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Some Good News About Telling Good News

I just finished reading a refreshing — even inspiring — research report that should warm the heart of anyone involved in public interest communications. It should be especially appealing to anyone who wonders “does good news matter anymore?” or “If you have something good to say, will people listen?”  And, most surprisingly, “What if you have more anecdotes than hard facts?”

Well, on all those counts, Solutions Storytelling: Messaging to Mobilize Support for Children’s Issues, contains plenty of good news and it has lots of facts to back them up.  By way of background, this research was conducted on behalf of Child Advocacy 360, a group founded by Hershel Sarbin to close the gap that he says exists “between good work and the kind of communication from youth serving and child advocacy organizations that would underscore the power of good news journalism and success stories to effect community, state, and national change in social policy.”

Said more directly, Sarbin, who spent most of his professional career running Ziff-Davis Publishing and Cowles Business Media, and thus is someone who’s no stranger to effective communications, believes that if people had more information about the good things being achieved on behalf of children, and more importantly, if those groups doing the work had the resources to tell their stories more effectively and more broadly, more people–individual citizens and policymakers alike–would be more inclined to support solutions for kids that are working.

The research, which was conducted by the Topos Partnership, working with Douglas Gould & Company, takes what’s been Sarbin’s long-held belief and backs it up with verifiable findings.  Although the data is focused on programs that serve kids, it doesn’t take much of a leap to see how some of the same insights the research provides could also help anyone involved in social change communications.

From online survey interviews with 2,006 registered voters nationwide, six focus group sessions with voters in three states, and TalkBack Testing, in which 240 participants were tested on their ability to repeat the core of a message and pass it on to others, here’s some of the important findings about how to communicate effectively, including what to do and what to avoid.

  • Don’t dwell on problems. Too much of the coverage of children’s issues focus on problems.  And while discussing problems has some benefits, “it can also backfire.”  As the research discovered, “Problem-focused stories increase support for government action, but at the same time increase cynicism about  the ability of government and citizens to solve these problems.”

  • If you want action that leads to better outcomes tell stories that describe solutions.  “Sympathy for children is not enough to win public support,” Sarbin says.  “People want to know who’s doing what that works.  Give good news a chance.  Instead of focusing on charity, emphasize the fact that collective responsibility and the power of people working together for change, yields solutions to improve the lives of children.”
  • In communicating about what works and what needs to be done for children, “keep the community in the forefront as both a beneficiary and a responsible actor in addressing” their needs.
  • Help people see the “big picture.” In other words, when stories only emphasize one child or a single program, what’s often lost are the broader implications.  “Briefly discussing a number of very different programs is one straightforward way of focusing less on a particular case study, and more on the general principle that we can and should be taking greater responsibility for kids’ well-being.”
  • Be more aggressive in making the case for necessary programs. Don’t just say they are “nice,” but remind people of what happens when kids grow up to become productive adults.  Or as the report says, “When people have a concrete picture of how a program helps, they are more likely to see it as important” (and necessary).
  • Don’t leave people guessing about what they should do — give them examples.  “Communicators should specifically incorporate model examples of the behavior we want to encourage. Modeling behavior helps people visualize the ways they could make a difference.”
  • Show proof of effectiveness, but don’t obsess over what will be convincing.  Researchers found that “people’s standard of ‘proof’ isn’t particularly high, as long as they have a sense of how an intervention helps.” It’s always best to use hard statistical proof, if you have it.  But if not, anecdotal support can sometimes be just as effective, according to the study findings.

In the final analysis, this report contains a lot of what we all have believed, and also what many of us spend our time doing — trying to connect people to stories that demonstrate what works. But more importantly, we don’t have to do this work wondering if it works.  We have evidence, as well as helpful guidance, to shape our messages. And we now have some assurance that it works.

For more, check out the following:

Happy — and effective — storytelling everyone.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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