Many visioning processes begin with a guided visualization, where participants close their eyes and listen as they are guided by a facilitator through a series of images and questions. The key is to imagine we have arrived at a specified, fabulous point in the future – where all of our dreams have been realized. It is exactly the way we want it. It is about what we are for – not what we are against. And for most of us, our experience of being in this desired future reality is vivid and visceral. (Note: a few of us experience “visualizations” slightly differently – some of us don’t see pictures in our minds at all. Instead, we see words, or experience a set of sensations.) The experience of imagining that we have arrived at a point in the future – that we are there, right now – can unleash a whole new set of innovative, creative ideas. Click here for a list of 14 questions or elements to weave into your visualization script.
Sometimes words are not enough. Creative approaches such as collage can be incredibly powerful for developing compelling visions – starting with images. The words can follow. Leadership coach and facilitator Olive Dempsey offers a beautiful workshop on visioning using collage, or what she calls “visioning boards”. Sharon Livingstone, a brilliant focus group moderator based in New Hampshire, first taught me to use collage as a creative-association technique when I briefly studied with her several years ago.
The basic idea is this: provide stacks of different kinds of magazines, glue stick, scissors, and some sort of cardboard backing. Invite participants to thumb through and pick out any images that speak to them about an aspirational, fabulous future life – personal or professional or both. They may pick out words, or letters to make up words. You might add coloured pencils, watercolours, anything else to facilitate capturing a collection of images that convey a feeling AND specific outcomes or states of being. For organizational visions, this is fantastic to do in small groups or teams.
The trick to making this really work lies in the debrief afterward. Have each group present their completed collage. Ask: Why did those specific images speak to you? What’s surprising and new? What are the key themes or threads that may draw it all together? What do others see, outside of the group? What’s most resonant here for all of us?
Here’s a lovely example of several simple vision boards; these are focused on personal visions, but of course could equally apply to organizational visions.
Successful organizations have long known about the power unleashed across a team when people are galvanized around an effective vision. There are dozens of approaches to facilitating an organizational vision process. The essential process is all about marrying imagination and strategy – taking intuitive, creative and informed leaps into a possible aspirational future. The next few posts will lay out just a few that I’ve found really effective as a facilitator, starting with the “hot pen technique.”
Books like The Artist’s Way describe the benefits of using stream-of-consciousness approach to creative writing for a prescribed length of pages or amount of time. The idea is to let your creative juices flow, without editing or judging anything that wants to emerge. Feeling creatively constipated, so to speak? Not to fear. Just write ‘blah blah blah’, or cuss like a sailor – anything goes. Just write.
Business leader and visioner extraordinaire Ari Weinsweig teaches a similar approach to visioning specifically, and it’s incredibly powerful (and fun). He calls it the “Hot Pen Technique”. Check out page 144 of Ari Weinsweig’s “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business” for specifics. The basic idea is this: write for at least 15 minutes without stopping. Turn off your ‘internal editor’ and just write – whatever comes to mind – about your aspirational future. It should be a stretch – that is, bold enough to get your heart racing just a little – but also achievable. It should also be personal. Put yourself in the picture. You’re the star of this movie!
And ideally, include the elements of a great story. That is, engage your senses of light, touch, smell, taste, as you describe the setting and characters co-starring in this fabulous new future. Hell, add a soundtrack! Make it as vivid, detailed and visceral as your imagination allows.
I recently attended a workshop of Ari’s while facilitating a retreat in beautiful Molokai, Hawaii, and found this technique to be remarkably useful. While I went into the exercise feeling pretty clear about my vision, the method crystallized and fleshed out startling new details of what I hope to achieve in both my personal and professional trajectory.
Some of my recent posts describe the power of effective organizational visions, including examples of a few not-so-great vision statements, and one fabulous vision in narrative form. Here are a few more examples of organizational visions that do hit at least some of the notes of a vivid narrative description of an aspirational future. The key: we can see pictures in our minds about what success looks like, and what the organizations are for – not just what they’re against.
We are feeding ourselves, our families, and our community with easily accessible and nourishing food from our local gardens, farmers, and ranchers.
