Tag Archives: communications

Storytelling, advocacy, and social change

In my advocacy capacity building work with nonprofit direct service agencies, the tasks we tackle together are intentionally individualized.

Each organization gets to direct the work, based on its own assessment of the types of capacity most needed.

So the process ends up looking quite different, depending on the leadership and the landscape.

But nearly universal is an emphasis on storytelling, a sort of global recognition that nonprofit advocates need to get better at telling our own stories–about why this work resonates with us–and at identifying and deploying stories about the need and the impact (especially about the need and the impact, side-by-side).

So I end up doing a lot of storytelling workshops, helping nonprofit staff and clients ‘unpack’ their own stories and get more comfortable inserting them into the collective narrative about these issues and why they matter.

And, so, I’m always looking for new resources to help with that.

Recently, I found this Storytelling and Social Change guide, available for free download.

It’s part compilation, part how-to guide, part inspiration, and part theoretical foundation–bringing together how and why storytelling works, the different forms it can take (case studies, video testimonials, storybanks, theater, individual narratives), the purposes it can serve (learn, organize, educate, advocate), and the motivation we may need to prioritize story compilation and story deployment as part of our communications approaches.

It’s written primarily for grantmakers, but there is valuable content for nonprofit organizations, too, as well as the important advantage that comes from thinking about how your funders think.

The profiles included also reference the funder that supports them, which is a practice I wish more nonprofit publications would employ, as it helps to demystify the ‘advocacy funding’ world for nonprofits trying to break into it, as well as break down the power divide that separates foundation from grantee.

And it has examples of storytelling for social change today and throughout social movement history, in very brief snapshots, which may help reluctant Board members, employees, clients, or partners recognize how their own stories can be valuable.

It has already informed some of my storytelling training, particularly in brainstorming other story modalities and thinking about how I frame the ‘why’ of storytelling. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has reviewed or is using the guide, about what you find valuable, what you think is missing, and what role stories play in your advocacy.

We all have a story to tell, and we can all get better at telling it.

Increasingly, I am coming to believe that, if we want to change the world, then we must.

Communication for advocacy’s sake

I have sort of backed into doing some communications consulting for the nonprofit organizations that are my advocacy technical assistance clients.

With the obvious (and repeated) caveat that I’m not a communications consultant.

I come to the study and practice of strategic communications only through the window of wanting to be as good as possible at convincing people to do what it is that I know believe really needs to be done.

I’m always learning and, I hope, improving.

And the organizations with which I work need to get better at communicating what they know, too, so message development and storytelling and integration of communications channels into a coherent campaign become part of how we work together.

I’m almost entirely self-taught, though, largely by trial and error, so it’s really reassuring when the experts’ advice aligns with my approach.

Except that I, like the commenter here, take issue with the characterization of this deliberate communications effort as ‘dumbing down’ your message. That runs entirely counter to what we’re trying to convey with advocacy-related communication: that we are all in this together, and that ‘my’ issue is just as much yours, as a result.

But I do appreciate the articulation of the primary objective of an organization’s communication as motivating others; in advocacy, we don’t necessarily need to win every argument or explain every detail.

We just need to get people to care enough to take the action that should lead us to a solution.


Because I’m such a novice, really, at all this communications work, I’m really eager to hear from others in the nonprofit world about what they need most to build communications capacity.

I have conducted storytelling trainings, helped advocates build message boxes, roleplayed media interviews, critiqued public presentations, drafted op-eds and letters to the editor, written press releases, and built campaign message ‘toolboxes’.

Certainly, the organizations with which I work are seeing some results, although I would never deign to take credit for their advances.

But what are your areas of greatest need, when it comes to equipping yourself for this particular part of your advocacy task–communicating with others about what you need them to do and why? Do you see your challenge as ‘dumbing down’ your message? If not, how do you view the core of this work? And what would help you get there?

Advocacy in light of confirmation bias

We have the best ideas.

I mean, okay, actually, I have the best ideas.


Unfortunately, that’s sort of the way our minds work: when we believe ourselves to be right, we seek out information that, consciously or not, affirms our ‘rightness’, even when our failure to check that reality could be, in an advocacy arena, fairly epically bad.

That’s one of the most alarming insights I gleaned from Decisive: confirmation bias means that even our most diligent research may fail to illuminate weaknesses in our proposed policy solutions, or even our framing of the problem, because we’re wired to discount that which disagrees with our way of seeing the world, and to hone in on anything that affirms it.

