also an opportunity for the strategic storytellers. The same lack of personal experience with and knowledge about Muslims that left people vulnerable to stereotypes also left many of them ready and willing to learn more. Simply put: they were not “set in their judgments.” They just didn’t know what they didn’t know. Realizing what your audience just doesn’t know is often crucial to getting your message through.
The conference offered many other ideas, including an inspiring look at the implications of games by Jane McGonigal. Next year, the Communications Network will reconvene in New Orleans. I’m looking forward to all the ideas that will bring.
Steve Sampson oversees writing and learning programs throughout Arabella, and engages on a wide range of client projects and external publications spanning the full range of philanthropic endeavor.