– Slow Food Denver
Canadians have confidence in us. Canadian Blood Services provides a safe, secure, cost-effective, affordable and accessible supply of quality blood, blood products and their alternatives. Canada is self-sufficient in blood and we are working to be self-reliant in plasma. Emerging risks and best practices are monitored continuously. Our blood and blood products are safe and of quality…. [the full vision is longer, but you get the point!]
– Canadian Blood Services
Our vision: Provide a world-class Club Experience that assures success is within reach of every young person who walks through our doors, with all members on track to graduate from high school with a plan for the future, demonstrating good character and citizenship, and living a healthy lifestyle.
– Boys and Girls Club of Martin County, USA
ForestEthics believes that protecting our planet is everyone’s business. Because of our work, environmentally responsible corporations and governments will thrive. Natural systems will be protected, and the people and wildlife that depend on them will prosper. Markets will be more transparent and ethical.
What are YOUR favourite examples of great vision statements? I’d love to hear them! In upcoming posts I’ll share some of the methods I and other facilitators use to help organizations and businesses tap into the power of their own visions.
As I continue this series of posts on organizational visions, I want to acknowledge right now that most organizations, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, don’t use a narrative-focused approach in building their visions. And I respectfully submit that many non-profits have lackluster vision statements. A few are certainly short and to the point, but fail to tap into the power of a vivid narrative description. Vision statements of even the largest, most well-resourced charities in the world are often based on what feels like an unattainable future, or are so broad and conceptual as to feel like meaningless platitudes. They aren’t bad, necessarily – they just aren’t compelling, or “sticky”.
Here’s a typical (hypothetical) example:
“Our vision is for a world without hunger.”
What does that really mean? What does such a future look like? It’s not motivating, because of two things:
One, it’s unclear. That is, I have no pictures in my mind of what that world looks like. Sure, I can make up a few stories, scenarios and images – but that’s just me going to the extra mental effort filling in the blanks for myself.
Two, it seems unattainable. To our knowledge, no reasonably complex human society has ever successfully ended hunger for all of its citizens.
Here are several other classic, real-world examples:
“A hunger-free America
“A world without… [insert disease here]”
“A sustainable world for future generations”
“A world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments”
What do you think? Are these sufficiently vivid, sticky and compelling to be repeated by staff at all levels; to be motivational and inspire weary volunteers even in tough times?
In upcoming posts I’ll share some of the methods I and other facilitators use to help organizations and businesses tap into the power of their own visions.
A smart internal communications plan can serve as a launching point for achieving continual growth, alignment and impact across your team over time. Here’s a 7-step plan to developing your own.
1. Clarify your purpose
For specific communications, get specific about your purpose. For example, is the message being delivered for information only, to generate feedback, to generate new ideas, or is a specific action required?
2. Clarify your desired outcome(s)
Do you need a response in writing by a certain time or prior to a particular event? Are you seeking a list of 3-5 new ideas? How specific can you reasonably be about how you will define success? This step is essential for identifying the benchmarks and metrics you’ll use to evaluate your results.
3. Know your audience
- Identify your target audience. Who exactly do you need to reach? Is it ‘everyone in the organization’ – or are the most important people, in fact, a few key influencers or opinion leaders (which has nothing to do with positional power, necessarily), individuals with specific skills, or one or two key decision-makers?
- Meet them where they’re at. What do they already know, believe or feel about the issue? If you’re talking about a brand-new concept, then a little informational background will be essential. If they are aware of the issue, but highly skeptical, then your messages and framing will need to address that, not just gloss over it.
4. Develop the strategy
- Identify pathways. What are the most effective pathways for reaching your particular target audience(s)? Is it email? Written memos (remember those?) A phone call? Face to face meeting? Intranet? Social media? Cloud platforms such as google drive? Hard copy memos inserted into payroll packages? A display board in the staff common room?
- Consider messengers. Also ask: who’s the most effective messenger? It may not be you. It may not be the most senior executive. Does your audience instead need to hear the message from a trusted peer? Do you need internal champions to move the issue forward?
5. Develop the message
Now that you’ve identified and ‘profiled’ your audience, develop your message. It should be short, clear, compelling, and ideally, visual. It is very likely positive – focused on what the team is for, rather than what it’s against. If you deliver the message through stories, it will almost certainly be ‘sticky’ – both memorable and high-impact.
