Finding One’s Voice

Messaging.  Framing.  Talking Points.  Guiding Questions.  Bridging.  It doesn’t matter what you call it.  Communicators and strategists spend a lot of time thinking through what is said, whether it be about education reform, healthcare, or the latest widget.  We often spend so much time focused on the “what” that we forget all about the “who.”  This is particularly true as we talk about reforms surrounding NCLB.

It took a visit with an old friend from my NRP days to remind just how important the “who” is in communicating education reform.  For a reform effort to take hold and be successful, the right person (or persons) need to be saying the right things.  The right message but the wrong messenger, you fall flat.  Likewise, the right messenger with the wrong message loses all credibility.

And just who is that right voice?  The effective messenger carries some distinctive characteristics:

* Credibility — A simple truth.  One needs to be believable.  One needs to be knowledgeable.  One needs to be trustworthy.  If you are advocating change, you can’t afford to have audiences question your statements before they message has taken hold.  My first mentor on Capitol Hill had a simple instruction for me, “Don’t ever lie … ever.”  While it offered as advice for dealing with the media, it holds for any advocacy effort, working with any audience.  One just has to be credible.  Hands down, with NCLB our most credible voices are the teachers and parents on the frontlines of learning.

* Likeability — One can be credible and trustworthy, and still disliked.  It is unfortunate, but all too real.  A good messenger needs to be liked by those she is talking to.  In a previous life, I used to do a great deal of crisis communications for hospitals and healthsystems.  I would always ask for a nurse as a messenger.  We trust doctors.  We know they are credible.  But we LIKE nurses.  They are empathetic.  They understand us.  They have a likeability factor that is unmatched.  Same is true for most teachers and parents.  We may respect a superintendent, but we generally like our child’s teacher. 

Relatability — This is probably the hardest to quantify.  I’ve conducted scores of focus groups with teachers and parents around the country, and the effect of education reform comes down to a few simple questions.  “Will it work in a school like mine?  In a class like mine?  With kids like mine?”  Stakeholders want to see themselves in those who are advocating change.  Parents need to hear from other parents.  The Latino community needs to hear from the Latino community.  And, yes, business leaders need to hear from other business leaders.  If I am being asked to change my thinking and my behavior, I want to hear from someone who has walked in my shoes, shared my thoughts, and understands my hesitations.

A wide chorus of voices is important to any debate.  But with all of the discourse on NCLB, Reading First, research data, accountability, and the like, we need to hear from the right voices, not just from those contributing to the white noise of the day.  Researchers and government officials all play an important role in improving our education system.  There is no question about that.  But for real reforms to take lasting root in schools and communities across the nation, we need to hear from those most affected by the reforms.

Advocating for Early Reading First?  Let’s hear from the mother in Arizona whose child has gained the developmental learning skills to succeed when he hits elementary school.  School choice?  Let’s hear from the reverend in Atlanta whose has seen more and more parents asking the right questions to ensure their kids are getting an effective education.  Testing?  Let’s hear from the second grade teacher in Pennsylvania who now has the data to key in on the learning skills many in her class seem to be missing.

We need to hear from those in the game, those teachers, parents, administrators, and such who are swinging for the fences and doing whatever is necessary to boost student achievement in the classrooms.  Those are the voices that launch successful reform.  Those are the voices that move us to improve.  Those are the voices we need most.

At the end of the day, the success of NCLB will not be heard from those at the U.S. Department of Education or at one of the national education organizations.  NCLB success will be heard in the words and actions of those in our local communities and our neighborhood schools.  When they are trumpeting the benefits and impact of scientifically based education research and a renewed commitment to accountability, then the law has truly succeeded.

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