Tips for Successful Communication from Christine Heenan
We’re all bombarded with new messages and information every day – from the weather forecast on the morning news to the billboard on the way to work to dozens of emails waiting for us on our computers. Our society is literally awash in information, and advertisers and marketers continue to develop new, more invasive ways to capture the attention of consumers. Is the best way to reach parents sending a note home in backpacks, or is it circulating a flyer at the big basketball game in the school gym? Is e-mail the best way to reach students about planning for college, or is a “college night” at school? Figure out what gets through, even if it’s not what you’ve always done, and do that.
Hone Your Message
Okay, so you’ve got their attention. Now what? What’s your point? In order to reach and motivate your community, to move them from awareness to interest to engagement, you need to explain your effort in ways that are clear, compelling, and true. While school reform is complicated stuff, it can and must be talked about in simple, soluble ways that speak not only of the “what” that you’re proposing, but also the “why.”
Ban the Gobbledygook
Heterogeneous groupings. Multiple measures of assessment. Teaming. Education reform has a whole language of its own, and while you may know what you mean, what passes for common parlance to educators might as well be Greek to most parents, lawmakers, and students. It’s not fair to expect your audience to decipher or guess: speak English. Don’t talk about “heterogeneous groupings,” talk about blending kids at different levels in one classroom. Don’t talk about “authentic assessment,” talk about “evaluating work kids really do in school.”
Know Your Audience
Who is the most important audience for you to bring on board with your effort, and what do you know about them? In our work with schools, we’ve found that the most important audience is often overlooked. For example, we worked with a school in Maine working to adopt cross-disciplinary teaching and freshmen teams. At the outset, parents and incoming freshmen were assumed to be the most important audiences for this initiative, but when we talked it through, the school reform leaders realized that the biggest key to success would be convincing veteran teachers this was worth doing, and having them serve as validators to parents and other teachers. Our whole strategy shifted.
Rely on Research
Everyone knows that multiple choice tests are a weak and imperfect measure of student or school performance, right? Wrong. Polls show that an astonishingly high percentage of parents think testing is a great way to measure performance. Any right-minded parent would want their child to aspire to a college education, no? Well…no. Focus group work with parents and teachers in northern New England revealed that many held a notion of “college” as unrealistic, unattainable, and not for everyone, and that a statewide effort to boost post-secondary achievement would be compromised if it put “college” at the center of its campaign. Progressive school reform efforts often require questioning conventional wisdom: know all you can about your audience’s biases, attitudes, and assumptions when wading in to the debate.