“You don’t need permission to be great.”
“You don’t need permission to make space.”
These powerful words by a young woman named Mary-Pat Hector set the stage for three days of community and creativity at frank 2019 in Gainesville, Fla. I’m still feeling inspired and invigorated by the gathering earlier this month, when I was in the company of 300 movement builders and change makers from around the world.
frank is not your typical conference. It’s named in honor of the late Frank Karel, who led communication for the Robert Wood Johnson and Rockefeller foundations. The idea behind frank is simple: Create a community of mission-minded, passionate people who use communication and evidence-based strategies to drive positive social, institutional and behavioral change. This annual event, which draws a mix of writers, researchers, activists and artists, features short speeches, storytelling, comedy, art, live music and more on and around the University of Florida campus.
I attended frank to learn more about the science behind storytelling — and to get a refresher course on best practices. What I hadn’t expected were the lessons about the power of comedy and pop culture in bridging differences and changing hearts and minds. Here are two that stood out:
- Give yourself the freedom to be silly. The work of getting better outcomes for kids is hard and messy and complex. We need to know it’s OK to bring brevity into the workplace. We should also explore ways to incorporate this in our communications. Tragedy is not the only way to inspire people to act — comedy can be very persuasive. And bringing joy and laughter to communities also recognizes their humanity.
- Get rid of the individual hero’s journey. No one can change the world singlehandedly. So why do we keep telling the story of a lone hero? Let’s share the journey of the world, with ordinary people who have the power to create extraordinary change. You see the effectiveness of this approach in the Black Panther film and the Harry Potter books and movies. The best world building allows you to be a citizen of the new world.
Here are five more insights I gained at frank 2019 about using stories to move people to action:
There’s a science to the art of storytelling. I learned three key aspects of this science at the gathering. First, telling stories using well-known plots (rags to riches, the quest, rebirth, etc.) can make the new familiar and the familiar new. Secondly, use emotions with intention. Instead of relying only on fear or sadness, invoke awe or pride or appeal to parental love. Thirdly, be strategic about what details you reveal and when — and leave room for your audience to fill in some blanks. That gives the audience space to connect the story to their own experiences. The most powerful part of your story may be what’s not said.
Effective communication is not about pushing your own message. Bring value to your community by entering their world. What problem are you trying to solve? Who is best positioned to help you solve that problem? Are you connecting with what your community cares about most? In one amazing example, learn how a campaign by one of Brazil’s biggest football clubs to encourage organ donation among its fans has led to a massive rise in the number of life-changing transplants.
Talk in pictures. This doesn’t mean hiring an expensive photographer or videographer. Paint pictures with your words. Use concrete, vivid language. Every single word matters when you are constructing experiences and making memories. A powerful example is Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. He uses powerful images and metaphors — from “the red hills of Georgia” to “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice” — to help people get the complex issues he’s conveying and to connect people with his ideas on an emotional level.
Connect your call to action to a result. We’ve all been guilty of weak calls to action, like “get more information,” “sign up,” “follow us on Facebook” or “share this on Twitter.” A call to action must be concrete and specific. People need to see how their action works to solve the problem. And they need to know how to do it. Keep in mind goals and calls to action are not the same. The goal of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was desegregation, but the call to action was, “Don’t take the bus” — something that was tangible and easy for people to understand.
Make sure your stories are actually stories. Stories are one of the most powerful ways we have to communicate with each other. Every social movement starts with a story. Science shows memories attach to stories and stories can create lasting change in our brains. Stories are not messages or vignettes. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have characters, settings and dialogue. Stories increase empathy and trust, and help us understand the abstract problems we are trying to solve.
At StriveTogether, we have a history of celebrating great quotes. With so many wonderful speakers at the frank gathering, it’s hard to choose just a few to share, but I hope these words inspire and invigorate you as much as they did me.