Changing the Narrative with Ilsa Flanagan August 7, 2019

Nonprofits are struggling to marshal the resources they need to solve increasingly complex community problems. Naturally, they turn to storytelling and communications to attempt to raise awareness and support for their work. But often times these stories unintentionally reinforce negative stereotypes about the people they serve – and fail to increase support or change minds.

Ilsa Flanagan – communications consultant, trainer, and speaker – is working with mission-driven organizations to change these damaging narratives. She translates behavioral and brain science research about what makes people care into practical solutions that can be applied to everyday communications. Her goal: Reactivate a misinformed and overwhelmed public.

Flanagan has held leadership positions in multiple sectors, including nonprofits (Vice President of Public Policy at United Way of America); corporate and philanthropic institutions (Senior Vice President for Community and Sustainable Development at LaSalle Bank); and higher education (Executive Director of the Office of Sustainability at the University of Chicago). Most recently, she served as the Director of the National Reframing Initiative and the Executive Director of Images and Voices of Hope. She is now an independent consultant continuing to lead interactive trainings on research-based communications strategies all across the country. Learn more.


IFF: Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you got started doing this type of work?

Flanagan: I have worked across sectors for many years. I’ve worked with the nonprofit sector, but also the public and the private sectors, to help organizations apply research-based communications to create wide-scale change for the public good. There’s so much really strong research around how our brains work, how we process information, and how and whether you can change somebody’s mind. There’s also research surrounding storytelling and narratives and how to craft those in a way that won’t cue up biases but will tap into people’s empathy. It can be overwhelming for nonprofits already busy doing their core mission work. To try and pull together research and figure out how to apply it to their own communications is still a mountain that feels too big to climb. So, I help them to think about: how do we create communications in a way that makes people care?

A thread throughout my career in building social and environmental change initiatives has been the power of language to persuade, influence, activate – and how to use language in that way very consciously. A lot of what I do is help people break free of their own misperceptions that are really holding them back. We’re asking a lot of people to create new narratives, and it can feel overwhelming to do a complete shift in our communications. Organizations have so many urgent needs, and this one requires a lot of work and a lot of patience.


IFF: How have different sectors or organizations responded to your trainings around re-framing narratives?

Flanagan: Often in my trainings there are representatives from different types of organizations and sectors – they might be direct providers, but there might also be a head of a coalition that’s membership based, or they might be from a government agency. I thought for sure that I’d have to spend a lot of time defending the research. I thought I’d have to say, “We’re doing this all wrong, and here’s what proves it.” But that doesn’t happen! The people who work on social issues know that the stories they are telling are not connecting or persuading across age, race, ideology, or income. They are eager for guidance on how to shift the narrative from deficit-based, gloom and doom to asset-based with a focus on shared values and solutions.


IFF: Are there any tactics organizations can adopt or implement into their communications to change the conversation on social issues?

Flanagan: Here are a few tidbits of what I offer during trainings:

  • First, facts don’t matter. We keep thinking that facts are on our side. But people have, for the most part, retreated to their ideological corners. They’re not listening. One word or phrase (immigrant, poor) can immediately invoke long-held beliefs and misperceptions, and people will immediately shut down. Piling on more facts and data is not going to help people change their minds, because on their own they are not persuasive. People don’t objectively weigh the pros and cons of issues, especially those that are politicized. Instead they’ll kind of subconsciously pick and choose the facts that align with what they already believe to be true. Instead we know from research that leading with shared values and beliefs makes it more likely that your audience will stick around to hear what you have to say. You can then integrate facts into a broader narrative.
  • Another thing to keep in mind is that you should not lead with the problem. When the first few sentences of your communications, which is prime real estate, are focused on the size of the problem – for example, saying something like “90% of people in this community are living below the poverty line” – it tends to immediately overwhelm the audience and they will disengage. There are a lot of problems in our world these days and everyone is overwhelmed. Instead we want to lead with shared values (which have been tested to generate interest in and support for our issues) and then explain the problem you are working on while providing information on solutions. I once worked with an Illinois-based human services provider, and in their “About Us” statement they would include how many people they served each year—around 70,000. One person might hear that number and say: “Great, that must mean they are really effective and important.” But another person, a large part of the public as we know from a national survey, will be inclined to blame those individuals: “Why do so many people need help? What are they doing wrong?” It’s not that you can’t use data or be honest about the size of the problem you are tackling, it just needs to live within a broader context that helps people understand it and feel empowered to address it.  We need to do a much better job of connecting the dots for the public and not assume everyone understands why people need help at different points in their lives and why it matters to all of us that we help them.
  • I also tell my clients, if you do nothing else, drop the jargon. That sounds simpler than it is –because those working in the sector don’t always see jargon for what it is. I often use the example of “vulnerable,” a word the nonprofit sector has been using a lot for the last decade or so to refer to children, the aging, veterans, etc. There are a couple of problems with this word. First, these populations are not homogenous, so that one word can’t really capture all that we’re trying to convey about why they might need help. For people doing social sector work on complex issues, it is a shortcut that conveys multiple meanings. But for people who don’t work in that field, they will make their own interpretations and assumptions. It will be easy for them to default to the “rugged individual” mindset—that if people worked harder, made better decisions, they wouldn’t be vulnerable or need outside help. This is long held and widely shared belief in this country. Second, most people will not self-identify as “vulnerable,” (there’s that rugged individualism again!) so when they see it in our communications it allows for “othering.” And if we see those who need helping as distinct from and separate from ourselves and our families, we are less likely to support programs and services to help them. So instead of using the jargon, explain in simple, yet vivid terms what you mean. For example, instead of just saying your organization supports vulnerable seniors say something like: we know that older adults who live alone at home are more likely to become depressed and develop other health issues, so we provide home visits to check in on them and keep them healthy. That creates a picture in your audience that they can relate and respond to. If you have a question about whether or not a term is jargon – show it to someone outside of the sector and see what they think it means.


IFF: Going along with that, are stories useful in conveying the importance of an issue? Or does that sometimes turn people off?

Flanagan: Both of those things. Often, we’re told to “put a face on the issue” to generate empathy for our work. But we know from research that individual “success” or “struggle” stories can trigger the public’s impulse to blame people for their own problems. Say you’re telling a story about someone experiencing homelessness who has also been dealing with substance abuse – a lot of the public is going to react to that and say, “They caused their own problems through bad choices and lack of willpower and should try harder to improve their situation.” What you want to do instead is tell the broader, systemic story (explaining how market failures increased housing costs for everyone and that substance abuse is a disease, for example) and use an individual story as an example to demonstrate the systemic failure.

You also have to be careful about the exception story – the kid who “against all odds” ended up getting in to Harvard. Those kind of success stories make it easy for people to think, “Well if he did it, why can’t they all go to Harvard?” It doesn’t allow for the rich tapestry of the different potential we all have and paths we might take.

Let’s widen the lens on our stories. Consider what were all of the circumstances in that young person’s life that made his admission to Harvard so unlikely and how does that impact others in his neighborhood who aren’t going to Harvard? What systems are in place – not enough investment in public education, poor transportation, lack of health care – that make it so hard for everyone to thrive there?


IFF: I want to go a little bit deeper on the issue of fatalism in communications. It’s so easy for people to tune out issues that seem impossible to solve. What can people be doing to make people care?

Flanagan: It’s hard because there’s a lot to care about these days. Yet most of us feel unempowered or at least skeptical that we can make a difference. Using our communications to just trigger anger or sympathy may motivate in the short term, but it often just disengages your audience. If you want to build support over the long term to create pressure on a government that’s not coming up with solutions, you have to make your audience care about the people who need help and then explain how you and your supporters can help them.

In the long term, it’s about expanding public knowledge about what it’s going to take for all of us to thrive. One of the easiest things to do right now is to either drop all the words that we know can cause knee-jerk reactions or to move them down a bit in a wider narrative that is more authentic and explanatory. When messages are framed in a way that connects to a deeply held value across demographics, people are more likely to stay with you, want to learn more, and begin to make different decisions. It is possible to changes minds, but we have to change the way we communicate first.

IFF: You’ve gone through some of the tactics organizations can use to change the conversation and narrative. How quickly do organizations begin to see the benefits of reframing the issues they work on in their communications?

Flanagan: An important thing to note is that creating a new narrative is a long-term communications strategy. The goal is to expand understanding and build empathy – that takes a lot of time. However, we have seen early results in several communities including Austin and New York where the new narrative has been successfully deployed to create change on policy issues. There’s a lot of urgency around this work so we are eager to get as many organizations as we can to be using this new frame as soon as possible.

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