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Telling a story that resonates with citizens is critical to accelerating the pace of change in a city or town. Here are some thoughts and ideas to get you pointed in the right direction:
In public engagement contexts increasingly complicated by conflicting tribal perspectives, the story you want to tell is the story listeners are prepared to believe. And that requires listening for unifying touchstones that may force you to alter not only the way you tell your story but also the way you do business.
The problem is that most of us involved in these processes are trained as problem solvers and not diagnosticians. We know how to do the math. But we’re not so hot at recognizing and coping with math anxiety, with the fears and suspicions that underlie and explain the resistance to planning and policy ambitions. We’re okay talkers, not such great listeners.
To enjoy the trust of the customers you serve, you have to earn it by actually serving them, by continually demonstrating performance in line with your promise.
If we’re not going to win a competition by out-debating people who disagree with us, what should the strategy be?
Well, maybe we should open ourselves up to the idea that we all share a similar intuition-favored operating system. That requires, says Haidt, “stepping out of the Matrix” that frames delusions of pure objectivity. And if we’re to break through barriers to consensus we’d best figure out which of those intuition buttons we have to honor, in what combination, and to what degree.
If your goal is bringing people around to your point of view, helping them see the light and finally get it, I’ve got some bad news: Expect limited results. But if your goal is more people demanding more green products and participating in more green behaviors, then things are looking up. Just consider what you’re selling through the less ideologically-pristine lens of self-interest. Assuming you’ve got a quality product that actually delivers as promised, you’ll be amazed at just how much overlap exists between things that are good for me and things that are good for we.
“What would you like to see here?”
And there it is. Perhaps the most inane question ever posed in the course of a public design process. And posed it is, constantly.
“We’re doing a master plan for downtown. What would you like to see here?”
It’s crazy. In one sweeping question, practitioners not only set the stage for unmet expectations, they devalue the art and craft of urban design at the same time.
The problem, it seems, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what branding a city really means. Talk of “creating a brand” suggests a blank slate, a point of ground zero where we begin the process of establishing who we are. But cities are living organisms, with a legacy of past behaviors and no shortage of current, on-the-ground realities, which means–like it or not–they already have a brand.
Heed this warning: If your city branding efforts don’t begin with top down commitment to both your foundational principles and your aspirational goals, you are wasting your time. It doesn’t matter how many chamber of commerce meetings you attend, how many resident focus groups you hold, or how many Addy award winning agencies you interview.
If your community has not done the hard work of building consensus, defining goals and demonstrating commitment through meaningful actions, it just doesn’t matter.
If your leadership fails to engender trust, you can’t sell strength. If your policies are not incentivizing what you want and penalizing what you don’t, you can’t sell vision. If your zoning promotes sprawl and your citizens are disconnected from civic participation, you can’t sell community.
No matter how pretty your logo or clever your tag, you are wasting your time.
We all know about successful processes, as measured by the how-many count, that flunked out when it came to producing real, measurable results. So long as you view engagement essentially as an end goal, you’re missing out on its true value as a tool for moving communities forward.
We unsettle people when we tell them, no, your goal shouldn’t be engagement. It should be disengagement. Reaching a point where trust has been built, people are satisfied and they retreat, confident that their interests are not being undermined.
How you frame the opportunities that will fill anyone’s particular void is a variable that requires more than just knowledge or strategic thinking. It requires a sincere effort to listen before you speak. To understand the person or community you’re working with and, ultimately, to present solutions that acknowledge, respect, and speak to both who and what they are.
Yes, overall, planners have gotten better at articulating projects and the larger goals that drive them. They’re more adept at clarity, helping people envision certain outcomes. But by and large, they still operate with an apparent assumption that they and their audience are on the same page.
That’s not always true. And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it became less true in the coming years.
Written by Ben Brown and Scott Doyon, Placemakers, LLC