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What Bias is Hiding in Your Writing?

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

Yogi Berra was right.  You can, in fact, observe a lot by watching. The baseball great, who would have turned 93 this weekend, had his fair share of Yogi-isms, but this one has always been my favorite.

Yogi Berra was one of baseball’s greatest catchers, one of the Yankees’ greatest players, and one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. He didn’t set out to be a communications icon, but the little delights of his catchphrases have lived on far beyond the baseball diamond.

I was thinking of this particular phrase recently, while hosting a workshop for a group of communications professionals who wished to examine how their stories were sticking with various audiences. Early on, I could sense that the group was confident about their individual approaches: they were doing what they needed to do in order to inform the content they were producing.

Everything seemed in good working order until I asked a few additional questions about how often members of the group listened to their readers, how they curated story ideas and how they collected feedback.  It wasn’t long before the group realized that they could all stand to do a bit more listening, and a lot more observing. Not necessarily of others, but of their own individual practices.

Observation is so much more than just watching, or listening–it’s a much deeper mental process. Observation allows us to understand information in new ways; it helps us see what’s possible, what’s feasible, and what’s avoidable. And while it is one of the most critical aspects of storytelling, it’s not always employed effectively.

Think about it: How much time do you spend observing your work, and what do you do with the information you collect? If you’re developing content for your organization, who are you calling on for interviews, and who might you be leaving out? How often are you inviting in feedback from your community, and how are they informing what you write about?  How does that investment of time in observation compare to the time you spend formulating ideas, opinions, or content?

Observing is hard, I get it. There’s so much to be done, in so little time, often with so few resources, that we must just keep pressing forward.  Press the story forward, press the campaign forward, press the strategy forward. Observe as best as you can along the way.

But, what if you’re missing something crucial in how you’re presenting information, or packaging stories?  What might more regular observation uncover?

Later this week, I’ll sit down with Ed Yong of The Atlantic to talk about one very important observation he made about his own work, and what he has since done as a result of that observation. We’ll be joined by the founder of StoryCollider, Liz Neeley, who is pushing the envelope in how science stories are told, and how they can be told more simply, and authentically.  They’ve both mastered the art of observation, and I’m thrilled that they plan to share some of their well-honed tips with us.

Our daily lives are busy, and our task lists endless. The notion of observing our own storytelling practices doesn’t always seem feasible.  But, to get to the heart of your best stories, consider Yogi Berra’s words. You may be surprised by what you might uncover.

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Building Equity and Breaking Bias in Storytelling

Mission Forward

Want to learn more about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling? Join us for our upcoming 2018 Mission Forward Spring Reception on Wednesday, May 16, at Mission Partners’ Bethesda office. Learn more and register by clicking here.

By Carrie Fox

“When You Know Better, You Do Better.” 

Maya Angelou

Tucked inside the March 13 edition of our What We’re Reading newsletter, we shared a story written by Atlantic journalist and science writer Ed Yong, who spent two years trying to fix the gender imbalance in his stories.  Inspired by his colleague Adrienne LaFrance, who conducted a similar assessment across all Atlantic journalism, he found that only 24 percent of his last 23 articles quoted sources that were women. And of those stories, 35 percent featured no female voices at all.

“I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.”

Yong’s heartbreakingly honest revelation, and several others like it, spurred my desire to dig in on ways that writers, marketers, and communications directors can build equity and break bias in their storytelling. Major news organizations from NPR to National Geographic have started looking inward to reduce their long-held biases in reporting, but that same fervor to address implicit bias in storytelling simply isn’t showing up from communications directors, marketing directors, and content producers of non-media organizations—even though it should.

What Ed’s story, and others like it, reinforced to me was that as writers, we inherently believe that we’re telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it is there.

If you were to assess the stories on your own website, in your most recent annual report, or across your most recent marketing campaign, how much bias would you uncover? What if the stories you’ve been telling are actually limiting your ability to communicate with your most important audiences? What if, in elevating your organization’s “best” stories, you are unintentionally leaving out some of the most vital voices from your organization’s narrative?

Biases exist in all of us, simply based on our own lived experiences. But anyone can learn to break biases in storytelling, with the right tools and perspective. 

Here are a few tips we’ve started implementing to help our clients write with an equity lens, inspired in part by the findings of Ed Yong and other journalists:

1.  When you focus on who your stories are about, and who benefits from them, you’re more likely to be inclusive in your storytelling.

