Become a storyteller to get your message across

by Tom Salzer

Soil and water conservation districts are proud of the good work they accomplish, but too often they also believe their good work speaks for itself. The premise behind this belief is that nothing needs to be said because the work is of such high value, and the customers are so satisfied, that the district really doesn’t need to invest time, money, and energy in telling others of their good work.

Does this approach work? In a word, no.

We’re invisible to most people. We generally work with a very small percentage of the total population. Our work is often focused on members of the agricultural community, and in most places the number of farms and farmers are declining. That means to the majority of the population, you don’t exist. They don’t see your work, and they don’t hear about it. In some communities, the local conservation district may be perceived as filling such a minor niche that it wouldn’t be missed if it was no longer funded.

Ouch. And I say that after having lived through two episodes in Washington State of having my conservation agency budget red-lined right out of the Governor’s budget. Why did that happen? Because we forgot to reach people’s hearts with our important conservation story.

Somehow, you need to communicate in a way that slips past the armored defenses we all have to reach the human being inside. All of us have life experiences and stories that have shaped us, and if you can talk with people at that level, your message will be more likely to result in positive conservation actions.

Here’s an example of a non-traditional method of storytelling:

So what can you do? We are overwhelmed with information. How can you stand out from the crowd enough to be noticed and for your message to be heard? How can you achieve this without becoming part of the situation that causes information overload?

You can reach people more effectively by becoming a better storyteller.

When you’re preparing your next presentation, visualize it as simply telling a story. By preparing your information as if you’re talking with a friend or partner, you’ll portray information in a way that reaches people much more deeply than any false-sounding sales pitch ever could.

Your story is like a meal. The beginning is the appetizer, teasing your audience to think about what you’ll be sharing for the main course. Now you’ve set the table for the main course about who, what, where, when, why, and how…but with examples and anecdotes sprinkled in to spice the dish. The closing is the dessert that ties a satisfying finish around the meal: lessons learned that may include testimonials from people who participated and were affected by your work.

If you present it like an interesting story — and just as importantly, if you think of it this way — you’ll present information in a much more friendly and accessible way.

So tell your story, and enlist others in telling your story. Make it simple, use examples, incorporate how it affects people, and tell it as often as you can. Visualize your information as part of a fascinating and meaningful story. Don’t let your work speak for itself, because it won’t. Become a more effective champion for the conservation work you already believe in by sharing your great conservation stories!