Today’s patterns of media consumption, of course, accelerate and exacerbate this.

In my own life, I start my mornings with NPR streaming on the treadmill, see print stories specifically selected by my Facebook friends over breakfast, and scan through blog posts highlighted by my Twitter followers, all sources explicitly selected by me because they echo my concerns.

I think we mostly know this, by now, but what struck me from Decisive is that, even when we think that we are intentionally accounting for this, we’re still not very good at overcoming confirmation bias.

Just knowing that we have this tendency does not, in other words, protect us.

And, of course, we’re not the only ones thus susceptible; those we are trying to convince/lobby have their own confirmation bias at work, and it influences how they experience the arguments we present, as well.

Not incidentally, confirmation bias is particularly a concern for folks like us, since it tends to be the strongest in emotion-laden spheres, including politics (p. 95), although, certainly, some high-profile failures suggest that even such ‘technical’ fields as engineering are not immune to the dangers of seeing things as you believe them to be, instead of how they really are.

But all is not lost.

What we need, in addition to this basic awareness of our vulnerability to confirmation bias and the importance of accounting for it (because it’s really not enough for us to just believe that we are right, even when we believe it so sincerely and vehemently), are concrete steps to counteract it, and to shape our advocacy so as to help overcome others’ confirmation biases, too.

Some ideas from Decisive that I think apply particularly well to policy advocacy:

  • Intentionally reality-test our assumptions, ideally with some small-scale experiments
  • Seek out partnerships and mentors with decidedly different ways of seeing the world, explicitly to challenge our thinking when necessary–I have seen, in my own advocacy, how important this is in the field of immigration advocacy, where our messages and tactics are decidedly improved through our collaborations (delicate as they are) with business groups and others who approach immigration reform slightly (or more than slightly) differently
  • Develop processes designed to lead us to the right questions–one of my favorites is a sort of counter-factual that asks ‘what would have to be true?’ for a given position to be true, or for a particular approach to be desirable. This can help us to explore alternative possibilities and test our own assumptions, but it can also expose ways in which slight changes in the fact assumptions could surface some new options from which we can then choose (p. 100). For example, prior to the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses, what would have to be true for it to be possible to close most of the institutions providing them with service? It would have to be possible for people to manage their symptoms effectively with outpatient treatment. With the arrival of sophisticated pharmaceuticals, this set of facts emerged, and a radically new option became viable, in ways unimagined by those closest to the issue.
  • Doubt your own knowledge and question your own process–what if we asked, as a part of any policy research, “What’s the most likely way I could fail to get the right information in this situation?” What if we used this same thinking to point out to policymakers (gently) that they may not be getting the information they need, either, as a way of easing the path towards their acceptance of some of our information, over the objections of their own confirmation bias?

Where do you see, once you’re looking for it, confirmation bias in your own policy advocacy? What alternatives do you disregard out of hand, because they don’t fit your way of seeing the world, or at least your issue? How do you account for this tendency in your own analysis? How do you break through others’ confirmation bias, in your advocacy?

Messaging like a convoy

Image from Flickr, Creative Commons license

Image from Flickr, Creative Commons license

I read A LOT this summer, and I have notes about some of my insights from that reading all over my desk.

In an effort to clean off my workspace and clean out some of the thoughts swirling around my head, the next several weeks will be sort of ‘book review’ time at Classroom to Capitol. I hope that you add some new titles to your ‘to-read’ lists (mine are SO long!) and find some new ideas to seed your own thinking, as we head into fall.

Reading about Auschwitz on vacation prompts some strange looks, I’ll admit.

But it’s good mental exercise, and I found myself reflecting on more than just the obvious horror of the Holocaust, although that’s what kept me up some nights.

But this quote from Goebbels was one of the first pieces that struck me.

He described his communication efforts as relying on repetition and constant, only somewhat varied, reiteration. His technique was to ‘move like a convoy–always at the speed of the slowest vessel’ (p. xvi).

I’m not, I promise, suggesting that we strive to emulate the Nazi propagandist, it is an undeniably poignant example of the power of communication.

But that idea, that we need to be always aware of how we’re bringing people along with us, as we’re messaging, is incredibly important.

