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I Have a Dream: The Art and Science of Aspirational Communication

Resource Center - Foundation

Doug Hattaway is President of Hattaway Communications, Inc., a strategic communications firm that helps visionary leaders and organizations achieve ambitious goals that help people and the planet. On September 11, Doug will speak about the “Art and Science of Aspirational Narrative” at the 2013 Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford University.

Last week, Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event most of us remember as the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

More than 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial that day, and many—stirred by his words and the hopeful energy of that incredible gathering—went on to put their lives and livelihoods on the line to fight the evils of segregation and discrimination. The heroic efforts of people in the civil rights movement changed hearts and minds in Washington and across the country, leading to the enactment of major civil rights laws—and a sea change in American society.

Dr. King was a brave and visionary man. And, without a doubt, one of the most successful movement leaders in our history. Why? Because he inspired people. His words and deeds moved people to take courageous action, even in the face of brutal opposition.

Successful nonprofit leaders know that achieving meaningful goals requires motivating and mobilizing people. Effective communication tops the job description for any leader, whether in the nonprofit sector, philanthropy, politics or business. But few professionals have Dr. King’s unique gift for evocative language and inspirational leadership.

Fortunately, we can learn to motivate and mobilize people. The science of motivational psychology and the art of narrative offer useful theories and tools to evaluate and emulate the power of Dr. King’s appeal.

Influence Motivation

First and foremost, Dr. King inspired people by offering them hope—painting a vision of a better future that could be theirs, if they strived for it. Psychological studies of motivational communication suggest that, in order to be motivated for a cause, people must imagine a meaningful goal and understand the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving it. 

Beginning with its very title, the “I Have a Dream” speech is all about aspirations. Line after line paints a vivid picture of a bright future—not just an end to legal discrimination, but an era of racial harmony: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

A sentence-by-sentence analysis of the speech shows that aspirational and emotional language accounted for 80 percent of its content. Less than 5 percent touched on specific policies or programs to address issues such as segregation, discrimination and police brutality. 

This comes as little surprise to psychologists who study the workings of the human brain. Emotion works with cognition to help with attention, retention and motivation. If our communications do not create emotional reactions, people are less likely to notice them, much less remember them or be moved to action. To inspire people, you must speak to both their hearts and their heads.

Fundraisers: Give Hope 

Aspirations are similarly powerful. People’s decisions and behavior are strongly influenced by desires they hold for their future. Hope gets people out of bed in the morning and keeps them going, even in the toughest of times—and when their promised land seems a long way off.

According to one of the most influential psychological theories of motivation, people’s aspirations tend to fall on a “hierarchy of needs.” At the bottom are the basics of life, such as food and shelter, safety and security. When those needs are met, people are motivated to achieve higher ends—love and belonging; self-esteem and the respect of others, such as that obtained through personal achievement; and a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

As a nonprofit leader, you need to understand the aspirations people hold in connection with your cause. 

The same goes for political leaders. I worked with more than 50 members of the United States Senate aiming to shore up public support for Social Security. Many of them described the program as a “safety net” for seniors.

That’s not aspirational. Think for a moment about your golden years: Do you aspire to be caught in a government safety net? In fact, public opinion research about people’s hopes for retirement shows that most want to travel and do things they never had time to do in their working years. 

Once they understood the power of aspirational communication, the Senators began to talk about Social Security the way most voters see it—as a benefit they earned through a lifetime of work, not a handout from Uncle Sam. 

Strike An Emotional Chord 

An aspirational approach to communication helped transform one of the nonprofit world’s latest success stories, the Human Rights Campaign, which works to advance equal rights for gay and lesbian people.

I worked at HRC in the mid-90s, when its budget and membership were small, and its agenda was considered radioactive in national politics. The organization began as a behind-the-scenes lobbying shop, focused on giving money to politicians to win a voice at the table. With new leadership that invested time and resources to understand the aspirations of its audience, HRC embraced an inspiring mission to advance full equality for LGBT Americans “at home, at work and in the community.” Its new symbol, an equal sign, became an icon for the entire LGBT movement.

With a smart message and savvy marketing, the organization grew from about 100,000 members then to nearly two million today. Annual revenues grew from about $8 million to $38 million. And its agenda is now supported by a fast-growing majority of Americans.

Results like these make me a passionate advocate for aspirational communication. When you understand the aspirations of your audience, you can craft a vision that is true to their hopes and values. (Note the word vision is used literally: Through words and images, we create an image of the future people can actually see in their mind’s eye.) Defining a hopeful vision is a powerful tool for motivation and leadership. 

That’s what “I Have a Dream” did for the civil rights movement. You can do the same for your cause. What do you want to say? 

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