March 27, 2017
In 2001, Madison McCarthy died of sudden cardiac arrest in a kindergarten classroom. She was five years old. No one attempted CPR. Her mother, Suzy McCarthy, became the face of an American Heart Association campaign that, fourteen years later, made New York the twenty-sixth state in the country to mandate CPR training as a part of the public school curricula. More than 1.5 million students a year began learning this lifesaving skill.
AHA didn’t discover Madison by accident. It deliberately paid attention and collected stories of loss as well as stories of CPR saving lives. It then pushed these narratives at lawmakers through emails, phone calls, news articles, and social media posts. In the critical last weeks of the campaign, patch-through calls with Suzy McCarthy’s voice moved advocates to call Gov. Andrew Cuomo in support of the CPR bill. When I heard the recording, I thought to myself: How could someone not act on that story?
Generic statistics on CPR wouldn’t have moved lawmakers to act. Stories, on the other hand, with their heroes, drama, tragedy, and hope, tap into our emotions. A good story well told has the potential to bring out the best in supporters and advocates — and in lawmakers.
Unfortunately, too few advocacy organizations use stories to their full potential. Often, my colleagues and I receive advocacy emails jammed with technical information about pending legislation. They’re almost unreadable. Advocates for your cause are people with jobs, families, and other responsibilities. Even if they care about your issue, they can only invest so much time in getting themselves up to speed on all its nuances.
Now imagine the effect of replacing all those jargon-filled explanations with a real, compelling story. Let’s talk about how you can accomplish that at your organization.
Collect your advocates’ stories. When people sit around the dinner table or a campfire, what do they do? They tell stories. But when you solicit stories in support of your cause via email or social media, which are far less personal channels, you have to be sure to ask the right question. We’ve found that the following approach works well:
- In a sentence or two, present your issue and actionable goal.
- Then say: “How does this issue affect you personally? Please share your story for our campaign.”
- Watch as advocates send emails, post on social media, and respond to other people’s stories.
Identify the most compelling stories. Let’s say you collect two hundred stories. (Congrats!) Around which ones should you build your campaign?
First, zero in on the most relevant stories. Suzy McCarthy lost a child, and the proposed legislation could prevent that from happening in the future. No story could be more relevant. Second, ask for permission to use the story publicly. Understandably, some of your supporters may feel shy about becoming a campaign figurehead the way Suzy did. Third, use the most compelling stories first. Which ones truly capture what is at stake?
The best stories illustrate the consequences of inaction, be it job loss, hunger, environmental degradation, or even the possibility of death. And though you really only need one truly compelling story to get someone to take action, feel free to share quotes or short anecdotes from many.
Center your campaign on one story. The idea here is to use the voice of a single advocate for your cause to inspire others to act. Put that story on your campaign webpage. Include it in your emails to legislators (and make sure it precedes your call to action). Ask the person whose story it is to do the recording for your patch-through calls (as Suzy did for AHA).
Remember: Simplicity usually wins the day. The story you choose should translate something complex into a relatable, emotional experience. And the hashtag you choose for social media purposes should capture the essence of that story in a few words. While we’d like to believe that each and every story or argument strengthens a campaign, it doesn’t work that way. Oversharing can dilute and undermine the power of your message.
Simplifying a complex issue into a compelling story, and turning that story into a catchy hashtag, is not about pandering to short attention spans or “dumbing down” your messaging for a millennial audience. It’s being strategic. By one estimate, more than half of all emails sent since 2015 have been opened on a mobile device. Why lose a potential supporter and advocate for your cause to the fact that your message didn’t “fit above the fold” and a lot of socially engaged people didn’t scroll down far enough to find it on their smartphones?
Now, it’s possible you end up ignoring my advice because you and your colleagues have convinced yourselves your organization doesn’t have an ”exciting” story to tell. I doubt that. When patent assertion entities (PAEs) began blackmailing innovators and small businesses for patent infringement, the issue seemed dry and complicated. That didn’t deter the Consumer Technology Association, a group that supports innovators and innovation. CTA simply reframed the issue as a David vs. Goliath story. They realized the term “patent troll” captured the greed and mendaciousness of PAEs. And like trolls, PAEs were preying on the innocent — in this case, entrepreneurs and technologists. CTA’s graphic caricatures of club-wielding trolls hammered the point home.
As a result, CTA raised awareness of the issue and moved entrepreneurs and small businesses, which couldn’t afford to fight patent infringement claims in court, to share their own stories of extortion. In no time, their stories revealed that U.S. patent law was broken and motivated politicians in Washington to take action.
The point is, you can’t imagine the kinds of stories your advocates and supporters might be willing to share until you ask for them. And one good story can drive an entire campaign. Real stories shared by real people never earn the “fake news” moniker that can delegitimize research and technical information.
Ximena Hartsock is a co-founder and president of Phone2Action, a provider of social advocacy and civic engagement tools that connect constituents with their elected officials.