6. Deliver the message
Effective communications are really about delivering the right message, to the right audience, at the right time – often many times. So plan it out. Here are some elements to think about:
- People power: Who needs to do what, by when? Who is the decision-maker? Who needs to be consulted? Who needs to be informed? Who’s doing the actual work? Is there a lead, or internal ‘project manager’ to ensure the work is proceeding as planned?
- Timing: When is the optimum time to deliver the message? How often does it need to be repeated?
- Resources: How much time will it take – and are there other resources required? How is this work reflected on internal workplans, if at all?
- Metrics: How will you know the message is received? How will you know the desired results are being achieved? When and how are you scheduling evaluation along the way (see below)?
7. Evaluate and learn
Don’t just identify metrics for tracking progress – revisit them on a regular basis. Use what they teach you. Build evaluation into monthly and quarterly reviews, for example. And include it as a routine practice or group norm: for instance, at every staff meeting, include a standing agenda item that has the team reflect on its internal communications. Include tracking questions on annual internal organizational surveys. Questions could be as simple as: How well are we communicating our organizational vision? How well are we keeping one another abreast of one another’s work and results? How are we doing with having “courageous’ conversations” in a timely, skillful way? How are we doing with email brevity and appropriateness? How are we doing with the preparation and use of well-crafted briefing notes? Insanity has been defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Building in evaluation at every level of your communications will interrupt any bias toward activities and help teams focus on results. With routinized evaluation, your internal communications, and therefore your internal alignment and collective ability to get things done, will continually improve.
Here’s a great multi-agency plan for a set of child-focused Irish agencies attempting to collaborate more effectively. There are clear, high–level messages, a broad but clear set of audiences and a list of tactics tailored somewhat for each audience, plus a broad-stroke timeline. The challenge with the plan is its lack of metrics – how will they measure success?
The ITSMF, a forum for Information Technology professionals, offers a great internal communications plan to its members. Out of respect for its chapter model, it is not overly prescriptive, but does suggest useful types of metrics that could form the basis for continual evaluation.
The global organization Civicus also offers a short, useful case study on pages 17-19 of its internal communications toolkit. Evaluation is mentioned under “next steps”, with specific reference to a follow-up survey to track results over time.
Why are some stories are stickier than others? Much of the answer lies in our neurological wiring. Studies show that stories engaging the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate the same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers.
Why are some stories ‘stickier’ than others? I pondered the question while I sat at my desk, sipping the steaming hot Nicaraguan coffee we brought back from holiday a few weeks ago. My puppy’s fuzzy black head rested heavily on my bare foot, and I was getting ready for a conference call, when my colleague Nina forwarded this wonderful post about story-telling and the senses. Serendipity! When communications strategist and writer Nina Winham and I taught a session on communicating sustainability last year, I pushed our participants to tell stories that didn’t just have a ‘beginning, middle and an end’, but more importantly, activated the senses. “Describe the setting”, I urged; “the light, the temperature, the atmosphere. Who was there? What did they look like? What were they doing? How did it feel, to be there? Were there any scents in the air? Sounds”?
According to an emerging body of research in the neurosciences, stories that activate the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate those same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers. That’s why, in advocacy communications, there’s such a vast difference between communicating the meaning of something (“our aging communities deserve better access to health care”) versus leading with stories that paint pictures in the listener’s minds (“yesterday my 83 year old mother clutched her throbbing, broken right wrist for six hours as we waited for a doctor’s care in the jam-packed emergency room at St. Vince’s hospital…”). Check out this powerful infographic that shows how specific regions of the brain ‘light up’ when presented with sensory-loaded story-telling. By activating the senses through our words, we are putting the listener in the picture – almost literally putting them in the center of their own story. When it comes to effective stories, whether it’s a quick aside or mention of just one sensory quality (“it was a sunny Spring morning”) or a more complex narrative, every sense counts.
Here’s a simple but powerful “formula” for writing a solid speech or op-ed. I’ve adapted it from the framework taught to me by veteran editor David Beers in the context of writing op-eds. It works: in my years supporting non-profits in their media and marketing work, every op-ed I wrote using this basic formula was placed successfully.