It means that racing along at our preferred speed won’t work, when what we’re trying to do is get people to adopt our lens to see the world. It means that we will leave people behind unless we’re not only scanning the horizon but also looking in the rearview mirror. It means that we can’t be afraid of saying the same thing over and over again, because that’s how we give people a chance to connect to our messages, at whatever point they encounter them.

It means that we never lose sight of the purpose of our communication, at least in an advocacy context: to share a vision of the world as it should be, and to invite others to be part of it, too.

Reach your imaginary advocates

There are moments when someone presents an insight, in an area you think about all the time, that is so completely perfect that you really feel like smacking your forehead, for not thinking of it earlier.

To give you an example:

Last spring, in my Advanced Advocacy Practice course, my good friend Jerry Jones, an organizer with Communities Creating Opportunity, was talking with my students about power. He talked about how people are often reluctant to build power, or even to claim the power they have, because of power’s negative connotations. We’re afraid of it. I talk about this a lot, so my students were nodding.

And then he said, I talk about power in the context of electrical current. Because just like electricity, power can be dangerous.

If it’s not channeled, power can maim. It can cause chaos and destruction. But, put to the proper use, power can be tremendously valuable. Indispensable, really. (Having just come through a power outage with the kids, I concurred.) We should have a healthy respect for power and what it can do. But we shouldn’t shy away from it just because it can hurt people. Because, without it, we give up so much.

And that was so totally beautiful and simple and clear. I saw literally all of my students start frantically writing, at that moment, to get down on paper the image he had created for them.

Recently, reading through some of Beth Kanter’s archives, I found something that struck me almost the same way. She had a guest post about audience research, discussing how nonprofit organizations should think about those to whom they are trying to communicate, in order to increase the likelihood that we are preparing messages that will resonate with those precise targets.

The author recommended creating fictional profiles for these members of your audience, so that, in your mind, you are preparing messages for particular individuals, even if those individuals do not exist.

And it hit me:

That would work with advocates, too.

Because rather than thinking, “What would make people–in general–respond to this advocacy alert?” “What would move ‘the public’ on this issue?” “Or, even, what would appeal to ‘our advocates’ at this particular time?”, we could craft much more effective calls to action if we were thinking as though we were specifically trying to get an individual to advocate.

Today, with sophisticated technology and the ability to build databases with a tremendous amount of information, we can characterize our advocates fairly precisely. We can track who opens which emails, who has requested information about state legislation v. congressional action, and who lives in which legislative districts. We often know a lot about our core advocates, in particular, sometimes even what brought them to the issue in the first place, what their greatest passions are, how often they have contributed financially to our organization, and what their number one issue priority is.

But, then, when it comes time to mobilize people, the targeting that we do usually stops at the asks we make of them (like, is she in this senator’s district or not?), instead of how we make those asks. So we can end up crafting communications–newsletters, blog posts, calls to action–that speak more to ourselves, or to a lowest common denominator, or to a different target entirely.

So it ends up sounding as though we were appealing to some other advocate entirely. And it falls, predictably, flat.

So what if, as this post recommended, we instead thought, “What would make our Board President Carol call her legislator about this issue?” “What would get Susie, a single mother of one young child, get motivated about proposed cuts to early childhood education?” “What messages would Megan–mother of 3 and part-time pastor–feel most comfortable carrying to her senator about gun control?” And, then, we approached the creation and delivery of our advocacy communications with an eye towards how they would be received by those particular individuals, real and imagined.

We would think about graphics that might catch their eyes, specifically, and the types of advocacy actions that we’d like them to take on (keeping in mind a ladder of engagement), and the messages that would connect with them and then move them to where we want them to be. It might make advocacy communications more real for nonprofit staff, too, especially those most comfortable with more 1:1 interactions. I mean, yes, here we might be talking about pretend 1:1 conversations, but, still.

To be certain, that type of targeting would mean that some who see our advocacy information will be turned off. Since we’re not trying to engage everyone, anyway, that’s OK.

What do you think? Do you do this, at all, in your advocacy work today? Does it sound helpful or contrived? Or both?

Who are you talking to, when you make an appeal to your advocates? And how do you know if they’re hearing you?

Flipping Frames

My students’ favorite class period, usually, in the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course, is when we talk about framing.

Everybody loves reading Lakoff, right?

The fun part for me is watching their realization develop, as they consider the roots of what they have always held to be ‘true’, as, instead, socially constructed and shaped by the language we use to talk about the concepts the words represent.

