How to stop answering our own questions (and why)

My oldest son LOVES mysteries.

He even loves them when they’re no longer mysterious, as when we’ve read and/or listened to the Star Ruby Boxcar Children Mystery AT LEAST 10 times, so that he starts making ominous noises the first time the thief is introduced (I’ll spare you the spoiler).

Even when I make up stories to tell him, the ones that he likes the best have some surprises, some questions that he has to answer, or at least anticipate. I think it makes him feel part of the story, like he’s discovering the truth alongside the central characters.

And, you know, I think we’re all kind of like that.

I was thinking about Sam, and about those four orphans who have saved so many small businesses from petty nuisances, when I read Made to Stick.

The authors talk about creating a knowledge gap, a sort of mystery, so that people are curious and want to know more…so that we don’t have to twist their arms or cram the information down their throats.

Too often, because we know this story–whatever our issue is–backwards and forwards (we already know how we think it needs to end, too), we just barely open the door to this curiosity, before we slam it shut. And so we never give, for example, policymakers a chance to ask questions, or to go along with us on a journey, of sorts.

I tried this out the other day, giving a speech about the anti-immigrant laws that have caused so many problems in places like Alabama and Arizona. I started with a story, a story about an Iraqi War veteran who wanted to go for a drive in his pick-up truck in Alabama. Except that I didn’t rush through the story, even though the end is my favorite part, when he gets so mad about the new barriers that HB 56 has created in his life that he calls his state senator in outrage.

Because I wanted the audience to ask the questions: “WHY couldn’t this veteran get his car tags updated?” “WHY couldn’t he easily prove he was a U.S. citizen?” “WHY would Alabama want to make this difficult for him?”

Because those questions are the most important part.

But we don’t get there if we are too eager to solve the mystery, to give the answers, to wrap up our story.

It worked. They grumbled about how ridiculous it was, just like I wanted them to. They were confused, frustrated, and, ultimately, angry, just as I had hoped.

So I’m going to try to start my thinking about policy communications a little differently, from now on. Instead of beginning with a goal of what I want to say, or what I want to communicate to people, I’m going to start with thinking about what I want people to ask, what I want them to wonder.

I’m going to be intentional about creating that gap, so that they spend at least some mental energy wondering “WHY?”, so that, then, the answers that I do want to impart come as a sort of salve to a mental itch, a welcome respite.

We know that our work is important. To us, they are gripping, these challenges single mothers face in accessing affordable childcare, or the tribulations of the long-term unemployed, or the obstacles that face parents of a child with a serious disability.

We just have to tell the stories like they’re page-turners.

Because we can’t afford to let policymakers, or donors, or even that elusive ‘general public’, put us down.

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