|In the city of saints and fortune-tellers|
Sarah Hamilton, FCAA's program and communications director, filled me in on the group's current challenges, 25 years into its charge of marshalling philanthropic support for the AIDS epidemic. (You can check out the group's progress in the 25-year timeline it has published on Issuu.) Her biggest communications hurdle? How and what to communicate when everyone thinks your problem has been solved.
We want to believe that we've solved health care problems in general, and the AIDS epidemic in particular. AIDS is and always has been a complex topic, not fun to talk about and easily pushed aside as audiences pretend they're immune, so to speak. I came home from New Orleans thinking about what I'd advise in this case, and kept coming back to the precepts in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die:
- Go for the concrete: Made to Stick co-author Dan Heath likes to say, "Nonprofit language ain't concrete." It seems natural for aspirational nonprofits to push the dream, and the dream-spinning language that goes with it. But if your message is framed in concrete words, research shows it will be more persuasive. The more specific, the better. Use data, examples, and active verbs to push your ideas, whether you're pushing them back onto the agenda or getting them there for the first time.
- Watch your jargon: Check out the Communications Network jargon finder, here waxing eloquent on the word "access" in healthcare. The words you use as shorthand are not shorthand to the rest of us.
- Find and share the surprise: In the case of the AIDS epidemic, the problem might just be the surprise, alerting audiences that the issue isn't as solved as you might think. Earlier in the epidemic, the surprise was that it affected a wider population. I shared with Hamilton the moment when an RWJF trustee put my 27-year-old self on the spot, asking, "Why do you care so much about this epidemic, Denise?" I didn't hesitate to answer that I could die of AIDS, that friends of mine were already dead, and that I wanted to live through the most productive years of my life--years that were still ahead of me. The surprise in that exchange was that I looked to him like an unlikely candidate, and I knew that.
- Look for the early indicators: Since leaving the foundation, I've had the privilege to work with some leading AIDS researchers, and they have long told me privately that the current mix of drugs that have worked so well to keep people with AIDS and HIV alive will, at some point, stop working. Since we can already see this early indicator of problems to come, let's get that out on the table publicly to make the case for prevention and care.