Thursday 14 August 2014

Changing the World with Words

Social activism takes many different forms. Some choose political lobbying and demonstrations. Others choose what can at first seem a more passive approach. We use words to influence others.

Listed below are a few books that provide useful advice for writers who hope that their words can make a difference in our world.

Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher 
In Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher says, “I want to be part of the rescue team for our tired, overcrowded planet. The rescuers will be those people who help other people to think clearly, and to be honest and open-minded.” She goes on to say, “Good writing enlarges readers’ knowledge of the world, or empowers readers to act for the common good, or even inspires other good writing.”

In addition to talking about the writing process, Pipher looks at how we find our personal voice and reviews different publishing formats (from letters and speeches to songs and music). Pipher speaks from personal experience having written and advocated on issues ranging from immigration to the environment. It’s a positive, helpful book with useful tips for everyone who writes or wants to write. Here are a few examples:

“I discovered that one path into original thinking was to ask myself, Okay, that is your first idea. What are your second and third ideas?”

“Writing for the unconvinced, we want to be respectful and enticing. We need to invite them into our world and establish commonality.”

“Whereas writers of propaganda encourage readers to accept certain answers, writers who want to transform their readers encourage the asking of questions. Propaganda invites passive agreement; change writing invites original thought, openheartedness, and engagement.”

Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, Nancy Baron
Scientists and academics are adept at talking to their peers, but they often fail to connect with a general audience and find it difficult to explain their ideas to journalists.

Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter by Nancy Baron is a helpful book for academics who want to help shape public policy. It provides practical advice with explanations and specific directions to help scientists connect with journalists and policymakers and reach the broadest public.

Baron says, “If you decide you want to inform those outside your research arena and help guide public discourse, you will need to learn a new set of skills. These include knowing exactly what you want to say, understanding your audience, and using common language to get your main points across clearly . . . . The more scientists can help journalists by cutting to the chase and answering the nagging question ‘why should we care?’ the more likely the story will make it past the editors.”

Escape from the Ivory Tower covers radio and television interviews as well as the print media and political lobbying. It closes with 10 steps to success: Resolve to speak up for your science; Set a goal and use it to guide your commitments; Think solutions, not just problems; Embrace criticism; Remember the four Ps: preparation, practice, persuasion, and passion; Be relentless; Cultivate connections; Expand your definition of success; Seize unexpected opportunities; and Set your own compass.

Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs 
In Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs says, “today’s media landscape of unprecedented competition between messages has made us all marketers. Anyone who wants influence now – whether it’s to push forward a social cause, to sell products, or simply to change the way people think – has no choice but to step into our global media marketplace.”

Sachs believes that the most effective way to get our message across and influence other people is by telling stories: “We tend to listen to a well-told story because its characters serve as role models. Their fates strongly imply what will befall us if we follow a similar path.”

He goes on to say that “The winners of the story wars all have a single, compelling message that turns out to be the key lesson of every communication . . . . these storytellers clearly define their heroes, villains, and the conflict between them to show how their epic plays out in the lives of characters we can relate to. And these epics invite their audiences to be a key character in that conflict, helping to bring a broken world to a better place.” 

Using plenty of examples from the marketing world, Sachs demonstrates how to assemble an effective story that will change the future.

Additional Resources
If you want your writing to change the world, you need to make sure that your ideas will stick in people’s minds. This topic is well covered by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Their second book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, is also very useful and the key arguments are summarized here.