Katharine Hayhoe — stories drive change

“How can I talk to people who don’t accept the truth about climate change?” That may not be exactly what the audience member asked the dudes from Pod Save America on a recent episode, but it’s close enough. Their answer—again, not verbatim: Stories drive change.

The questioner had asked particularly about climate science: How can her relatives not understand the source of the havoc we are unleashing on our environment—catastrophic hurricanes, fires, flood. So far everything but a plague of locusts.

Usually those encounters go one of two ways:

  1. Are you crazy?
  2. The median temperature of the earth has risen X degrees in the last 20 years.

When’s the last time you had a productive conversation with someone who called you crazy?

I didn’t think so.

And when’s the last time you listened to someone rattle off a string of numbers and didn’t fall asleep? Or start thinking about something more interesting, like when you’re going to run out of clean underwear. Or whether the lettuce on sale will last more than a day and a half.

As I’ve said more than once, if you want people to remember what you’re saying you need to tell a story.

Stories drive change

stories drive change
Katharine Hayhoe and a friend, from her Twitter profile

One of the Pod Save America hosts, Tommy Vietor I think, mentioned a name I hadn’t heard before: Katharine Hayhoe. He said she has the ability to turn facts into stories that connect with people on the other side of the climate change debate. And more importantly, that her stories drive change.

Vietor isn’t the only member of the Katharine Hayhoe fan club:

“Katharine Hayhoe is a national treasure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He said that she combined powerful communications skills, world-class scientific credentials and an ability to relate to conservative religious communities that can be skeptical about the risks of a changing climate.

That’s from a 2016 New York Times article about her. So is this:

“…she has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.”

Use the language your audience speaks. Connect with the people you’re speaking with. Be human. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. And use concrete examples that everyone can understand.

Can stories drive change—really? Check out the quote from Hayhoe that closes the Times article:

“I don’t believe in climate change,” she said. Belief doesn’t come into it; scientific verification does.

“Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not,” she said, “but if you step off a cliff, you’re going to go down.”

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Numbers don’t bore people; “numbers people” bore people

There are two kinds of storytellers in this world: numbers people and emotion people. Regular readers of this blog know I am a strong proponent of the second camp.

Well, “camp” implies some sort of militarized division—an uncrossable line. In fact, speakers must be comfortable crossing that line.

Since the audiences we reach are also made up of numbers people and emotion people, we emotion-based writers need to incorporate some facts (numerical or otherwise) to convince the fact-seekers in the audience. And the fact-based folks need to incorporate emotion. Because emotion carries a story forward. Without it, you’re left with only a laundry list. And who wants to listen to that?

I was reminded of this yesterday during the longest half-hour I’ve spent in years. The rector of my church—a wise and wonderful writer—was on vacation. They’d hired one of those numbers people to sub for her.

Numbers people can turn even an emotional subject to dust

numbers don't bore people; people bore peopleThe Old Testament reading gave us the Ten Commandments. A fine story. He focused on “you shall not murder”—the current translation—and pivoted to talk about the shooting in Las Vegas and gun violence in general. Fine.

But did he talk about the morality of raining down death and destruction on innocent concert-goers? Reader, he did not—not really. Oh, he talked about death and destruction all right. He recited a bunch of numbers. I think you’d hear fewer at an Accountants convention. At ten years’ worth of Accountants conventions.

I didn’t capture all of the numbers he threw at us—I didn’t start taking notes until I realized I wanted to blog about this. But here’s a partial list:

  • # of American deaths in all wars
  • # of American deaths in the Vietnam War
  • # of American deaths in the Civil War

And then the annual statistics:

  • # of gun-related deaths in the U.S.
  • # of gun-related suicides in the U.S.
  • # of gun deaths in Canada
  • # of gun deaths in England
  • # of gun deaths in Australia
  • # of gun deaths in Japan

No stories, just the raw numbers. It was Sermon by Google.

He made occasional attempts at audience involvement by asking “do you know how many gun deaths in [fill in the blank]?” Someone would gamely throw out a number and he’d declare them to be wrong. Then he’d spit out the correct answer and move on.

The thing is, he had at least one story he could have told. He mentioned briefly that a distant relative of his had a nephew injured in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. How much more powerful would it have been to focus on that young man’s awful journey and tell us some specifics about how the gun violence had impacted his family?The priest gave us the Cliff Notes version of that story, but completely devoid of emotion.

The challenge for religious leaders

Now, priests are in a difficult position when they talk about issues of policy and politics. Until the mega-churches succeed in changing the tax code, religious institutions are still barred from discussing politics. He got around that by asking periodically “What would you do?” or saying “You’ll have to make up your own mind.”

After he was through with the numbers, he did tell some stories. He talked about the former trader of enslaved people who realized the evil he was perpetrating and ended up becoming an Episcopal priest and writing the ubiquitous hymn “Amazing Grace.” And about how the benefactor behind the Nobel Prizes invented dynamite. And about how the Wright Brothers regretted that governments repurposed their invention as a killing machine.

But he didn’t incorporate the stories into any kind of narrative. He treated them the same way he treated the gun death numbers—turning great material for stories into what I can only describe as “word lists.”

Don’t just talk; move people

Even with the constraints on making a political stand, that priest could still have constructed a moving sermon. First, he could have pared the statistics down to two or three meaningful ones. And instead of just announcing the numbers, he should have set them in context:

“The shooter in Las Vegas killed nearly 60 people. That’s ten times the number of gun-related murders in Japan in all of last year.”

