No More Adjectives in Front of “Communications”

UPDATE: You can now download the audio recording (WMA or MP3) and the presentation from this webinar discussion or view it on SlideShare:

Successful advocacy takes different kinds of work: persuasive policy analysis, clear communication and savvy use of communications channels—from the press to the web to one-on-one meetings—among many others. Persuasion is as old as conversation, but even though languages and tools change, the rules have hardly changed at all.

In policy advocacy as in any purposeful communicating, getting the job done requires that you know your audience, know your goals, and know how to tell a good story. Even if you’re telling it in 140 characters on Twitter.

Later this month, on September 25, we’ll be hosting a webinar discussion on seamlessly linking digital communications and traditional communications for better planning and more effective outreach. Topics will include choosing tools that suit your audience’s online habits; using different media to deliver the same message; improving your impact by measuring results; and unifying online and offline messages across a project or campaign.

As we work to bridge transparency policy and technology strategy, we’ve learned that a return to first principles of advocacy communications is never a waste of time. Not only does a check-in on goals, audiences and good story-telling help strengthen any project, but it also draws out the same questions that techies and web strategists must ask to plan smart online work.

Groups that understand this are usually more persuasive online and are always more influential as a result. If you have a story about a project that linked online and offline efforts well—or didn’t—or questions about how your own group can create a better outreach plan from the ground up, please join us later this month.

Some of the key topics we will review include:

All-purpose communications principles:

Goals: What is the specific change you are seeking, modest or large? How will the world be different if you succeed?

Audience: Who are you trying to influence with this project? Who is the imagined reader/user(s) of this information?

Tone and Voice: Have you matched your words and tone to your message and audience? e.g., Did you say “citizens” or “people?” Did you use policy jargon? Did you write for attorneys or for average newspaper readers?

Story: Are you telling a story or just asserting things? If the world will be better because of your work, for whom will it be better? If there is a problem you are proposing to solve, who currently is experiencing the problem and how is that affecting their life?

Digital communications reminders:

Audience-driven strategy: Do you need Facebook page for your campaign when you are trying to influence members of parliament who never go on Facebook? Have you aligned your technology opportunity with your audiences’ day-to-day behaviors and habits?

Choosing the right “channels” online: If you want a minister to rethink a policy, which newspaper does that minister read—or the minister’s chief of staff? If you want citizens to understand a mining budget, is it better to post a graph they can share with friends? Or a picture of a closed-down school? Don’t just choose the right technology, choose the right medium for your message.

Talking AT people versus talking WITH them: Social media gives everyone the chance to be an information source, not just an information consumer. Are you prepared to turn your audience into partners? Can they help tell your story—perhaps by telling their own stories? Can they help you spread the word in a way that feels like collaboration, not just dissemination on your behalf?

Don’t promise content you can’t deliver: Starting a blog can be like owning a dog or a farm animal. If you can’t feed it, clean it and pay it some attention, don’t do it. The same is true for a Twitter or Facebook account. Make sure you have the capacity and resources to engage people on these channels.


Two communications planning tools that use similar principles are the “POST” method, which asks groups to think about people first, technology last, and the “SMART Chart” designed to ensure that outreach plans are both savvy and achievable.

Join us on September 25 to learn more and share your own knowledge.

2 thoughts on “No More Adjectives in Front of “Communications”

  1. Two Important questions:

    1. What if the audience is the part of your story?
    Anyone can tell a story with higher rate of success of persuading the audience about his/her ideas, if the audience is not part of the story. Or, in other words, people become more adoptive if storyteller or his ideas are new to the audience. But, how to persuade an audience which forms a substantive part of your ideas? Experiences of intra-institutional communication mechanisms suggest that persuasion takes a long route when you communicate with someone who exists within your system (society, organization, institution etc) and knows that the communication made by you targets him/her. In this case, the story that you are telling can face a conscious negligence by its audience.

    2. What extent a communication be persuasive, if it is made through technology?
    A communication made orally carries a human appeal, but if it happens through technology, the plea involved in the communication may lack. And therefore, the message which needs to be transported through the means of technological communication might translate a different nuance to the audience.

  2. Hey Shyam, thanks for posting your questions! I think Jed, who led the webinar, will weigh in once he’s back online after the storm in NY, but I’ll share some thoughts in the meantime…

    For Question 1, I think a couple of thoughts occur:

    * Can you have members of that audience act as the storytellers? To the extent that the voices of a narrative are known, trusted, and or kindred souls, there’s a higher likelihood of traction than any “outsider” or “campaigner” persona.

    * I think regardless of the within/without dynamic, there are four points of connection that can move any audience:

    1. Pain: Does your narrative convey that you understand the challenges, loss, oppression, non-wellness or other negativity members of the audience are experiencing, and does your narrative offer mitigation or other redress?

    2. Passion: Is your story speaking to existing passions and other deeply held motivations and priorities within the community? Even anger, if properly channelled, can be an effective catalyst for leveraging and marshalling passion.

    3. Fame: Are you lifting up members of the community and celebrating their roles and identities? Drawing attention to those who are leading by example or contributing in noteworthy ways from within the community? Human nature usually finds affinity in such ‘fame’; friends tell friends when they are featured in narratives :^)

    4. Fun: While this is the most situationally dependent — you never want to make light of serious situations — the act of conveying positivity and celebrating life is in my opinion an under-utilized element of many narratives, which focus on ‘gloom and doom’ or policy-laden narrative. Anything you can do to imbue your narrative with joy – even in celebrating struggle and resistance – is likely to draw a broader audience response.

    For Question 2, that is absolutely true, and I think it’s important to break down “technology” into more nuanced categories:

    * Email definitely has a low ceiling on persuasiveness; it is a noisy channel, and human energy is hard to convey

    * Blogging is a more effective text-based channel, especially for story-telling and other first-person narratives.

    * Images can be profoundly effective in specific contexts, “a picture is 1000 words” is a valid truism in many contexts. Coupled with strong narrative, this is a strong, bandwidth-friendly way to leverage virtual channels.

    * Audio and video can *really* move people; these are technologies that best convey the human condition, when you can hear voices and see faces. It can never match in-person and live experiences, but it is still a compelling way to connect and engage. Of course these technologies depend on appropriate technology/access/bandwidth.

    In addition to the above, there is also the issue of technology hardware channels: are you communicating over broadcast mediums (radio, television), ‘traditional’ desktop computers, via laptops or “portable” computers, or via mobile, either SMS or smartphones?

    For each of those the answers to your questions vary. Bigger hardware (TVs, radios, desktops) are arguably more immersive, while portable technologies (laptops, mobiles) allow you to “reach people where they are at”, “in the moment”.

    Overall, I think technology can be a profoundly effective way to communicate, especially in terms of increasing reach and visibility. In particular, while many on this list know my ambivalence regarding social network technologies like Facebook, the beauty of “trust” and “friend” -based connections is that when someone you know/respect/trust says “you should look at/pay attention to/do this”, response is significantly higher, and the ability for compelling messages and compelling asks to spread at scale is dramatically increased.

    Your reflections on these questions and ideas are welcome!

    Hope the above is useful, happy to clarify anything that doesn’t make sense. And I definitely look forward to others’ thoughts on these great questions.