When advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations reach out to the public, an important first step is answering the question “Who is my audience?” It is not possible to effectively communicate with everyone. Information, messages, and stories that resonate with one group of people may not resonate with others. Identifying key audiences allows an organization to choose and shape what is shared.
Figuring out “Who is my audience?” is usually presented as a linear process: identify those you want to reach, find out as much about them as you can, and then tailor your communication so that it not only reaches this group but may inspire them to support your cause or organization.
Organizations and advocacy groups often use stories in their communication with key audiences. As I have written about at other times in this blog, we respond more fully to individuals’ stories than we do to facts and information, engaging more emotionally and with more parts of our brain.
However, when it comes to the use of personal stories from those affected in some way by an issue, the process may be different than the linear one described above. In the digital storytelling model pioneered by StoryCenter, individuals tell and create their own stories, each in their own voice. When I conduct three-day digital storytelling workshops using this approach, I invite participants to: “Tell a story that is important to you, a story that only you can tell.”
When groups use stories to make a point, often they make the stories of participants/clients fit a predetermined message. If groups or organizations have access to individual personal stories that are powerful, rather than trying to make the stories fit the message of the organization (like Cinderella’s stepsister attempting to fit a size 11 foot into a size 7 glass slipper), a better approach would be to ask, “Which groups or kinds of individuals would be responsive to this story?”
I came across the digital story “Mr. Sunday” on the website of Creative Narrations. In this story, Marco Dominguez’ tells of his decision to leave his position in a college to teach public school, and the meanings of his presence to his public school Latinx students. For me, his story skillfully illuminates the importance of students having a teacher they can identify with, especially when teachers who look like them are few.
I received permission from Marco to share his story on this blog. As I asked myself: “Who are people I know who would benefit from hearing this story?” the names and faces of the people who came to mind were individuals who are already sympathetic to this issue, but are not involved in diversifying the educational experience of underrepresented groups. I am not sure that others I know, people who are more conservative on immigration policy, would react positively to this digital story.
As we are living in a very divided country, it is important to reach out to those who may not necessarily agree with you, and it also essential to communicate with those who may be on your side. “Preaching to the choir” is seen as a negative, but in my opinion this is only problematic when one’s efforts go into convincing those who are already convinced. Preaching to the choir can be effective when your aim is to convince people who are already on your side to take action.
If this video were to be shared with individuals with sympathy for this issue, for the digital story to have the desired impact, it is necessary to “make the ask,” to clearly state what you want the audience to do. When I first started working on political campaigns, I learned the importance of “the ask.” I was told a story about Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, a Massachusetts politician. This version of the story comes from the Boston College Libraries1 :
O’Neill learned the importance of the ask in his first campaign for the Massachusetts state legislature. On the last day of the campaign, Mrs. Elizabeth O'Brien, his high school teacher who lived across the street from him, approached the aspiring politician and said, "Tom, I'm going to vote for you tomorrow even though you didn't ask me." O'Neill was puzzled by her response. He had known Mrs. O'Brien for years and had done chores for her, cutting grass, raking leaves and shoveling snow. He told his neighbor, "I didn't think I had to ask for your vote." She replied, "Tom, let me tell you something: People like to be asked."
People like to be asked, and it is also true that if you do not directly ask someone to do something—take action on an issue, support a cause or organization—they very well may not do anything. We are bombarded with information. A 2009 study suggested that 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information crossed our eyes and ears every day.2 By now, it must be more. We react passively to most of this. When individuals are asked to respond to something, even if they decline to do so, the act of making that choice means that they are more engaged.
Stories can be an important tool in challenging people to get involved and lend support, when we choose stories to share with an audience where it is likely that the seeds of the story will fill fertile ground. And when you do that, make sure that you include the ask.
1 https://www.bc.edu/libraries/about/exhibits/burnsvirtual/oneill/4.html 2https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/the-american-diet-34-gigabytes-a-day/
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."