A few months ago my teenaged son was struggling with getting started on a speech for his English class. He had a stack of research notes and a ton of ideas (who knew that a tree sloth can hold its breath underwater for up to 40 minutes?), but was at a loss as to how pull it all together. I explained that early in my communications career, my friend and mentor, veteran journalist David Beers, laid out a simple but brilliant formula for writing op-eds. Over several years helping non-profit leaders create and place op-eds, I found it to be nearly foolproof. Happily, I discovered that the formula is also fantastic for getting started on a compelling speech. And while a beautifully crafted speech defies any pat formula, a simple framework can help get those creative and intellectual juices flowing. So, here’s the basic idea, starting with my own addition: beginning with a story. For the rest of it – apologies to David, as I’ve almost certainly mangled his original sage advice!
Here’s the overview, followed by some detail:
- Start with a story
- Provoke with a compelling hypotheses or main argument
- Back it up with 3-5 supporting points or ‘validators’
- Describe the solution or call to action
- Circle back to the opening hypotheses (or story)
1. Start with a story…
As virtually every communicator should know by now: start with a story. It could be anything: a personal experience, or one recounted to you; a current news story; a hypothetical or fictional story. As the authors of “Made to Stick” describe so well, stories are “sticky” because they engage an audience’s imagination. When we hear a ‘vivid’ story, we literally see pictures in our minds, and in some ways experience the emotions and physical embodiment of the described experience. This dynamic can transform the audience-speaker relationships. As master communicator and brand strategist, Bill Baker, explains, “starting your presentation with a story helps you break through their cynicism, lower their defenses and get your audience to see you as a person, not just a presenter. In turn, this makes them more likely to connect with you, trust you and listen to you.”
Typically, I encourage speakers to think about a few basic elements: setting and characters (it’s ‘stickier’ to see actual pictures in our minds, not just hear about concepts), some sort of tension or ‘quest’, action, and resolution. There are probably a dozen frameworks or elements taught to help create stories; that’s just one approach. I tend to push the visual. At public speaking trainings for the Center for Progressive Leadership and Simon Fraser University I would ask participants to pair up and tell stories that were so vivid their partners could actually draw something to capture the tale.
Your initial audience engagement doesn’t have to be as rigid as a classic story, however. You could:
- start with a brief visualization (“picture this: you’re driving along Highway 99, when suddenly…”)
- ask a question that invites the audience to ponder their own perspective before sharing yours (“How do you discern between a genuine and token apology?”)
- ask for a show of hands to demonstrate some particular common experience (“how many here arrived by public transit?”)
- share a powerful quote, or poem
- read out a topical news headline
- … or something else
2. Launch into your big compelling hypotheses, position or argument
This is fairly straightforward. What’s your main argument or hypotheses? It should be provocative and compelling in some way. It could just be one statement, like, “When it comes to green tech innovation, Canada is teetering on the cusp of become either a global superstar or an industry laughing stock. Here’s why…”
3. Back it up with supporting points
Next, follow with three to five supporting points or ‘validators’ that back up your main argument. You could transition from the opening position statement above with, “consider this”… then follow with your ‘evidence.’ These supporting points could include statistics, facts, even another story – anything to “back up”, prove or make the case for your key position.
4. Clarify the ‘call to action’
For any kind of social change argument, this is where you lay out the solution: what’s your “call to action”? For whom – who is responsible, and what should they do, exactly? If it’s appropriate, you might also describe the next step. And if there’s a role for the audience to play – even better.
5. Circle back to your opening
Here’s where you wrap it all up with your closing paragraph or statement, circling back to the beginning. Basically, this is where you figuratively say: “Snap! See, that’s why I stand by my argument or position”. It could be a sentence or two related back to your opening story (maybe this is where you roll out the story’s ‘ending’), or your main position, or both.
Beyond the Formula
And again – truly transformational speeches are like works of art – there is no definitive recipe for their creation. For some of the deepest, most powerful resources in the field, check out veteran public speaking trainer Gail Larsen’s Real Speaking site and blog. Gail offers both executive coaching and small-group intensive trainings out of both the US and western Canada (I’ve taken two of her workshops), and her book, Transformational Speaking, is invaluable.
Whether developing a “message box” or dealing with internal strategy debates, social change advocates sometimes have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. There’s a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing. Here, I share a short case study of an ‘oppositional role-play’ I’ve used with a few groups to help go beyond entrenched viewpoints so that more meaningful listening and understanding – and sometimes surprising new solutions – can be achieved.
