How research will drive the next stage of strategic storytelling for social good: #ComNet16 takeaways



Between soaking in views of the Detroit river and DIA’s Diego Rivera mural, conference goers at ComNet16, a gathering of social sector communication leaders, found that many sessions emphasized a crucial communication challenge: good storytelling.

We know that being able to tell the story of our social issues is crucial to engaging and moving audiences. But what exactly makes for good story? What can we expect to achieve with a good story? How do we move beyond the trite, sometimes exploitative, and all-too-familiar trope: “organization x saves person y from circumstance z?”

As a researcher, I am trained to look to the data and the existing research to answer these questions. While I think there is room for more research on strategic storytelling and more translational work to make this research accessible, I was delighted to see that speakers at the conference provided some excellent case studies of how it looks to do strategic storytelling.

The first keynote with Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center kicked things off with the journey (marathon?) to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, including how research informed the campaign and messaging (read more here). Doug Hattaway later recalled how achieving marriage equality demanded shifting of the story from “lgbtq people deserve equal civil rights” to “marriage is between two committed individuals.”

John Trybus of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication introduced us to the emerging megatrends of storytelling (think virtual reality, etc.).

In an electrifying Q&A with Jesse Salazar, NY Times columnist Charles Blow reminded us that if our storytelling does not ultimately create change, we have fallen short. Storytelling has to do more than entertain or delight. Our strategic communication should be in service of changing hearts and minds, which in turn, drives social and policy change. And it can — here’s a brief review of the science behind how stories can create change.

Nat Kendall-Taylor of Frameworks Institute and Shaun Adamec reminded us of the importance of how we frame social issues. For example, do we talk about addiction in terms of empathy (“we need to identify with addicts and treat them with compassion”) or interdependence (“everyone has a stake in solving this problem”)? Though many communicators are prone to tell stories about addiction that are meant to inspire empathy, the Institutes’s research results from a sample in Canada suggested the empathy frame may be counter productive, actually decreasing support for policies that addressed disparities in the access to and delivery of addiction services. We can’t trust that our well-intended story will have the effect that we intend on our audiences. Our storytelling must utilize strategic framing.

Finally, Doug Hattaway and Alfred Ironside presented their ambitious attempt to answer some of these questions about how to frame strategic stories and messages: a research initiative called American Aspirations, based on a nationwide survey of 2,000 people about their values. There is much still to be reported about the methods used for this study and its results (I’m studying for my PhD–I had to say it).

However, I am happy to see this proactive effort meant to find common ground for persuasive communication. The crucial question, once we’ve identified common values, is how people with certain values actually respond to the messages targeting these values. Unfortunately, we can’t always assume our communication meant to target those values are indeed perceived as in line with those values.

We must commit to the task of rigorous strategic storytelling that drives change by developing stories based on the data and by evaluating our stories for impact.

Why dedicate your career to communication?

I get various iterations of the question “Why communication?” as a response when others ask about what I am studying for my PhD. This has to do, I think, with the fact that communication is often taken for granted as a basic function of life, like breathing or sleeping. Talking is equated with communicating. Given this mindset, each of us have been communicating ever since we learned how to talk as children. How can you study something so basic and why?

Short answer: Because I’m all about creating communication breakthroughs that help to create a better reality.

Consider moments in life in which you experienced a communication breakthrough. Maybe you tried a new way of talking to loved one during those nasty recurring fights that ultimately eliminated that repetitive interaction. Maybe at work you changed the way the stale staff meeting is scheduled or arranged, leading to an entirely different conversation with new insights, priorities, or objectives. Thinking about how things were before and after such breakthroughs reveals a hopeful truth: a new, better reality (more efficient, engaging, peaceful, empowering, etc.) is created through better communication. Some scholars refer to development of such breakthroughs as generativity.

When we view communication as a process of creating messages to facilitate shared meaning–or more boldly, to drive action–the distinction between communication and strategic communication becomes more clear. In fact, there are a maddeningly endless number of ways to organize and present a message, each of which are more or less strategic than the others. These are choices that we make–whether we are aware of this fact or not–as we create and share messages in our lives or in our work. How should the message be framed? What language, phrases, terms, or figurative devices should be used? Who should deliver the message? How and when should it be transmitted? How should it be tailored for the audience(s)? And so on.

So, why do I study communication? Because I want to immerse myself in the research to get to the bottom of these questions, which inform how to create more strategic messages that help to bring about more understanding, less stigma, more motivation, and more action!