Leadership Communication

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Not a Lone Voice, But Many: A Case Study in Harnessing the Power of Stories

“I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls. Today, I tell their stories too.”

-Malala Yousafzai

A young girl, because of the cultural, socioeconomic, and political circumstances in which she lives, is unable to go to school safely. This is a tragically common story for millions of women and girls around the world. But the story of a girl speaking out publicly against the violent forces attempting to keep her from going to school – being attacked by those forces –  and surviving potentially fatal injuries to speak out even more strongly about this issue is not a common story. This story is, in fact, unique – which is why the story of Malala Yousafzai has spread across the globe.

Malala Yousafzai, the now 18-year old Pakistani girl from Swat Valley who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for speaking out for the girls’ right to education, has become a household name. Malala’s story has been told ever since she started writing for the BBC at the age of 11 under the pen name Gulu Makai. But her story has risen to greater prominence from the news coverage since the attack against her and her continued global activism, her book I Am Malala, and the documentary about her, He Named Me Malala.  This young girl has had the opportunity to address heads of state, to speak and travel internationally, and to build a global organization, The Malala Fund. This is not only due to her activism and laudable work, but in large part because of the power of her story. Malala has been able to harness her own story, and the story of other young girls, to build support for her organization’s work to advocate for and to create more opportunities for girls to receive an education.

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Giving the Audience Something that Will Change Them: Harnessing the Power of Stories to Move People

“A dancer, if she is great, can give to the person something that they can carry with them forever. They can never forget it, and it has changed them, though they may never know it.”

-Isadora Duncan[i]

Great dancing tells a story. Bodies moving together in synchronicity, connecting emotionally to each other and to the music, communicate a story without words. The story may be a clear narrative of individual lives or abstract manifestations of a feeling or an emotion. Sometimes the most powerful stories told through dance are snapshots of a moment, a reflection of life itself.

Great dancing tells a story. Specifically, great dancing tells a story that people connect with. And when we see a great dance, it can move us, sometimes in ways we do not consciously realize. Dancers do not necessarily need the audience to think something. Rather, the goal more often is to move the audience to feel something. This requires dancers to not only know how their bodies work, but also how the audiences’ hearts and minds work. If dancers hope to move their audience, they need to become visual storytellers.

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What Does Marriage Mean to You: A Case Study in the Art and Science of Framing

“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.”

-George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant, xv)[1]

Don't Think of an ElephantGeorge Lakoff, the cognitive linguist who pioneered the study of framing and its influence on people, has not only written extensively on the science of framing, but also about how politicians and activists, specifically progressives, can use framing to change the public discourse. One such writing is Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which was published in 2004 specifically as a guide for progressives to change the political debate at the time by reframing the issues from the conservative’s framework to the progressive’s. As Lakoff said, reframing is social change. This small book was about the art, not the science, of framing.

In this book, Lakoff examined several examples of political and social issues, breaking down the current framing and making recommendations about how progressives could reframe an issue to their advantage. One such example was marriage equality. “What’s in a word?” Lakoff asked. “Plenty, if the word is marriage.”[2]

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How We Interpret the Dance: The Art and Science of Framing

How can you tell a waltz from a tango? A rumba from a cha cha? A quickstep from a samba? It’s starts with the music. When the music starts playing, it becomes clear which kind of dance can be performed to it. The music becomes the frame that determines the dance.

What does this mean? Every song has a beat and a tempo. The beat is the pulse of the song, the individual strokes of measured time in the music. It is the rhythm of the song. The tempo is the speed of the song. It is the rate of the repeating beats over time. Dancers are trained to recognize the beat and tempo of a song. Together it gives them the timing for their dance. Dancers know which type of dances fit with the particular beat and tempo of the music, and know which movements make sense within a type of dance. That becomes the dancers’ frame. And so when dancers hear a song, they know which type or types of dances can be done to the music and which steps and movements they can do.

But what happens when the movements do not fit within a particular dance style or with the musical beat and tempo? What would happen if dancers begin to do fast-paced salsa steps in the middle of a slow waltz? It would look like something is wrong. Even a non-dancer would recognize that something is off.

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We Rise and Fall Together: A Case Study in Connecting with Your Audience on its Terms

Since the beginning of his term, President Obama spoke about the need to build bridges of understanding with the Islamic community. He voiced repeatedly that Islamic extremists are not representative of Islam or the majority of Muslims in the U.S. and around the world. From his address in Cairo in 2009 to his final State of the Union, President Obama repeated these statements and yet they did not seem to build the greater understanding he called for.

