Thursday 13 December 2018

Gina London: 'Moving the world by using human touch to tell story'

The communicator: Gina London
The communicator: Gina London

The Communicator: Gina London

This week, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu took me by the hand and we danced on stage as the acclaimed Soweto Gospel Choir sang.

That's just one of the many incredible experiences I had in Cape Town, South Africa, where I was to facilitate the awards ceremony for the 2018 International Children's Peace Prize.

If it weren't enough to be the master of ceremonies for such an auspicious occasion, I also had the opportunity - with support from KidsRights Foundation, which launched the peace prize programme 14 years ago - to lead a communications workshop for 10 of the previous winners.

Om Prakash fights child slavery in his native India. Neha started a foundation for orphans when she was just nine years old. Chaeli spotlights abilities in the disabled in South Africa. Mohamad opened a school in the Syrian refugee camp he was living in Jordan. Francia, born without a birth certificate in her Dominican Republic home, works to ensure babies get proper identification. Kesz helps children in slums in the Philippines. Kehkashan, from Afghanistan, crusades for the environment. Thandiwe advocates for education in Zambia. Baruani started a radio station for children by children in the Tanzanian refugee camp he grew up in. What I just wrote is only a list of what they do. Their dramatic stories of 'why' they do it are beyond powerful. Each more poignant than the last.

I also provided presentation coaching to this year's winners: The Parkland student activists who created the international movement to raise awareness for gun violence, 'March for Our Lives'.

Meeting and working with so many determined young change-makers was an incredibly humbling experience to say the least. I am now honoured to share with you some of the reinforcing communications lessons they embody.

1 - Respect your team: Activists Emma Gonzalez and Jaclyn Corin gave the acceptance speech on behalf of the March for Our Lives students. The day before, we sat hunched around a table in the lobby of the Townhouse Hotel in Cape Town examining their proposed presentation content.

I made a few suggestions like making sure they ended with a clear call to action for the audience. But it was the way the two of them respectfully interacted that really touched me. I asked whether they had been friends before the shooting. They had not. And yet, their style of giving and receiving feedback - tweaking the words with precision in an encouraging and uplifting way, was remarkable to behold. How often, in a team project, might we get impatient with someone? Or press our point of view forcefully to the group? Not only did each offer suggestions, but they deliberately asked the other for suggestions too.

2 - Encourage opposing viewpoints: While Emma and Jaclyn may differ on a particular word in a speech, they both agree in their effort to change gun laws in the US.

I was impressed, then, when another of their colleagues, Matt Deitsch, described how they seek out people who completely disagree with them - and engage them. For instance, they had a couple of meetings with a gun-seller. They listened to his perspective and they appealed to him as a dad. They may never agree on everything, but it's an important lesson. What can you learn from an opposing perspective? Open discussion may give you strategic insight or you may even find common ground.

3 - Humanise your stories: Another presenter at the ceremony was artist Manuel Oliver. His son, Joaquin, was one of the 17 students killed at the Parkland shooting. Can you imagine being asked to "help coach" a man like that after what he has gone through?

But Manny, as he asked me to call him, was as resolute as he was courageous - to deliver the most provoking speech he could.

I asked him to read what he had prepared. Together, we struck some of the flat facts about the incident in order to add more personal descriptions of his son and their time together.

The kind of music they listened to, their conversations, their trip to the store the night before the shooting to buy flowers for Joaquin's girlfriend. Flowers he managed to give her on that Valentine's Day - just minutes before the attack.

Adding more emotion through personal storytelling is essential to connect with any audience.

4 -  Less is more: Instead of a speech sprinkled with a dozen points, Manny reduced it to three vivid stories that linked together and illustrated a portrait of a vibrant young man. Pointing to the life-size statue he had brought of his son, Manny stated Joaquin should not be remembered as a victim - but rather as an activist whose life is changing the lives of others.

The impact of his simplified message was staggering. We all rose in applause.

Archbishop Tutu presented the prize and declared, "If you work together, trust each other and build on one another you can move the world." Then he took my hand and we danced.

When you imagine the kind of strength, hope and tenacity that the people I met this week are demonstrating, I hope they motivate you to get moving too.

  • With corporate clients on five continents, Gina London is a premier communications strategy, structure and delivery expert. She is also a media analyst, author, speaker and former CNN anchor. @TheGinaLondon

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