How can storytelling help public health and social programs become sustainable?
That was the brief I was given to conduct two short workshops at a recent national meeting of substance abuse treatment programs. The workshops were an opportunity for me to introduce senior program managers and staff to some nontraditional approaches to marketing sustainability.
I opened each workshop with an exercise I was introduced to by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick. The participants paired off and were given the “Tapper” task: one person was designated the 'tapper' and the other the 'listener.' Each tapper was then asked to pick a familiar song and tap out the rhythm of it by knocking on a table. The job of the listener was to name the song based only on the rhythm they heard. While the task seems quite simple for the tapper, the research finds that listeners guess the correct song only about 1 in 40 times; a rate we pretty much replicated in the workshops.
The point of the exercise is that the tappers are hearing the song in their head as they tap out the rhythm; the listeners are only hearing a rhythm. And as hard as the exercise is for the listeners, the lesson is more for the tappers. And that lesson is the curse of knowledge. The problem for tappers, and for program managers, is that we have knowledge about the tune - or our program - that others do not have. Until we can empathize with people who do not have this knowledge, it is difficult for us to share what we know with them because we are not playing to their state of mind or experience. In their book, the Heaths introduce stories as a way to transform our ideas to beat the curse of knowledge.
'Tapper' makes the problem of marketing sustainability concrete for almost all participants. We have an enormous amount of information about our programs and offerings, their benefits to individuals in the community among them, that most other people do not share. Yes, we can try and inform and educate people about the various rhythms and patterns that comprise our programs and hope that those lessons improve their ability to “get it.” However, another approach would be to design and tell stories about sustainability that are more responsive to other people's state of mind and can inspire them.
Then we reviewed the SUCCES approach to communicating ideas about sustainability, making them:
- Simple by finding and focusing on the core issues of sustaining your program
- Unexpected to arouse interest and curiosity
- Concrete so that they are memorable
- Credible through providing supportive facts that are endorsed by authoritative sources
- Emotional by appealing to both self interest and social good that will come from sustaining programs
- Stories to provide both knowledge and motivation to act in support of a sustainability agenda.
The rest of the workshop involved the participants in small groups exploring how to create stories for sustainability using plot lines such as:
- The challenge sustainability poses to the community, especially in terms of the obstacles that appear daunting to the protagonist (treatment program, its staff, stakeholders and/or clients).
- The connections sustainability could create in the community by bridging gaps and creating new relationships among community organizations and various types of people.
- A creativity plot that frames sustainability as something that is a long standing puzzle that requires innovative thinking and approaches.
- A springboard plot that talks about how the current challenges for program sustainability and opens up possibilities to create goals and confront barriers that the listener can be asked to participate in.
Each of these plot lines provides a way of framing sustainability to engage people in the community. In order to help people make the stories more concrete and emotional, I gave them several questions to consider as a starting point:
- What is the favorite part of your program, or the most important, that if nothing else you would want to see institutionalized or sustained in the community?
- If this were a person, how would you describe him/her?
- Who else might be attracted to this person - and why?
- Would s/he make a good partner for life? Why and why not?
- What would this person do or say that would have other people fall in love with them?
The energy level in the room peaked and sustained itself for the remainder of the session. Many of the stories the groups shared were not just creative, but profound and emotionally compelling. Perhaps the greatest compliment for me was from conference organizers and staff who were excitedly relaying to me the hallway chatter that the sessions prompted, as well as numerous references to the workshop in other sessions that afternoon and the following day.
The take-home points are that stories can be a valuable way to communicate the social and human value of the programs and the experiences of staff, stakeholders and clients. Rather than tapping out a need for sustainable programs, the stories you tell can inspire and motivate people to become involved. How the participants go back to their communities, create their sustainable stories and achieve acceptable results (for them and their stakeholders) are stories yet to unfold and be told.
And finally, creating stories about sustainability is hard work. It can be much easier to find stories where substance abuse treatment programs have created large amounts of goodwill in the community and have then been integrated into the fabric of community life. And when that happens, the rest of us should tell their stories far and wide.