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Messaging, Short and Sweet: Can you help us gather examples of effective communication in dialogue and deliberation?

At the 2012 NCDD Seattle conference a small group of us started a quest. We shared a desire to see dialogue and deliberation (D & D) become more widely understood, experienced, and available. But, we also knew that when many people hear words like “dialogue,” they envision scenes from political talk shows, “open mic” style municipal meetings, or dogmatic speeches from family, friends, and colleagues. The rich possibilities for successful engagement do not seem widely understood.

What to do? We decided to create a collection of specific, concrete examples of messages that practitioners have effectively used to help the general public or elected officials understand concepts related to D & D. Then, we’ll share the collection with you.

Can you help us? Can you provide specific examples of messages that have worked well for you?

Types of messages can include:

  • metaphors
  • brief anecdotes
  • evocative language
  • images
  • video clips
  • mini-experiences for potential participants
  • others

Please add your examples to the Comments section by clicking “Add Comments” above.

We look forward to working on this challenge from a variety of different angles, here, at the NCDD Listserv, and on Facebook. As we gather examples, we’ll post new queries to help flesh out the collection, and we’ll add some concrete memory ticklers to bring out treasures you may have forgotten.

Once we’ve gathered examples, we’ll organize them in a way we hope makes it easy for you to find what you need when you face a communication challenge. We’ll share the collection in as a document available among the free resources at the NCDD site.

We look forward to working with you on this project!

We are:

Myles Alexander, Project Coordinator at Kansas State University
Laura Chasin, Founder and Board Member at The Public Conversations Project
Kim Crowley, Principal Consultant at Training & Development Support

With help from:

Lisa Pytlik Zillig, Research Specialist at the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center
Nancy Glock-Grueneich, Faculty at Shandong Youth Univ. of Political Science
Sandy Heierbacher, Director, NCDD

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This post was submitted by a member of the NCDD community. NCDD members are leaders and future leaders in the fields of public engagement, conflict resolution, and community problem solving. You, too, can post to the NCDD blog by completing the Add-to-Blog form at www.ncdd.org/submit.

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  1. Ryan says:

    I like to think of public engagement activities as ‘lowering the barriers to entry’ for influencing public policy. Lobbyists have outsized influence on the policy process for a number of reasons, including: general policy knowledge, the time to attend hearings and meet with lawmakers, and the specific knowledge of the policy process which allows them to target their recommendations at truly actionable items. The general public lacks these benefits. They’re busy, they may lack a common foundational understanding of public policy that allows them to effectively communicate with policymakers, and often when they do become involved they advocate for policy changes that simply aren’t actionable. The job of public engagement specialists is to remove these barriers by creating convenient applications which effectively communicate both general and specific policy information.

    • Kim Crowley says:

      Thanks, Ryan. “Lowering the barriers to entry” evokes an image for me of Olympic citizens having to leap over high gates to get into the system and others being able to breathe more easily when the gates are lowered. I think it captures an important aspect of the work that public engagement practitioners do.

      Have you experienced different responses to the phrase from different audiences?

  2. Tarik says:

    Sometimes I think that baby steps can be better when it comes to dialogue and deliberation, especially about policy issues. It depends on the objectives. It can be very difficult to reach general consensus based on thoughtful deliberation in short amounts of time, particularly among diverse people who aren’t familiar with each other. Its easier to start small and slow, and build rapport and momentum.

    At times I think that we as public engagement practitioners expect too much bang in very short amounts of time. If you push the sisyphus rock slowly and steadily, maybe it won’t roll down the hill.

    • Kim Crowley says:

      Hi Tarik,

      When you start small and slow, how have you gotten people involved. Are there any specific phrases, metaphors, etc. that you’ve found effective for inviting engagement?

  3. Starting small and slow makes good sense when organizing dialogues. While working with a group planning to organize community-wide dialogues, someone in the group noted, “This sample dialogue experience has been great, but how do you get people to commit to them? It takes a lot of time to have these conversations.” Heads nodded as I described the reactions of a group when I mentioned that the upcoming dialogues would entail a commitment of two hours per week for five weeks.

    “People started leaning back in their seats, folding their arms and a few glanced over toward the door,” I explained. “Clearly, the audience buy-in and comfort level were in critical condition.” Someone suggested reaching out more via technology, rather than old-fashioned group presentations. I noted that technology has provided many resources and organizing opportunities; yet, over-reliance on technology is a dangerous recruitment strategy.

    Now that we were on the topic of technology, I referred to a scenario which took place in my kitchen. Sam, my 19-year-old daughter, I explained, was texting. As I continued preparing the salad, I asked who she’s ‘talking to.’ “Eileen,” replied Sam. “Now, mind you, Eileen was sitting across the kitchen table from her,” I noted, which drew some chuckles and one guffaw. Having shifted the group’s mood from the ambivalent ‘I don’t have that kind of time for dialogues,’ to the stress-relieving act of laughing, I once again shifted gears. “How many hours are there in a year?” I asked. A couple of people pulled out their cell phones and simultaneously announced, “8,760 hours.”

    “Okay,” I responded. “So, there are 8,760 hours in one year. Our town has had some racial incidents recently that concern many of us. Do you have 10 hours this year that you can commit to making [name of community] stronger for your children? Your neighbors? Yourself?” Placing the time commitment in this context and referring to the community by name drives home the point that yes, life is busy, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a drop in time’s bucket; it also reaches out to the values of home and making this world a better place for our children. When pitching participation in dialogues, this framing advice has been well-received in multiple communities where I’ve offered it.