In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents. But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders. But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.
Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.
As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).
At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department. Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks. He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!
“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!” He chuckled sheepishly, took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.
As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke. At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.
The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.
The classic “message box” is both dead simple and incredibly powerful – which is why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. The concept is also invaluable for developing messages in not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. This short article describes how to create your own message box.
I’m on my way to Halifax getting ready to give a communications workshop at the ALLIES conference on supporting skilled immigrants. There, my colleague Marco Campana and I are focusing on message development and social media. One tool I’ll offer is the classic “message box”. It’s a simple tool to help map out the messaging landscape on an issue, including the clear contrasts between your own core messages, plan and positioning, and that of your opponents.
The concept is both powerful and dead simple – that’s why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. In fact, I was first exposed to it in more detail at the 1999 Campaigns and Elections conference in Washington, D.C. But the message box is also invaluable for not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. Even where there do not appear to be clear “opponents” to a policy solution, there are often unspoken positions that stand in the way of success. Crafting a smart, thoughtful message box will help bring those barriers to the surface, while clarifying the core messages your team seeks to drive home.
Creating your message box
Here’s how to create your message box: draw a square, and divide it into quadrants. Label the upper-left quadrant “Us on Us”; the upper right, “Them on Them”; lower-left “Us on Them”, and lower-right “Them on Us”. That’s the basic framework. It will look like the image on the left. The next step is to then fill it in. To do so, an effective communications campaign will draw on a combination of your campaign team’s values and vision, combined with its deep understanding of the target audiences’ values, beliefs and attitudes (based on thorough research), and a thorough scan of the opposing arguments, plans or positions that may stand in the way. The end result: a message box filled with just a few very short, clear phrases or ideas – usually in the form of 1-5 bullet points for each quadrant.
Us on Us
Let’s start with the first quadrant. What are we saying about ourselves, our issue, or our plan? This is where we distill the core theme and positioning of the campaign –where we describe what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. Sounds simple, right? The irony is that many social change advocates, as well as political folks with a strong history of serving as Official Opposition, are so steeped in what I call a “culture of opposition” that they can find this step surprisingly challenging! But this is the place where we paint a brief but compelling picture about the vision we stand for – a picture our audiences can vividly imagine being part of.
Them on Them
Now turn to the upper right quadrant. What is the “other side” saying about themselves and their position and plan? What is their call to action or solution? Complete the upper right quadrant with 1-5 bullet points, again using the best research available (e.g., based on mainstream and social media scans, or interviews with key opinion leaders). This is another place where I’ve seen some advocacy groups get tripped up: sometimes, because they don’t feel the opponents’ arguments are legitimate, they don’t take the time to deeply understand them. Their counter-arguments then ring hollow, and fail to reach or convince those all-important ‘persuadable’ target audiences.
Them on Us
The next two quadrants are relatively easy. What are our opponents saying about us and our arguments? How will they seek to frame our issues and position us overall? They will almost certainly be seeking to highlight our weaknesses, and to then contrast those with their own strengths and the merits of their positions. In a political or highly contentious advocacy campaign, they will seek to dominate the debate here – to put our team on the defensive. Anticipating those aspects of the message box will help your campaign team prepare to inoculate or mitigate against those message elements.
Us on Them
The final quadrant is where your team prepares to pre-empt the messages of your opponents. What are we saying about the other side and their plan or position? What are their weakest positions and arguments – and how do they contrast with our strengths most starkly? It is from this quadrant, along with “Us on Us”, that a campaign team will seek to dominate the debate through strong, effective messages.
Overall, a campaign will always seek to control the message; in other words, to dominate the debate from the left-hand column. And while you may craft a message box at the beginning of a campaign, it is unlikely to remain static. The communications landscape is dynamic; peoples’ views change, the tenor and intensity of media stories shift, and new players enter the debate. This means that messaging needs to change over time. In a political campaign, while the core messaging themes may remain consistent, some elements of a message box may change from week to week.
Case study: Obama versus McCain, 2008
For a case study of a powerful (and obviously highly successful) message box that changes over time, see this article by communications consultant Kathy McShea. McShea does a fantastic job of laying out the basic message box used by the Obama campaign in the 2008 US election race. And it changed at key points along the way; scroll down to the message box and click on the large arrow on the right to see how.