Wednesday, January 04, 2006


We are all in the trenches

A well-told war story can really grab and hold us--but there's almost nothing more dull than a war story that wanders off into endless side skirmishes but misses the big narrative. OK, so its a cliche, political discussion as a war narrative about an enemy and allies, an army and a terrain. I don't even read war stories (with a few exceptions like Fields of Fire).

But we have to remember when we send one email after another that we are telling a serialized story of our overall battle, not just pumping up the hot item of the moment. That story needs to be a great one or even our strongest allies and biggest supporters will lose the thread, get tired, and drop off.

There's always lot of loose talk about email fatigue, and it's no doubt the case that every one of us gets more email than we can personally manage. We all must decide which emails to read and which ones to push to one side or delete--and we make these decisions in a fraction of a second. But the solution does not lie in some rule about the number of emails an organization should or shouldn't send each month (we have all wasted far too much time on that debate). Instead, the answer lies in the compelling nature of the story we tell (and of course the compelling words in the subject line and lead :)).

Unless we have won our battle -- and in that case I'm all for declaring victory and going home -- we tell something very much akin to a serialized war story with armies, skirmishes, heroes, victims, generals and movement on the front.

I have a personal New Year's resolution to tell a better story: profile our hero activists who get the bills passed, identify individuals on the other side who block our progress, and give all my readers a regular update on our consumer movement, not just an update on a particular bill outcome.

Sometimes I've lost the thread of our narrative, as I'm sure my email readers can vouch. We are a multi-issue organization with activity in health care, finance, product safety, food safety and much more. When Congress sneaks a bad amendment into a larger bill or states start to pass troubling industry bills, we stop and tell our readers and ask them to talk to their legislators. This can quickly become a disjointed series of shorts on different topics with no narrative arc. In my experience, the real story (and the thread I struggle to keep in the forefront) is about the growth of an effective movement to re-empower people to negotiate this marketplace effectively. That story has all the armies, skirmishes, heroes, victims, generals and movement (both directions) that we need.

I'm sure I'm not the only person struggling with this, and I hope others will comment here or point me to other blogs where such comments are getting posted. We have much to learn, and 2006 is a great time to do it!

I do think stories are the key. They are still the best method for effectively communicating what is at stake and why there is urgency for the constituent to do something about it here and now.

The web makes it 100x easier for constituents to share their stories with the organizations they support, and encouraging that sharing is to me the #1 missed opportunity at this point. The act of writing up and contributing your story deepens your investment in the organization's mission -- it reconnects you with why you care about the cause. Incidentally, the moment the constituent submits the story becomes the supreme opportunity for the org to ask for a deeper commitment(be it giving money, signing up for volunteer opportunities, etc.) At that moment, your supporters are as connected to your mission as they are ever going to be.
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