Meanwhile, blunt generalizations about Muslims and Islamic extremists have been part of the political discourse in the 2016 election season. Politicians have vowed to prevent Muslim refugees from coming into their states or into the country. In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, there has been an increase in incidents against Muslims happening across the U.S., including a Sikh man wearing a Turban who was barred from boarding an airplane into the U.S. and a young girl whose hijab was torn off her head by three older classmates in her New York middle school. And all of this has contributed to the extremists’ rhetoric being legitimized by their enemies and moderate Muslims being persuaded towards extremist groups.

President Obama needed to change the narrative of Muslims and Americans being at war with or in opposition to each other. He needed to do something different to ensure that Muslim Americans knew that the U.S. government does not condone the hateful rhetoric against Muslims and is committed to promoting the greater understanding that needs to happen between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S. He needed to connect with Muslim Americans on their terms if he hoped to persuasive. And so he did something he had not yet done as president: he visited a U.S. mosque.

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Heart to Heart Connection: Connecting with Your Audience on Its Terms

Most of us, at one point or another, have an experience of dancing with someone. Maybe it was very formal, like a big event, or something informal, like dancing with a bunch of friends at a club or party. Did you ever end up dancing with someone you didn’t know and you have no idea what this person is doing, and what you are expected to do in response? As anyone who has had this experience can attest, when you don’t know the person you are dancing with, if you do not understand what that person is doing and expecting you to do, it is much harder to move well together.

In ballroom dancing, dancers need to connect to their partners. It is not enough to know the steps of a dance. Dancers need to connect to the person they are dancing with in order to create the dance itself.

Earlier I discussed the dynamic of leading and following, and the clear intention with each movement to produce a particular result. Dancers need to be able to communicate that intention to one another without words, and move together as a connected being rather than two creatures dancing alone. But it is more than the push and pull action; it requires a strong connection to correctly interpret the push and pull.

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When Your Brain Moves Slower Than Your Mouth: A Lesson in Communicating with Intention

“My brain was slower than my mouth.”[1] Everyone has moments like this. We say something unfiltered. We speak without thinking. We communicate things without a clear intention. We all fall guilty of this from time to time—after all, we are only human.

However, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage’s recent ‘slip up’ was not his first and it came at exactly the wrong time.

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Push and Pull: Communicating with Intention

I am a dancer. But not just any type of dancer—I am a ballroom and Latin dancer. I am trained in dances such the waltz, tango, foxtrot, rumba, cha cha, and salsa. And in the four different styles and sixteen or so dances that I have some level of mastery of, one of the things that connects all of these different dances together is that I never dance them alone.

Ballroom and Latin dancing is not done solo; it is done with a partner. Two people move together to paint a single picture. Two people are responsible for telling a story, for conveying an emotion, for moving as if they were one.

In order to do this, one person leads the dance and the other follows. This system is seemingly simple: the leader leads, the follower follows. But how does the leader lead the follower? And how does the follower know to how follow the leader? It is not merely a matter of knowing the steps. Dancers are communicating with each other throughout their dance.

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What Can We Learn About Communication from Dancers?

One day I was sitting at my desk, writing a blog about why leaders need to invest in developing their communication skills, when I remembered a quote painted on the wall of my old dance studio. It was a quote from Fred Astaire: “Some people think good dancers are born. But all of the good dancers I know have been taught or trained.” I had stared at this quote hundreds of times while stretching and changing into my practice shoes without giving it a second thought.

For years I struggled with the question: What can leaders of organizations learn from dancers about effective communication?

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It Takes Work: Lesson in Communication from a Dancer

Some people seem to think that good dancers are born. All of the good dancers I’ve known have been taught or trained.”

-Fred Astaire

Ballroom Dance 1Dancers are not born; they are made through rigorous training and perseverance. The life of a dancer is not an easy one. Dancers train their bodies to twist and contort in sometimes painful and unnatural ways. Dancers are constantly practicing to keep getting better, to keep getting stronger. Dancers stand on their stage and have to embody, with every breath they take and every small movement they make, the story they are trying to portray.

I am a dancer. And I often hear people say that they cannot dance. I hear them say that they cannot dance because they do not know how to move with grace or they have ‘two left feet.’ And so the myth is born that some people just naturally are good dancers, and others are not.

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