Bias-free language does not discriminate, but instead includes all readers in a fair and friendly manner. Here are a couple quick ways to test if bias is showing up in your writing:

  • Review your writing for the appropriate use of pronouns to ensure neutrality when referring to a person’s gender identity. For instance, “each manager must report his numbers at the end of the month” presents a bias, as compared to “each manager must report their numbers at the end of the month.” (For a deeper dive on the use of gender-neutral pronouns including the use of non-binary pronouns, check out this New York Times article by Raillan Brooks.)
  • Replace gender-biased terms such as salesman or chairman with bias-free terms, such as salesperson or chairperson.
  • Focus on people, not their conditions or current state, i.e. person-first language. We all experience different moments in our lives, but one need not be defined by those moments. There’s an important difference between describing a homeless person and a person experiencing homelessness, or a foster youth vs. a young person living in foster care.

2. The most important and influential voices in your organization are not always the most expected. 

For years, organizations have been pressed to present their impact via stories, often elevating one or two of the best examples of impact. This small set of success stories is rarely representative of the whole, and may be reinforcing your organization’s own biases by portraying what your organization believes is a picture of success vs. what your community might believe to be success.

  • Assess your own unconscious attitudes and associations to better inform your storytelling. One of the most effective (and free) tools for testing your own unconscious bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created and maintained by Project Implicit, a consortium made up of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.
  • Make content accessible. Beyond examining who is showing up in photos, and which voices are being elevated, have you considered translating your materials so they can be equally accessible within your community, or developing a closed-captioned version of your impact video? Do you offer an option for multiple languages on your website? Take the time to ensure that everyone in your community can access and understand the messages you’re sending.

3. Check your work with a fresh set of eyes, and never discount the importance of community feedback.

Before publishing your next article, annual report or issue brief, test it with people outside of the organization to see if the language you’re using resonates with them. Ask what changes they’d make to change or strengthen the story to make it more inclusive. Then, ask yourself:

  • Are the pronouns she, he and them used close to an equal number of times?
  • Are the pronouns she, he, them, or racial and ethnic role models, used to reference non-stereotyped roles?
  • Is any language about people written as people-first as in, for example, “people with diabetes”?
  • Have labels or conditions been used inappropriately as nouns to describe a group, e.g. “D.C.’s homeless population”?
  • Do you know, or do you need to ask, which term is preferred for a national origin, race, or gender identification for a specific audience?

What we know, just as Ed found in his process, is that it often takes an outside perspective to help discover an unconscious bias. And then, as Maya Angelou so beautifully said, when you know better, you can do better.

Want to learn more about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling? Join us for our upcoming 2018 Mission Forward Spring Reception on Wednesday, May 16, at Mission Partners’ Bethesda office. Learn more and register here.

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What Would You Write?

By Carrie Fox

Simple messages can have a lasting impact.

In the summer of 2016, Carolyn and I attended the Social Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. It was, as it always is, a gathering of powerhouse social entrepreneurs, community leaders, and change agents all committed to developing and advancing impactful social partnerships. The two-day Summit was rich with inspiration and real, face-to-face, no-phone-required connections.

But, the most inspired moment for me came during the opening session. That’s when photographer Robert Fogarty introduced me to his powerful project, #DearWorld.

Since its inception, #DearWorld has traveled the globe, capturing stories of love and loss from Boston marathon bombing survivors to the people of South Sudan. They’ve visited Syrian refugees in the second largest refugee camp in the world. They’ve traveled to Joplin, Missouri, where 160  residents died in a tornado; and Brooklyn, New York, where a 6-alarm fire destroyed 111 homes during Hurricane Sandy. Their most recent series, covered 40 victims’ families, first responders and survivors of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.

Fogarty, who started the project in 2010, originally as a project called Dear New Orleans, has a simple request for each of his photo subjects:

  1. Reflect on your personal story, whatever it may be
  2. Write a message on your skin that symbolizes your personal story
  3. Share your portrait with family, friends and colleagues

The one “rule” he says, is that whatever message or phrase you choose, there must be a real story behind it.  He asks people to share one message to someone, or something that they care about.

Through the project, Fogarty has collected thousands of photos: portraits of children living in refugee camps (“I want the life I had to come back”) to survivors of the Boston Marathon (“Still Standing, Still Beautiful”). He’s collected stories from first generation college students (“I’m going to college”), to first-time moms (“Precious Life”) to cancer survivors (“C is for Courage”) and formerly homeless individuals (“You believed in me”).

The compelling project is storytelling in a very real, raw and vulnerable form. It’s a challenge to capture your life, your philosophy, your story in 7 words — typically — or less, writing it on your hands, face or body in black Sharpie. As Fogarty said from the stage, “We all have stories to share, and they deserve to be heard.” This is his way of amplifying them.

The project made me think a lot about what my words would be. How would I define what matters most to me, and what message I’d want to share with the world? Maybe it should be a simple “Kindness Matters”, or a channeling of my favorite Keb Mo song, “There’s More Than One Way Home.” Maybe it should be about my daughters, or my approach to work, or my mom.

And then it hit me.

