Instead of stats, how about telling a story?
A looming, elevated freeway has been replaced by this downtown green space in Seoul.
Courtesy of flickr user madmarv00 under a Creative Commons license.
As the new editor of the Institute’s Journal, I know that projects focused on transportation and environmental sustainability can be a bit tangential to most comprehensive community development programs. I was poking around some interesting links online recently, however, and came across a well-put point that I think is very much applicable in our work.
The article is by Kamala Rao, an urban planner in Vancouver, discussing how she was enthralled by a presentation about the impact of tearing down an elevated freeway in Seoul. She writes, "I went to the lecture ready to record all the juicy stats I was sure he was going to throw out: peak hour traffic flows, mode shares, level of service, lane miles. What I got instead was a story told not in numbers and data, but a story about people and the profound impact the project had on the city."
You’ll be hard pressed to find too many people who show up at a presentation or open an article “ready to record all the juicy stats.” Certainly not most people attending a public meeting to hear about a new neighborhood initiative, or the busy staff of a local alderman, or even a group of community developers.
Yet I think we all tend to reach for the statistics when telling people about our communities or our programs. Facts and figures are important, of course, and, if you’ve got something truly rare, giving “proof” with stats to back it up can drive the point home.
But faced with a steady stream of numbers — demographic breakdowns, fiscal year budgets, regression analysis for an impact study — our eyes can glaze over.
How about telling the story instead?
Telling the story
Roa recalls what she learned about Seoul’s experience, writing, “The story of the Cheonggyecheon [the river covered by the freeway] started hundreds of years ago during the reign of the Joseon Dynasty, when the kingdom's castle was considered the ‘head’ of Seoul and the river the ‘body.’ That was its glorious past.”
Okay, I’m interested in hearing more about this.
Neighborhoods are filled with residents, and as every journalist will tell you, people like to read about people. Tell us about some of the interesting people that live in your community or are involved with your program.
Eric Young Smith
Neighborhoods also have a life of their own — give us some insight into yours.
Is it an old manufacturing district that was once filled with factories making shoes? Do the streets come alive in the summer, with block parties almost every weekend? Are there still some great Swedish bakeries on the main commercial drag, mixed in now with Thai restaurants, as a new wave of immigrants moves into the local apartments?
Driving the story home
Of course, a story has to have a point. So choose details, anecdotes and ideas that drive home what you want us to know.
That grandma who’s lived in the neighborhood her whole life now uses our new health clinic and is saving money on her medication. Those block parties show that people know each other and that there’s a lot of community spirit, and those are assets we’re going to use in our new project. You get the idea.
There’s no one right way to do this. I think the recent story on neighborhood murals on foreclosed homes on the Institute website is a great example. Lydia Stein is an artist whose story is the vehicle to learn about the power of community art.
The wonderful photos of Stein’s beautiful work are also a huge reason the article is engaging enough to read all the way through. But I’ll tackle the importance of getting great photography to tell about the profound impact of our work in another post.
Posted in Communicating, Thinking Out Loud