  4. Dave Joseph says:

    Attached is a link to a recent Christian Science Monitor op-ed piece that I authored about the dialogue work our partners in Nigeria are doing Between Christians and Muslims.I hope this might be useful.


    • Kim Crowley says:

      Thanks, Dave.

      Some of the phrases from your piece have me thinking about creating a message category called something like, “naming the fear.” I think that conflicts sometimes get stuck because while we’re aiming toward a desired outcome, we sometimes avoid addressing the fears that may be holding people back. These phrases speak to me as handles for potentially very powerful sources of fear within Nigerian culture:

      “conflict entrepreneurs” – who peddle sectarian violence and hatred.

      “No one is interested in becoming Chris-lam,”

      “you cannot interpret the faith of the other.”

  5. Fundamentally, it comes down to understanding your audience. Start with analogies and metaphors that apply well to that audience, and shape the messages to that group.

    I recall a workshop a few years ago that included both climate scientists and “practitioners” (folks who were seeking to apply climate into their practices, such as ag producers). A discussion evolved around describing the difference between weather and climate, and it was clear that the “statistics vs. events” type of description was not reaching the practitioners. What ended up working for them was a baseball analogy: climate is like a batting average, weather is like an individual at-bat. Once we (climate scientists) were speaking their (practitioners) language, we were able to bridge to talking further about climate applications. That analogy wouldn’t work as well with every audience, but there are plenty out there around which a conversation can be built.

    OK, my example is more about being in the process of dialog and deliberation, rather than talking about doing dialog and deliberation, and maybe it won’t be too directly helpful. But then again, maybe some of the beauty is in just starting the dialog without declaring it first. 🙂

    • Kim Crowley says:


      We actually are looking for subject-matter related metaphors like the baseball-climate metaphor you’ve shared, and this one works great, thanks!

      We’re looking for pretty much any specific examples that have worked in any capacity within dialogue and deliberation work. That’s kind of broad, though, so we’ll be providing more specific prompts from time to time.

  6. John Backman says:

    First: I love this idea. This is not the easiest field to convey–especially since there’s so little dialogue on display in the public square these days–so messaging is more than worthwhile.

    A few things come to mind:

    1. When people ask me about dialogue, I tell them “it’s about how to talk with people who drive you nuts.” Almost inevitably, they giggle AND totally get the point.

    2. The intro pitch for my book, I think, gets the idea across too: “Think of an issue that makes your blood boil. Now imagine lunch with a friend who is just as passionate about it—on the other side. How can the two of you even broach the issue, let alone hear each other with curiosity and compassion?”

    3. Sometimes, in casual conversation, I tell personal stories of dialogue with people whom my listener finds noxious. For instance, telling progressive Christians that “I just had the coolest conversation with a bunch of born-agains” catches them off guard, and it makes them wonder: how on earth did you DO that? It’s not an explanation of dialogue, but more of a door opener to get their attention.

    If I think of more, I will certainly post it. Thanks again for a worthwhile initiative.

    • Dave Joseph says:

      Love your messaging !!!
      Clear, simple, direct and understandable to all. thank you, hope you’re “open-source,” as we are at PCP and would be comfortable with my “cribbing” some of your language?

      Dave Joseph
      Vice President for Program, PCP

      • John Backman says:

        Absolutely, Dave–and thanks for the kind words. My publisher would be delighted if you’d mention my name (or even, saints preserve us, the book) in connection with this, but whatever works for you is fine with me.

  7. Myles Alexander says:

    John, you offer examples of the brilliance of simplicity. I can see how these openers can catch people’s attention. You got mine.
    You also remind me that getting positive attention and interest is first. I don’t have to say everything in one breath after, “Hello.”
    Once the giggle subsides or they regain balance, are the listeners curious to hear more?

    • John Backman says:

      Often, yes. Their first thought (accompanied by the giggle) is an image of the person who most drives them nuts, because it seems EVERYONE has someone like that, and they are often top-of-mind. That makes the idea of dialogue personal, which in turn (I suspect) piques their interest.

  8. Kim Crowley says:

    Thanks for all the great comments and links. We’re going to pause for a bit to organize the information from the links. Then we’ll be back with some followup questions. In the mean time, if you want to add any more comments here that works.

  9. Nicole Wall says:

    One thing that I’ve always remembered from my public participation trainings and experiences is to set reasonable and clear objectives right away before jumping into “tricky” dialogue situations. Keeping in touch with the organizers of the sessions is important, just to make sure that what you plan to do (in terms of techniques related to dialogue) is on target and matches the objectives. I like Tarik’s comments about taking it slowly. Hopefully, in future sessions you can start tackling tougher issues by always going back and refining or building on those initial objectives. It is an “art form” and there is a very good process in IAP2 to help with this and I remember a very thoughtful presentation done once by Stephani McCallum (she was the President of IAP2 at the time and also worked for the Dialogue Partners). Her presentation was “Connecting the Public with Public Policy. She went through a series of important contexts for engaging on public policies (e.g. voter distrust/apathy,voter turnout, social movements, aggression in society, power imbalances & disconnect)and then presented the notion of “wicked problems”, meaning that these issues often present themselves as having incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements; and solutions to them are often difficult to recognize because of complex inter dependencies. (e.g. energy crisis, food scarcity, and perhaps even climate change)She suggested that in order to connect people to public policy, it is essential to use a value based process, create space and respect for emotion, and deeply understand all perspectives and “sides”, figure out and discuss what you DON’T know, have courage to get rid of what doesn’t work, and take action. Other ideas: use a sustainable framework, build capacity (I personally, like the community capitals framework model, and give generously. Sorry, I came late to the discussion but I thought I would share a little that I hold dear to my heart by learning from mentors and also though experience.

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