In communications, we often get wrapped up in getting every word right, so much that the power of the story can get lost in the process. Fogarty’s project is a good reminder that effective messages are often the ones that come from the heart. Overthink the message and you can lose it.  If you’re true to the process of storytelling, you’ll naturally know where to go in telling your story — what has impacted you, inspired you, saddened you, or angered you. That’s where you start.

So, without any more thought, I’d say:

Change Starts with Me.

Click here to watch Robert Fogarty describe #DearWorld in his own words, and see some of his most compelling portraits.

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This Question Will Make You a Better Problem Solver

Think about the last big problem you needed to solve.

If you’re like most, you likely laid out the facts in front of you, asked yourself a series of questions tied to the problem, and used your analytical skills to determine the best solution.

But, what if you weren’t asking yourself the right set of questions before you decided on an answer?

In recent months, the Mission Partners’ team has been advising a university, a hospital system, and a nonprofit training institute through some of their most pressing problems. In each situation, the organization had set out to build service offerings that would further benefit the community. But, we quickly found that each group’s approach to solving the problem was out of sync with its mission. Instead of thinking about what their communities needed most—and then exploring how they could best fill that need—they were looking at their problems solely through the lens of what they, as organizations, needed most.

When it comes to solving big problems, if we start with what we need and then look for someone else to help us get there, we’ve got a much slimmer chance of making meaningful progress than when we start with what others need and then create a solution that works for all sides.

Albert Einstein said, “if I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” In fact, defining the problem by asking why you are addressing it is far more important than the actual solution. And, to effectively define any problem, you must spend time thinking about it from perspectives other than your own.

Think about it: How many times have you had the “perfect solution” to a problem, until you put it to practice and realized the solution either couldn’t be implemented or addressed the wrong problem? I suspect if you went back and analyzed why any solution failed, it was because you hadn’t adequately thought about the problem through the lens of your end user.

At Mission Partners, we go through exercises of problem solving with our clients every day. Here is one question we attempted to answer in 2013, when working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

Question: Why do we need a better path for young people aging out of foster care?

Answer: Because every day, young people are aging out of care on their 18th birthday without the skills, support systems, or sense of self that is required for them to be successful in life.

Question: Why don’t we focus on providing those skills before they age out of care?

Answer: Because most young people—in foster care or otherwise—aren’t ready to be self-sufficient adults by their 18th birthday. They need to get beyond their 18th birthday to be fully equipped with the skills needed for success.

This last answer raised a deeper question: Were we solving for re-imagining the foster care system as it was, or re-imagining how the foster care system should work—with far more supports beyond a young person’s 18th birthday than previously expected?

By asking ourselves why until we reached the root cause of the problem, we were able to build the Success Beyond 18 campaign strategy with much deeper staying power. (The campaign is now heralded in child welfare circles as a key driver in the passage of Public Law 113-183 – The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act.)  And far beyond  this one campaign, it’s a process we know works. Our beloved “But Why” exercise is drawn from the famous Five Whys problem-solving technique developed at Toyota and employed in Six Sigma.

“Design in Everything We Do”

Spending time defining the problem, with the end user’s needs in mind before your own, and with focus on the longer-term issues rather than the near-term issues, is also the basis for the design thinking process.

Design thinking is grounded in the idea that there is design in everything we do, and in everything we touch. We love design thinking because it leads with empathy. Through a series of exploratory steps, it allows groups to challenge assumptions and examine root problems through the lens of the end user. While the process is often a multi-month exploration, the basics of design thinking can also be applied to every day problem solving.

Here are three tips to put you into a design thinking mindset.

Interested in learning more about the design thinking process? Click here to attend one of our upcoming Design Thinking Days at Mission Partners.

  1. Step 1. Clear your mind. Start with a blank sheet of white paper. Think about one person who represents your ideal end user. The kind of person for whom you or your organization exists to serve. Draw them. Then, challenge yourself to think about what matters most to them: their life priorities, their biggest challenges, their road blocks, and their aspirations. Where are they trying to go? Why are they unable to get there? Document all you can on that piece of paper.
  1. Step 2. Explore your problem from a new perspective. Reflect on your drawing, share it with your team, and compare what you uncovered against the problem you believe needs solving. How does that sheet of paper change how you think about the problem? And if you were to put that person at the center of your strategy, what else might change?

 

  1. Step 3. Ask why. And then ask it again. To get to the heart of the problem that really needs solving, don’t just ask yourself “why?”once. As we outlined above, ask yourself “why?” multiple times, and with each answer you write down, you’ll get closer to the root of the problem.

Once you’ve uncovered the why, you have a much better chance of defining how to solve a problem–and that’s where so much of the magic happens.

Learn more and try design thinking for yourself at one of our upcoming Design Thinking Days, to be hosted in our soon-to-be-unveiled Innovation Lab.  Click here to receive an invitation, including an exclusive discount offer to our 2018 workshops.