Want to get your message across? Tell a simple story

January 31, 2012

This weekend I had the opportunity to serve on a panel titled “The Power of Words” for Teach for America’s Southern Education Equity Summit at Fisk University. (Julie Hubbard had a nicely balanced piece in Sunday’s Tennessean about TFA and its impact on Tennessee classrooms.)

TFA corps members face some very real communications challenges daily. A few zingers that seemed common among everyone in the auditorium – “What difference could you possibly make, you’re only in the classroom for two years?” and “Teach for America teachers aren’t experienced enough to truly close the gap.”

Knowing the audience comprised educators, I went with a simple two-step test and a two-step lesson for creating effective communications.

The test of truly effective communications:
1. Does your audience understand your message?
2. Does your audience remember your message?

The lesson for becoming an effective communicator:
1. Speak in plain, simple English.
2. Tell a story.

We spent some time discussing the lesson. The first step seems easy. Until you try to apply it.

The late Kingman Brewster, president of Yale University, once said, “Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.” Techies talk about uploading a downlink from the cloud to a motherboard. Financial experts want to actualize, monetize, recontextualize and e-tize. And frankly, educators may be the worst when they throw around terms like value-added, multiple intelligencies, emergent literacy and higher-order thinking. Dave and I once sat through an entire parent-teacher conference without really understanding anything after, “I just love having Callie in my class.”

Winston Churchill liked to say, “Simple words are better, and small words are the best.” If you want someone to understand what you’re trying to tell them, then tell them in words they can understand.

Why tell a story? Because millions of years of evolution have left us hard-wired to learn that way. Facts and figures may be a great way to set up an argument; but a connection to real life that has a beginning, a middle and an end is what you really remember.

The TFA corps members, truly a cross section of America’s brightest and best, are an impressive group. I walked away with a renewed respect for the field of education and a certainty that the young people in that room will spread their messages loud and clear in classrooms across the country. And public education will be better off because of it.

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One Response to “Want to get your message across? Tell a simple story”


  1. Katy – I was happy to be on the panel with you and learned a lot! Thanks for sharing this wisdom.


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