Communicate less, say more

My mother stands in front of an inaccessible public bathroom — one of way too many. (Photo: Mehmet Erdoğan)

The average attention span is 7 seconds. Why should anyone invest time into what we have to say?

by mehmet erdoğan

Seven years ago I went to the ballot with my disabled mother. Due to inadequate infrastructure, she was unable to vote.

It was the singular experience that changed my life.

Outraged, I wrote an op-ed, which went viral online. Before we knew, letters of support were flying in to my family from across Cyprus.

For the next four years, our little activist group (with my mother in the frontlines) helped to revolutionize the conversation around disability in the Turkish Cypriot community. We even successfully lobbied for the authorities to pass the UN Convention on Disability Rights.

Not all my efforts in life have paid off as much, so I’ve often thought about this experience. What made us successful?

I think, for all our creative and hard work, it was something unplanned: the story of my mother, humiliated at a voting booth, surrounded by people who had assumed she wasn’t even coming, like she didn’t have a voice.

Years later, my mother poses for my camera at the school where she tried to vote and could not. (Photo: Mehmet Erdoğan)

As the conversation gained momentum, I took to Facebook to write regularly about my mother’s struggle, about the struggle of my father taking care of her, and about the struggle of myself growing up around her “disability”.

I found that the more I told my mother’s story, the more people were willing to chip in. They liked, commented and shared; some came to the protest; many signed the petition.

Huge crowds turn out to make noise in the capital city of Nicosia; my mother is all smiles. (Photos: Evrim Benzetsel)

Here’s what I learned. If we want people to pay attention to our work, we need to tell more stories, and we need to tell them better.

WHY STORIES?

Because our brains seem wired for them.

Because large amounts of information become more digestible in narrative.

Because stories move and motivate. When you tell good stories, you help audiences bond with your brand.

That being said, let’s review the facts so we can exploit them:

A. Stories are universal — stories are the way we learn, evolve and survive.

Myths, archetypes, novels, movies, Facebook posts — stories are all around you. Everything that comes out of your mouth is part of a story.

As part of our human nature, though, we may be less inclined to hear some stories.

If your subject is too sensitive, try drawing it. Comics can provide an “emotional cushion” between the subject and the viewer.

B. A story is a journey — which also implies it often has a beginning, middle and an end — as well as a central character that goes through it.

Even so, sometimes you don’t even need a human being to tell a human story.

C. When we think storytelling, we think words, words, words. But a short video without a single spoken word can be just as powerful.

YOU CAN’T FAKE “PERSONAL” — THAT’S WHY IT WORKS

A carnivalesque campaign takes to Roma communities to increase voter turnout. Photo: UNDP Moldova

Which is why, seven years later, the questions I asked instinctually around my mother’s winning disability campaign I now ask every single day at UNDP Europe and Central Asia regional hub as a communications professional.

  1. What matters about this work? (What do I want people to walk away with?)
  2. What is the human element? What is universal about it? (What are my resources, what should I amplify?)

THE (HOPELESS?) CASE OF #GLOBALDEV

International development organizations aren’t exactly known for their terrific marketing skills.

We tend to be fatalistically naïve and idealistic.

We assume people will come just because we’ve built it. We think people will read our reports because we’ve published them, that people will read our blogs because we wrote them.

We use a lot of jargon and write tweets no one understands.

But here’s our unique advantage: we don’t have to invent our content — we already do work that matters.

These Ukrainian kids are pretty happy about first day of school. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

Most of the development work we do is filled with protagonists like my mother — vulnerable, inspiring, bold — if we look hard enough.

So this year, let’s renew our commitment at UNDP and across the global development sector — not to communicate, but to tell stories.

Invest in it wholeheartedly. Work together with a photographer, videographer, graphic designer, comic artist or writer — people who can help bring your work alive.

It will make all the difference.

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Also see: TEDTalk: What happens in the brain when we hear stories?