Last month I had the pleasure of traveling to Melbourne, Fla. for the Florida Alliance of Community Development Corporations 2015 Summit. Titled “How to Tell the Community Development Story,” the vision for the summit was to help community development professionals not just improve how they work, but improve how they talk about their work as well.
Over the course of giving my presentation and working with Alliance members on their stories, I found that while this was a talented group of community developers, they had some difficulty stepping back far enough from the details to simply and effectively describe their work. Sound familiar? We all suffer from this affliction to one degree or another. Here are some ways to tackle it.
Dig deep for values. Your work is more than just a list of programs or developments. To get in touch with the big picture, ask yourself some questions, starting with, “What gets me out the door and into work every day?” Often, the answer is something like “Helping people find affordable homes.” Then, ask yourself, “What does finding an affordable home mean for my clients?” Keep asking, digging deeper until you get to universal concepts like stability, opportunity or dignity, the values that underlie your work. The next time someone asks you what you do for work, instead of saying “I connect equity investors with affordable housing developers,” you can say, “I help create opportunity for people in my community.”
Illustrate with stories. As I shared with summit attendees, research shows that a narrative can make facts 22 times more memorable than data alone. Studies have also shown that different parts of a story, like the conflict, climax, resolution and ending, trigger the listener’s body to release various hormones that make the story more vivid and compelling. The next time you need to describe what you do, use dramatic structure to shape a memorable story about your work.
Leverage your narrative. The characters and themes in the stories we tell point the listener to ways of thinking about housing issues that can help us in the long run. It’s common to tell portrait stories, narratives that center around a single person. While they can be helpful for fundraising, these stories can also encourage the listener to judge the individual being profiled. Instead, we can tell landscape stories, stories that feature not just an individual but all the people and resources involved in a family or individuals’ journey to stability. Landscape stories make clear the systems and structures involved in housing and community development, and point the listener toward structural solutions to affordable housing challenges.
From time to time, all of us can get buried in the details of our work. But by learning to tell stories about what we do, we can capture peoples’ imaginations and help them understand the true value we bring to people and communities. Take a look at my slides from the summit (Housing Communications HUB registration required), and look out for more storytelling tools in the future from NHC.