Then tell a story—if he didn’t have a distant relative injured in a mass shooting, he could have talked about any death (surely he’s experienced one or two in his time as a priest). If you didn’t have any personal experience with violent death or injury, compare it to something you do have experience with:

“My mother died of cancer. It took six months for the disease to kill her, and we used that time to have frank conversations that helped ease the loss. The people killed in Las Vegas were ripped from their families—no preparation, no warning. No final goodbyes.”

And instead of just asking “What would you do?”

“Ask yourself as a Christian, someone committed to living the values we express here in this place every week. Is this the world you want to live in? A world where people get gunned down in the street and we pray for them and go back to our insular lives?”

The sermon the priest gave felt more like an outline of a sermon—fact-filled but pointless. If you’re going to ask people to invest their precious time in listening to you, you have a responsibility to say something. Even if you can’t express an opinion openly, you can leverage emotion and tell a memorable story.

And please—please, don’t ever assume that numbers can substitute for emotion.

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Trumpocalypse & the Reverend Doctor Barber

If there’s anything positive emerging from the Trumpocalypse, it’s the increased visibility of the Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II. The man is a preacher and a thinker—in my experience, the two don’t always go together. He’s also an excellent writer.

The Reverend Doctor Barber in 2013
The Rev. Dr. Barber at a rally in 2013. Photo by twbuckner, CC BY 2.0

Now, the Reverend Doctor Barber may have been plenty visible to other people, but he first hit my radar at the Democratic National Convention last summer. After that, I started following him, um, religiously. And yesterday he published a delicious indictment of his fellow clergypeople. You know, the pious souls who laid hands on Trump this week and prayed for him in the Oval Office.

The photo the White House released only shows the central figure from the back, but I would have loved to see the expression on his face. Was he bored? Preening? After all, it was a whole lot of attention and we know he loves attention. I’m sure the one thing he wasn’t was the one thing he should have been—humbled.

But let’s leave him aside, the man with the yellow weave, and turn our attention to the marvelous Rev. Dr. Barber.

He begins his “open letter to clergy who prayed with Donald Trump” by noting that he was arrested last week, along with other clergy and “people with health issues.” What was their crime?

“…reading the Word of God and attempting to let the Spirit speak its ancient truth through me into the present.”

Specifically, doing all of that scripture-reading outside Mitch McConnell’s Senate office. Praying on government property—essentially the same thing the clergy were doing inside the White House. One group got photographed; the other got carted away in handcuffs. Hmm. What, do you suppose, were the differences?

Reverend Doctor Barber does not mince words

Still, he tries to make common cause with the clergy who crowded into the Oval Office:

While we may differ on Biblical interpretation, we do share a common effort to understand God’s Word and discern God’s will. I have noted your doubtless sincere public statements in recent months that such gospel proclamation is needed in America.

Finding common ground is the first step to resolving differences. The Rev. Dr. Barber continues:

The nation needs our prayers, and no doubt the president does, too. But the Scripture cautions us to lay hands on no man suddenly, lest we become a party to his sins. (1 Timothy 5:22) We cannot simply p-r-a-y pray over people while they p-r-e-y on the poor and vulnerable among us.

I hope you love that last sentence as much as I do. Not every speaker or writer can get away with that sort of wordplay, but if you can—go for it. Back to the Rev. Dr. Barber:

The teachings of Jesus are clear about caring for the poor and the sick, and we are called to share His message; we cannot simply serve as chaplains to imperial power. If we pray for a person engaging in injustice we must offer prayers that lead to conviction, not prayers that further embolden them in their wrongdoing. And since faith comes by hearing, we must speak prophetically and truthfully to them about using political power to inflict public pain.

No minced words there.

An image everyone can grasp

…I am troubled by your silence and lack of guidance as the president and his political allies in Congress attempt to deconstruct America’s health care system. If Jesus did anything, he offered health care wherever he went — and he never charged a leper a co-pay.

Jesus “never charged a leper a co-pay.” That may be my favorite line in the whole letter. It’s so immediately accessible. It’s an image everyone can understand, a concept you can grasp instantly. This is persuasive writing at its finest.

He returns to the scripture, calls out the clergy who prayed over Trump as hypocrites:

For decades you have insisted that the Christian political agenda is a “pro-life” agenda. You have taught millions that the image of God is stamped on each of us — no matter the color of our skin or the money in our bank account — and that each and every child of God was knit together in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. And yet, in this moment of crisis, when our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors are at risk, you say so little. You have been so loud in the past. What spirit has silenced you in this moment of truth for the ethic of life?

And he quotes Frederick Douglass. Remember him? As Trump said this February, “…he’s an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” I wonder if that’s why the Rev. Dr. Barber quoted Douglass?

I remembered what Frederick Douglass said about our faith after our denominations splintered over the moral question of slavery and the nation stood on the brink of Civil War:

“Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

The Reverend Doctor Barber — “redemption is possible”

And he is not letting anyone off the hook:

I also write to you in faith and in love because I know that redemption is possible — we all raise our voices and sing the words penned by a reformed slave trader, “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.” I have watched the sons and daughters of slaveholders work alongside the daughters and sons of enslaved people to build a new and vibrant moral movement. I have prayed with people who decided to follow Jesus when they heard you preach years ago but are now following Jesus to jail because they know this is what faithfulness requires. I write because you have celebrated your unprecedented influence in this administration and the time has come to use it.

He signs off “in prayer and hope.” Hope is in short supply this year. But if anyone can conjure it in the face of the Trumpocalypse, I believe that person will be the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Hope, and some direct arguments made from a deep well of unshakable values.

I hope I get a chance to hear him speak live some day.

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