How to Speak to Impact Social Change

How to Speak to Impact Social Change


This is a recap of the advocacy workshop I led for Global Network of Women Peace-builders to an audience of feminist activists who gathered for the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women at U.N.

The lessons are

1. Connect with your Why; Connect with your Fire

2. Don’t Force; Guide the Listener to a New Understanding

3. Tell Compelling Stories; Share Your Story. 



Yesterday I had the awesome privilege of leading an advocacy workshop with Global Network of Women Peacebuilders for feminist activists who have gathered from around the world to attend the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women at the UN. 

Wow. It was a great privilege for me, and today I am thriving because I have three reasons.

  1. I get to share some of the amazing stories that I have heard with you. I get to tell stories.
  2. I have a roof over my head right now. I’m drinking a delicious cup of ginger lemon tea, and no one is shooting bullets at me. I’m really privileged to have a peaceful existence, and I am grateful for that. I am thriving.
  3. I get to do something that I really love. I love coaching, I love speaking, and I love training, and I got to do all of it yesterday. So, I feel really grateful, deeply privileged, and so I want to share some of the lessons with you, because you know what? I wish you could have been there. It was so fun.

I'll share top three lessons that I shared with the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, feminist activists, who want to impact change. Let me guess - 

You also want to communicate, advocate, negotiate so that you can impact change for the better in your life, in your career, in your world. 

What are the top three lessons? 

  1. Connect with your why or connect with your fire. 

  2. Don’t force, but guide, and make it easy to follow. 

  3. Tell compelling stories and share you with the world.

First, Connect with your why.

To give you an idea of what my workshops are like, I will tell you how it started. I introduced myself, and then I asked the crowd, “Why are you here?”

There was this kind of an awkward pause. The activists looked at each other. They’re like, “Uh, to promote gender equality. Duh!”

And I said, “Why is gender equality important?” 

Another person in the audience said, “It’s important because everyone deserves a right to a peaceful existence.”

So I said, “Ah, that’s a pretty compelling reason!”

And she added,

“It’s not just about gender. It’s not just about women. It’s about the potential of our future generation. It’s about the potential of women and men, so that they can live full, rich lives not constricted by gender roles, expectations.”

Wow. Yeah. That’s a good reason. That’s a great why. 

I asked the audience to really vividly picture the impact that their speaking will have on the audience.

I asked them, "What is the transformation that you want to create with your speaking, with your communication?"

When we got down to it, this metaphor bubbled up. It’s like lighting a candle. One of the activists from Moldova, she said that somebody who had listened to her speak on the topic of gender equality told her it was as if a candle was lit within her after hearing the speaker. And that’s exactly it, isn’t it? 

Yesterday, I briefly talked about the four elements of communication, so to quickly recap, it’s number one: what you mean, or your purpose, your sense of desire to change the world, right? You see it in your mind’s eye really clearly, what is possible. And you want to communicate it, because you have passion for this possible change. Number two: how you say it, how you express that fire. Number three: people hear it. Number four: how they interpret what they heard and what they make it mean. 

And so when she said that this person had told her it was if a candle had been lit, she had succeeded in the transference of the fire. She helped this person feel and connect with the fire within her.

That fire, that passion for change is the purpose. That's the leadership purpose of these women who want to speak up, who want to advocate on behalf of women whose voices are not being heard at the negotiating table, or in the halls of power where these big international policies are being written. 

So, what is your fire?

What is the vision you have in your mind’s eye of what is possible? I really want you to connect with that.

If you have trouble articulating it, just ask yourself why? Why is this important? Why do you feel compelled to share this? And keep asking why until you get to a reason that is super compelling.

Everyone wants peaceful existence. Everyone deserves a right to live their full potential. And I thought that was a really compelling reason. And that is what drives these women peacebuilders to go out there and face criticism, even face violence and opposition, in some parts of the world to continue to speak up so that they can impact change.

So, number one: connect with your why. Connect with your fire.

Quick anecdote: for me, when I connect with my fire, when I feel like yes, this is my purpose and I am speaking my truth, I have the chills. So there are tells when you’re super clear on your why, when you’re connecting with that fire, you will know. And only you will know. So, whatever your tell is, trust it.

Second, don’t force, guide. Make it easy to follow.

What do I mean by this?

