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Holiday Gifts for the Communications Pro in Your Life

December 18, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. In her last post, she wrote about connecting an organization's past, present, and future.)

Xmas_presents Here are a few "gifts" that have come my way recently and which, in the spirit of the season, I'd like to share with you:

For a great example of Heart, Head & Hand™ communication, look at the start of this appeal from the Maine Women's Fund:

I have an almost 3-year-old daughter who puts her outfits together on her own. She often appears in argyle tights, a polka dot skirt and a striped shirt -- quite a colorful and startling combo. I love her boldness and when I look to the future, I know a girl's creativity and individuality will be at risk if the voice of encouragement isn't louder than the voice of judgment. We hear the same message from our grantees and those they serve, as well as from participants in the Women's Leadership Series, New Girls, and women entrepreneurs: "Thought I was crazy for tying a different path." "I thought I was the only one."

Our encouragement is instrumental in enabling women and girls to be bold, take risks and reach their full potential. It is many voices joined together that create thunderous encouragement, and it is your individual contribution joined with so many others that allow the Fund to invest wisely in the power of women and dreams of girls through our grants and leadership programs….

I love that Executive Director Elizabeth Stefanski appeals to her readers' hearts, framing her appeal with an emotionally resonant anecdote that leaves the reader nodding in recognition throughout the rest of the letter.

Here's a great example of the use of story, from WHEDco president Nancy Biberman, in her annual appeal:

…I began to wonder whether it was time to take down the photographs that show the bleak origins of Urban Horizons before we renovated it almost two decades ago. Hung in the resident lobby, these photos depict how the Morrisania Hospital -- like much of the Bronx -- was in complete ruins in the '70s and '80s. The windows were broken, the walls were crumbling, and the floors were strewn with rusty syringes. Worried that our residents would prefer to put this memory behind them as they rebuild their own lives in tough economic times, I asked that the photos be taken down.

To my surprise, there was an immediate and resounding protest from residents, who demanded that "their photos" be put back. As soon as we did, an elderly resident, Dominique, stopped me in the hallway to explain how his aunt had been born in that hospital. Later that day, I saw a cheerful four-year old, Maceo, skipping down the hallway, singing to his mother, "Mom, the pictures are back! The pictures are back!" I watched as his mother, Mia, a young woman with deep eyes, put down her grocery bags to stop and pay homage to a photo of the devastated hospital.

This experience was a humbling reminder of how WHEDco fosters pride of place. As Dominique explained to me, "You can’t be proud of where you are, unless you remember where you come from...."

Note Nancy's terrific visual descriptions, enabling the reader to picture both the decrepit -- and revitalized -- building. And her naming of each of the characters in her story, which enables us to care more deeply about them. As Andy Goodman, author of Storytelling as Best Practice, notes:

Stories are about people. (And people have names -- even if you have to make them up.) Instinctively, your audience will want to know whom they will be following on this particular journey, and they also will want a mental picture of that person, so it helps to provide at least a few physical details....

Through sensory details and the naming of the people in her story, Nancy helps readers achieve what psychologists call narrative transport, a state of empathetic captivation.

Chances are that you'll be seeing relatives and acquaintances over holiday season who still don't fully understand what you do for a living. Try explaining it with story! For example, try using the phrase, "For example…"

I help smart leaders and their organizations figure out what they need to say, and how to say it best. Often, we use story as a communication tool. For example, I recently returned from Chile, where I helped the top thirty-five leaders of that nation's largest cable communications company, VTR, share stories about the firm's past, present, and future. We then analyzed those stories, identifying common elements, homing in on a couple of stories that truly represent the work and values of the company. Those stories will now be widely shared with customers and staff, to most effectively communicate the VTR brand....

And remember, stories can be short and still be incredibly effective in communicating your values and fostering trust in your listeners. I was reminded of this at the recent conference of the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands, when Sue Lipsey, of the Partnership for Our Kids, introduced herself during a workshop:

I was working in corporate America for twenty years, took a trip to India, and had my eyes opened. I came back committed to making certain that children in our nation have all they need to succeed. I quit my corporate job and started working  in the nonprofit sector with children....

So, dear readers, I wish you a holiday season filled with story! And please do let me know if you finally succeed, through sharing your story, in explaining to Aunt Edna what it is you do for a living.

-- Thaler Pekar

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