We talk about how often we find ourselves slipping into language, and buying into frames, that do not fit our values. Even though we can’t afford to shore up a competing frame.

We talk about ‘tax relief’, and about how it makes no sense to talk like that.

And, as they get it, they peel away the frames that shape our thinking. They reject frames that clash with the visions we hold.

Together, we reclaim language, refuse to accept language that misrepresents or demonizes vulnerable populations, and assert new ways of talking about issues.

We talk about how talking differently can lead to thinking differently, and about how we can lead the way to new potential solutions by changing the mental cues that our words evoke.

This isn’t about blaming the media for spin, or pretending that there are magic phrases that can galvanize the public around our way of seeing the world. Instead, it’s about understanding the cognitive link between language and beliefs, and using that brain science to our advantage, in the literal war over words.

In small groups, students practice ‘flipping’ frames. They analyze how a particular policy or problem is framed today–like tax policy, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment, homelessness, or the Affordable Care Act–in policy discourse/public media, and generate alternative ways that they could be framed.

Then we assess what it would take to assert this alternative way of thinking about these issues. We talk about how we might begin this process of transition. I use examples from advocacy debates today, like the work DREAM Act youth have done around pushing media outlets to abandon use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe undocumented immigrants, about how language can drive policy.

For many of them, it’s the first time that they have really thought about how what we say, together, shapes what we think, and about the insidious ways in which language determines what is seen as a ‘problem’ and which solutions are seen as ‘feasible’.

It’s satisfying, then, when they send me media clips, by email or through social media, even years later, pointing out how language around gay rights has shifted, or questioning why we’re all talking about a ‘fiscal cliff’.

We know, from research about the powerful intersection between language and thought, that we are what we say, to a great extent.

So we have some frames that need to be flipped.

Prepare for the worst, and open your own window of opportunity


If I hear one more person say, “We just have to wait for the pendulum to swing back,” I think I might scream.

I know that I don’t have a long history in the struggle for social justice, despite the way that my houseful of young children can make me feel old sometimes, these days. I feel that we should all have learned, though, by now, that, while the arc of the universe may bend towards justice, we surely have nothing to lose by leaning on it…quite a bit.

We have to open our own political windows of opportunity, if we possibly can.

Sometimes that means trumpeting our successes and singing our own praises from the rooftops. Sometimes our work is so extraordinary that we can create momentum where there otherwise was none.

But, sometimes, advancing our cause has to mean being prepared for something bad to happen, because that can draw attention to the needs and galvanize action, sometimes even more surely than a promising development.

Some of the organizations with which I’m working on the advocacy technical assistance project in 2013 deal with child welfare, especially the prevention of and response to child abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

For them–and, I believe, for nonprofits working in every social sector–part of developing adaptive capacity, the ability to succeed in changing political, social, and economic contexts, is the creation of a critical incident response plan.

As we’re currently walking through it together, that’s a sort of ‘wonk-ish’ way of saying ‘plan for what to do if something bad happens, in order to take advantage of the fact that reporters, and maybe even policymakers, will be calling.’

It means that, while we hope against hope that no child–ever, anywhere–loses his or her life to abuse or neglect–ever again–we also prepare for what our response would be, and how we would insert the key messages about what contributes to maltreatment and what could really prevent it, in case it does happen.

It means that we are ready, with spokespeople identified, to talk about what moving towards policies of true child welfare, not just prevention of these horrific cases, would look like, and what difference that would make for all children.

It means that we can identify, for those who WILL ask, the 3-4 policy changes that we think (while being careful not to over-promise) could reduce the likelihood that something like this happens again.

It means that we have something to say other than just, “It’s awful.”

Or, “No comment.”

When I did immigrant rights work full-time, I had letters to the editor ready for the eventuality that there was another mass fatality of individuals crossing the border. When 19 people died in a tractor-trailer, we got great coverage about the need for compassionate and workable immigration reform.

We had a plan in case an undocumented, unlicensed driver was involved in a fatal accident. We had many opportunities to use messages we developed to respond to high-profile cases of individuals and businesses caught employing unauthorized immigrant workers.

It’s not the same thing as having soundbites to insert into every media interview.

It doesn’t replace the need to respond authentically, and with empathy, to the unique circumstances at hand.

But it’s also different from just waiting for the pendulum to swing, and failing to notice all of the times that the window of opportunity is cracked open…and we blow it.