Lessons from #Progress2017: Stop Telling the Wrong Story

At the heart of every communications, policy, community engagement or corporate responsibility practitioner is a campaigner. It’s time to start campaigning for the better world we want to see, and refrain from creating campaigns that frame the negative. We need to stop telling the naysayers’ story. Lyndal Stuart writes.

At Progress 2017 I got the kick in the pants from Anat Shenker-Osorio I needed. I’ve often referred to the naysayers’ story as a way of conveying a push away from one idea, and a step towards another. It’s time to stop that.

A campaigner is someone who works in an organised and active way towards a goal. For those of us striving to invest in communities, that goal is a fair, just, safe society where people are able to have fulfilled lives and access to education, opportunities, health and support when they need it.

If you work in corporate responsibility, you might wear a suit while you campaign to see this vision realised, or walk into a shiny building every day, but you’re still campaigning. Oh yes you are. I am too. I could spin a message for anything in the world, but what I choose to communicate is a vision for a better world and a way to contribute to making that a reality. If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re doing the same. Embrace it.

So how are you going about motivating or changing the hearts of minds of your audience to see that vision realised? Are you:

  • Telling everyone what they’re not, don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t do?
  • Are you leading with the negative?
  • Are you telling the naysayers’ story?
  • Are you putting the case forward for how things could and must be better?

If your answer to the last point is “yes”: well done. If not, you needed to hear Anat Shenker-Osorio at Progress 2017 scold the crowd for telling the other side’s story. I felt suitably chastised.

She led with the most infamous quote from the Tale of Two Cities and finished with having a full house in the Melbourne Town Hall singing. Yes. Singing. How very unAustralian and gushy of us all. How uncomfortable. How symbolic of the campaign we each face. Because evoking the emotional and hopeful and idealistic and compassionate and collectively good while people are at work is a bit icky. But it’s necessary if change is going to happen, so we need to get over it.

Competing stories

Anat Shenker-Osorio points to the narrative playing at the moment. Where schools are pitched against prisons. Where the discourse is about the economy not society. Where there are discussions about penalty rates, where the framing for ‘paid parental leave’ talks about a payment for someone not being there – not for the contribution that person is making elsewhere (to family, the continuity of civilisation, for nurturing and caring for their infant children). To illustrate the point, the paid parental leave is unsettling because people unconsciously balk at paying for absence as opposed to services.

Those seeking progressive change, working persistently across sectors and industries and in partnership to achieve this (and Good2Give is one of those organisations) are invested in a better world. We’re up against the cynical, the regressive, the apathetic, the complacent, the selfish and the pessimists. But according to Shenker-Osorio, we’re entering into the argument framed by that negativity. We’re desperate to convert sentiment and prove that hope is right. She said: “we’ve chosen to be right rather than effective”.

Negation fails in communication

According to Shenker-Osorio, people only hear assertions. They connect the words ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘terrorists’, even if you insert the words ‘are not’ in between them. The joining words just don’t stack up against the fear loaded in the other labels.

So we, the communicators of hope, need to tell the story better. And to remember that people vote – and give – for change and solutions. We need to do things differently, and to do different things.

What does this mean for the story of giving in Australia?

For giving – it’s about selling the vision. What will my contribution result in?

Communicators need to be transparent and clear about where funds go and how they are used. We need to demonstrate impact. Of course.

What Shenker-Osorio said to everyone at Progress 2017 was that we need to ask for what we want.

Ask for better education for kids, for donations to fund research into cancer so that people can manage it better or be free of it. We need to ask companies to support a fairer life, and recognition and reconciliation with First Nations in Australia. We need to provide people with a safe and warm home. It sounds like asking for a lot, but the good news is: there’s a lot of generosity and desire to make things better.

We need to ask with a case for hope, and don’t lead with the don’t, can’t, not. We must start and sustain the conversation about the momentum for change that is possible if enough helping hands push it along – and to inspire. It doesn’t matter if you work for a charity, or a bank or a toy manufacturer.

Read Anat Shenker-Osorio’s report for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Words that Work report, and translate this for your own cause. Singing is optional.

Good2Give’s Head of Marketing Communications, Lyndal Stuart, attended Progress 2017  the Centre for Australian Progress’ biennial event for Australia’s leading campaigners, advocates and change-makers from every sector. Lyndal tweeted from the event @Good2GiveNGO #Progress2017.