Thursday, May 1, 2014

Are you telling the story of home?

by Amy Clark, National Housing Conference
news from NHC and the Center

Getting the message right doesn’t have to mean abandoning our mission as housing advocates. But it might
mean thinking differently.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of co-presenting a workshop on framing and values-based messaging at the Housing California conference in Sacramento. Karen Naungayan, Housing California’s director of marketing and development, Jessica Merrill, communications director at the Sacramento Housing Alliance, and I shared with workshop participants some key facts about how people process language, and techniques that can help all of us communicate more effectively.

We aren’t much different from our audiences
A conference attendee asks a question
about framing at Amy and Karen's
workshop at Solutions 2013 
Karen asked workshop participants to write down what “home” means to them. We heard some great responses when participants shared their answers: a safe and secure place, a place to be with your family, the place where you recharge, a place where you can be yourself. What we didn’t hear was a lot of industry jargon and acronyms; not one participant used words like “project,” “housing,” “ELI,” or “AMI.”

The values that underlie housing advocates’ passion for ensuring everyone has access to a decent, affordable home are the same values most Americans have regarding their own homes: security, family, opportunity. When we frame the work we do in terms of the values we share with our audiences, we’ll more easily connect with them.

Stories are our friends
I am always interested in seeing the latest research into public attitudes toward various issues. But I often find myself fumbling for the numbers when I try to quote the studies back to people, even when I have the gist of the findings in hand. This isn’t (just) because my brain is full. It’s because my brain—all our brains—evolved to remember stories, not numbers.

Humans are natural storytellers. When you tell the story of the personal success a client achieved due to living in a stable home, or of how a community was transformed when an affordable development replaced a vacant lot, you plant vivid images in your listeners’ minds that they can carry with them and share. There’s a reason we use visual metaphors like “paint a picture” to describe the telling of stories: a good story imprints itself on the brain the way no statistic can. We need data to back up our stories, but it's the story that will move people to act.

Being effective means working differently
The most exciting moment of the workshop for me happened when we asked participants to think about a client helped by their work, and to imagine all the organizations and people who were part of, and could speak to, that client’s success. Bringing those “supporting characters” into the story helps our audience see the big picture. When a lawmaker hears from the teacher of a child whose family was able to exit homelessness because of your work, or from a healthcare provider who saw a positive change in a patient’s health because her affordable apartment made room in her budget for her medicine, that lawmaker will more easily see the impact of affordable homes on every aspect of a person’s life.

But if you don’t know the supporting characters, you can’t tell the story. One of our workshop participants, a housing developer, realized that while they get to know their clients during lease-up, they don’t have a plan to stay connected with those residents in a way that would help them see the supporting characters and inform their ability to share their clients’ stories of success. I was thrilled to see that the exercise helped this participant see that she would have to approach her work somewhat differently if she wanted to incorporate those all-important stories into her advocacy.

It might feel foreign at first, but small changes to the way we talk about what we do can have big payoffs when it comes to bringing new allies to our work. I hope you’ll take a look at the slides from the presentation, and share your questions about communicating effectively using values and frames in the discussion forum on the Housing Communications HUB.

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