Laser Talks and Powerful Storytelling

May 26, 2009

RESULTS partners meet Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)Hi everyone, this is Ken Patterson, Global Grassroots Manager. 

At RESULTS, we believe that powerful speaking is the key to being an effective advocate for the end of poverty. Our activists speak powerfully by telling gripping stories, and by giving brief presentations that we call “laser talks”. I’ll explain laser talks now. 

Let’s say you have the chance to speak with a member of Congress at a town hall meeting, connect with a busy editorial writer on the telephone, or catch the attention of a friend. Typically, you will only have one or two minutes to get your point across. By using the “laser talk” format, you’ll make the most of your opportunity.

Each laser talk has four sections. In the first section, you engage the listener’s attention. Next, you present a problem you want them to know about. Then you inform them about a solution to the problem. And finally, you call them to action. An easy way to remember these four sections is to use the word EPIC:

E stands for engage
P stands for problem
I is for inform, and
C stands for call to Action

Let’s look at each section in more detail. The first section, which is E for Engage, is probably the easiest. Here, you draw your listener’s attention with a dramatic fact or short statement. For instance, you could say:

“I’m proud that the U.S. has played a key role in saving 4.9 million lives since 2002 through our contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.”

Follow that with the second section of the talk, in which you discuss a problem you want your listener to know about. Try to connect the problem to an issue the listener already cares about. For example, if you’re speaking to a member of Congress about the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, you might say:

“But we have much more work to do, since nearly six million people die annually of these three preventable and treatable diseases of poverty. The Global Fund is prepared to help developing nations save more lives, but it needs $5.25 billion in the coming year. This funding gap means real people are not getting access to care.”

In the third section of the talk, inform the listener about a solution to the problem you just presented. Give examples of how and where the solution has worked, how it has proven to be effective, and how it benefits the poorest. You might cite a recent study, or use other credible statistics. Here’s an example:

U.S. leadership is needed to fully fund the Global Fund. For every dollar the U.S. contributes, other donor nations typically contribute $2. The U.S. share of the need for 2011 is $1.75 billion.

The final section of the laser talk is the Call to Action. Calls to action should be concrete, specific, and formed as a yes – no question. An example is the following request made to a member of the House of Representatives:

“Currently, a sign-on letter to appropriators is being circulated in the House requesting at least $1.75 billion for the Global Fund in 2011. Would you sign this letter? I would be happy to provide you with a copy.”

Before you give a laser talk, it’s a good idea to practice it. Say it out loud to yourself, and then to another person until you feel comfortable with it. Soon you’ll be able to make the talk your own, using different sections as you need them and adapting them to different situations. Learning a good repertoire of laser talks to use when the time is right will help make you a powerful advocate.

RESULTS also recognizes the value of compelling stories. Good storytelling captivates all of us. As we listen to a good story, our common humanity is touched, and we have the potential to be changed.

But many speakers short change themselves by not using enough stories. For instance, consider the following passage:

“UNICEF recently reported that, for the first time in history, the number of children dying each year of largely preventable causes fell below 9 million in 2008. However that still means over 24,000 children die each day from preventable illnesses like diarrhea, pneumonia, measles, and malaria.”

By contrast, here a powerful story from one of our own activists:

“My years as a Peace Corps Volunteer volunteer in Niger taught me many things — some of them profound and some of them tragic. One of the tragic lessons I learned was that the number of parents who experience the pain of needlessly losing a child is not equally shared around the globe. This lesson became particularly poignant the day that Issa, my blacksmith friend and neighbor, walked into my mud hut with panic and shock written on his face. ‘Please come and see my baby. She’s sick and doesn’t even know who I am,’ he managed to say. When I arrived, the beautiful baby was listless, but breathing. As I watched her and stroked her black hair I could see the life ebbing out of her, her breathing slowing until it stopped. I immediately crouched on the floor, put two fingers on her sternum and tried frantically to breathe life back in to her, as Biba and Issa looked on in horror. I knew there wasn’t a doctor or a health facility for miles that could help me, so I just continued working on her. The infant finally expired in my arms and Biba wailed. I never found out why she died. But I knew that she never really had the same chance to live a full life as those who have access to vaccinations, clean water, and medical facilities. She was one of the 10 million preventable child deaths that year, and I will never forget that day.”

Stories take something that’s abstract and impersonal, like a statistic, and turn it into something very intimate and emotional. A good story softens the listener and appeals to their humanity in a way that facts alone cannot.

We use compelling stories to illustrate both the problems of poverty and their solutions. Stories can be memorized, like we do with laser talks. Or, if they’re longer, we can read them to our audience. Either way, it’s important to present stories in a natural style so their power shines through.

At RESULTS, we are convinced that sharp laser talks and compelling stories about real people can change hearts and minds, and ultimately, help bring about the end of poverty.

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