Tell Me A Story, Not A Statistic

Robert PingLast week I was in a communications training with other nonprofit groups - a really good one, by the way, from Spitfire Communications, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We were tasked throughout the week with writing stories, creating elevator speeches and developing communications plans. I learned a lot. I especially learned just how boring very smart, passionate people can sound. I was no exception. It was a struggle to write clear, coherent, compelling, crisp messages that inspire people!

Here is what I mean. This has been my typical elevator speech: "Safe Routes to School is a growing movement to increase walking and bicycling and improve safety for children. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership works at the state, regional and local levels to provide best practices, change policies, and provide technical assistance, in addition to working at the federal level to protect and increase Safe Routes to School funding." Pretty boring, no? Doesn't really get you excited to take part in the movement, does it? Nobody ever asks me for a tissue after that one.

Safe Routes to School is indeed a popular and growing movement to increase health and improve safety (despite the few opponents recently trying to kill it in Congress [expletives deleted] ). In fact, just this week the US Surgeon General and the EPA publicly mentioned Safe Routes to School as effective tools in the National Prevention Strategy! Those of you who are working locally on programs or policies certainly are using this program's popularity to build momentum and support. But in order to inspire the average person - which is all of us, by the way, no matter how expert we may be in our fields - there needs to be an emotional draw. What I learned matters most is the human connection.

So how does a technical program or complex policy change affect real people who the listener can identify with? In Safe Routes to School, we identify most with the family - parents and kids whose lives are better because they can be outside, get exercise, feel safer, walk with friends, lose weight, save money, etc. There are so many compelling benefits to Safe Routes to School. But talking about processes, programs, systems, data, facts and figures is not the way to describe these benefits or our successes.

As you go into meetings, conduct site visits and walkabouts, talk in front of the camera, into the microphone, or face the audience or the computer keyboard, consider this: all your communications should have a human touch. People care about people. When you communicate, start with a statement that you are confident plays to the values of your audience. Then briefly, and only once, mention the barrier(s), then make your ask, then show how the action will or did solve the problem. Don't use acronyms and jargon! Instead, talk in clear, compelling language about how people are affected by your work. And if you must use statistics, make them simple and hard-hitting, no math skills needed, and that don't strike fear into already nervous parents and public agencies.

Tell a story! Set the stage, then build tension by identifying the problem, then tell how people resolved the problem and how 10-year old Johnny is healthier and happier now. A good Safe Routes to School story could be about how the Jones family's lives are richer since they can now walk together each morning, or how Principal Smith is happy that her students are more attentive and healthier, or how the Mayor's new Complete Streets policy in Coolville got sidewalks and a street crossing built, and now Johnny can walk to school for the first time with his friends. Tell the story in two minutes or less, use either real, fake or partial names, show how a barrier was overcome, and how real people are better off now. Get quotes and pictures (with written approval by a parent or guardian, of course). Or tell an emblematic story about how Johnny's all over Coolville would be walking to school now because of Safe Routes to School. 

This week I became inspired to create a story bank to use in our webinars, keynote speeches and presentations, site visits, promo pieces, even blog posts and elevator speeches. My elevator speech is still a work in progress (I am on the plane home right now), but I think it sounds a lot better than before: "We believe that kids should be able to safely walk or bicycle to school and in daily life.  But parents are worried about their kids safety. Few kids are walking or biking anywhere these days, and now we have a childhood obesity epidemic. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership is getting kids moving again. We have staff and partners around the country who are changing policies, helping local leaders and giving parents more choices for their kids health and safety. Do you remember walking or biking to school when you were a kid?" So how does this sound?  Let me know what works and what could be better.

Do you have a story to tell? Send it in, we may spotlight it for you! And if you are a local or state leader and could use some Safe Routes to School-related technical assistance (for a fee), we can help you with that, just email me: robert [at] saferoutespartnership [dot] org. Happy Trails!