Yesterday, when I had the audience envision the impact they’re making with their speaking, one of the activists said she wants to force people to see the truth of the atrocities that are being committed against women around the world, especially women in conflict areas.

Did you know that there was armed conflict in Armenia? I had no idea. Did you know that there’s still a war in Ukraine? I’m sorry, I didn’t know, but I learned yesterday.

So she wants people to see it, accept it, and take accountability. I understand her passion and her outrage is justified, however it’s not very effective communication because people are not going to do what you tell them to do.

People are not going to change their minds, they’re not going to change their hearts because you are right, because you know so much, because you are so impressive.

People are going to change their minds, change their hearts and take action because they have decided for themselves that this is the right thing to do, and this is the right time to act on it.

The job of effective communication isn’t to force people to take a point of view, it’s to guide them, and it’s to aid in their changing of their minds. 

How do you do this? Really simple. Tell compelling stories. Ask questions, it gets their minds engaged. Make eye contact. Literally connect with the audience.

Make your speech, or your communication, really easy to follow. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, organize it into three digestible chunks, tell them the three things and count it off: one, two three. Summarize what you said, and then finally make a compelling call to action.

These women from around the world, they had really impressive recommendations on how to impact social change at the local level, national level, international level. How do we get journalists involved? How do we make the promise of the U.N., which is to promote gender equality, how do we make that promise a reality?

They had some really concrete but also very technical recommendations, so I challenged each and every one of them to just organize it into top three points that they want to make. Tell people, “I have an idea and these are three reasons why this idea is valid, and here is my recommendation.”

Third, Tell Compelling Stories

Once you have grabbed their attention and have guided, not forced, a point of view on them, the most effective and powerful way to have people empathize and see your point of view is to tell compelling stories.

In a story, there are three basic components. There is a character, there is conflict, there is resolution or lessons learned. Yesterday I heard some really mind-blowing stories. 

Take for example:

Imagine that you are a 16 year-old girl born in a rural area in Congo. Imagine that at 16, you’re sold off to be married to a strange man. And imagine that you have three kids. And imagine that every day, with a baby strapped to your back, you have to go out into the field and do farm work, and your husband does not help with that farm work. Your husband does not help with any household work. He doesn’t feel that he needs to, he feels justified, because he paid money to marry you. You don’t have a right to own land. You don’t have a right to inheritance, so when your husband passes away, you have nothing.

How would you feel?  

This was one of the many stories I heard yesterday.

Did you see this woman in your mind’s eye? Did you feel the hot sun on your back as you’re working in the field?

Did you feel something inside? I hope you did. I don’t want you to feel bad. I’m just trying to convey to you the power of storytelling. And this is what I shared with the crowd yesterday. 

Another thing I shared with them is, don’t be afraid to share stories about you.

These are really smart, really accomplished women, humanitarian workers and lawyers. At the U.N., they feel like they have to be perfect, that they have to impress people with their knowledge, with their professionalism and their activism.

When you are communicating a message, you are the conduit.

So people can’t help but be curious about you. And when you tell us a little bit about you, when you brave vulnerability and open up about your life and what these stories mean to you and how they impact you emotionally, people will feel compelled. Vulnerability is a strength. People will react to your courage to open up. 

For example, yesterday, one of the women is a domestic violence activist, and she said the topic of advocating for rural women in her country is important to her because her grandmother is from a rural area. So she feels connected. When she told me she feels connected with her grandmother while looking at me in the eye, I felt connected to her and to her story, and it was very powerful. It was very compelling.

So these are top three lessons that I shared.

Of course there are several other tips and tricks: don’t make wordy Powerpoint slides and then read from the Powerpoint instead of speaking to your audience. Make eye contact. Don't use filler words.

These are all very good, very fundamental public speaking tips, but at the heart of speaking to impact change, I think it’s important to connect with your why, connect with the fire within you. To not force-feed ideas into people to change their minds, because they won’t, but instead to guide them and make it easy for them to follow you so that they feel like they have arrived at that destination or a new point of view on their own. And finally, the best way to do that is to tell compelling, vivid stories. Don’t be afraid to open up and be vulnerable about what that is like for you.

These lessons can be applied to people who want to impact social change, people who want to advocate for themselves, people who just want to be more compelling leaders and tell better stories.

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