“Back up and walk through again.”
said the oddly nice security guard at the City Council building as I attempted to make it through security.
“It’s your belt, take it off.”
I took off my belt and nervously made it through security. I was onward and upwards to the city councilman’s office to talk to Councilman Zach Adamson about how he uses storytelling to engage and start conversations with his constituents. How he raises awareness of the concerns and problems that the inhabitants of District 17 in Indianapolis face every day.
Liberal and conservative politicians all have one thing in common, their ability to produce a narrative. These strong, compelling stories that evoke emotion, these stories that clearly communicate and convey their way of bringing change. Much like in marketing, the better you can communicate to your target audience the better you are at your job.
Politicians using narrative as a tool isn’t news, though, what I am interested in, is the story of how the sausage gets made. What is the thinking that goes behind creating these narratives that drive so much of the campaigning and marketing behind a political message. How do you put together a strategy to not only fix the issues your constituents face but help them understand those issues in the first place.
To do that I interviewed Zach Adamson on how his background and understanding of storytelling has helped him confront issues like stopping the millions of pounds of toxic emissions being expelled from the city by the Harding St. Coal Plant. And current issues like saving the 300-500-year-old Crown Hill old growth forest.
What do you do, in other words, why I am here?
I am the City-County Councilor for District 17; we just won reelection in Nov. Started a new term this January, and unless there are challenges, we reaffirmed positions at the beginning of the year.
You were first elected in 2011, and recently just finished campaigning again, how did you use storytelling during those campaigns?
During the campaign process, your goal is to identify with voters on a number of levels. Could be personally, or it could be just to get an idea across about priorities, When I ran in 2011, it was for the entire county, so it was 400 SQ miles. You rely on storytelling to relate to issues that you learn in say Center Townships talking to voters there. Then you go into an area that is more affluent like Washington Townships, and you’re talking to voters there. So storytelling becomes a useful way to convey issues or problems that they may not relate to right away.
And at the end of the day, you want people to realize that their point of view is not the only point of view out there, you want to broaden perspectives.
Brandon – Yea at the very least I’m trying to get the things I write to make people think about what they believe.
My day job, the job that pays my bills is being a hairdresser, so I sit and listen to people all day every day. So my ability to communicate to a variety of people I had long before this job.
When I was running for office, it was one of the things; I was running against a lot of people with a lot of initials after their names. A lot of big college graduates with titles, I never graduated from college, so I didn’t have those initials after my name. I cut hair for a living, so I had to figure out to market that as something that would resonate with people. I had to figure out to do that with people living in Washington townships, and Franklin townships, or Wayne or Warren.
What I came up with is who in this town knows more about what’s going on than your hairdresser. Nobody, because I sit and listen to people all day long, eight hours a day. That’s all I do is listen to people’s perspectives on what’s going on since I last saw you, what’s going on in you the world. So when somebody tells me a story, I’m able to relate to it, because I’ve probably heard a similar story before. I’m able to feed back to people from their perspective
Are there particular types of stories that you enjoy telling, or hearing from the voters?
It’s different, because once you are actually on the council, you have to do a lot more varied communication. You are not only communicating with people who were your voters but now your constituents, but you have to present points of view that they may not share among other constituents.
You are also representing the perspective of the elected officials and a fiscal agent. Which is often is very parental, it’s not a fun place to be all the time. The challenge is, which is learned over time, I don’t think anybody comes to the city council with this skill, is to take a child like look at things. To be able to explain the realities, the fiscal realities, like a parent, would to a child.
You have to realize that you don’t always have the resources you had the day before. That if you want to spend happy in one situation, you have less for another situation. Storytelling is often useful when trying to explain things in the simplest forms.
“Storytelling is often useful when trying to explain things in the simplest forms.”
Brandon – Yea, it seems like you enjoy using a lot of metaphors and analogies in your approach.
For sure, especially when you think people aren’t going to get it, and I’m not talking about people because they are simple minded, but because if it’s not something they want to hear. They are resistant to processing, so it has to come down to a very simple level to get people to understand your perspective.
It’s not always pretty, it may be a simple idea, but never easy, and we may all leave bloody from these stories as politicians.
(As the councilman laughs)
What are some current or past topics going on in the city that you have used storytelling to convey a message?
Brandon – Like with the fight to preserve the crown hill old growth forest, I feel like a tide has turned due to the type of coverage it has received.
It has, it was a process with not just storytelling but with the visuals. Your goal here, especially with issues like this, is to create an emotional response. That often that comes from imagery, whether that’s an actual image, or creating one with stories.
One of the things that got me involved with this issue was the notion that there were trees in that area when the pilgrims landed. That Native Americans have been walking among these trees for 500 years. I try to get people to have this visualization in their head, and that involves a great deal of storytelling.
And nobody that I’ve talked to about this has said “ oh well that’s not important” once you start presenting this visual they are immediately like “ oh we have to save this forest right now, what can I do to help.”
Are there certain tactics to getting your ideas and messages across to your constituents that you enjoy using more than others?
Well, I do more social media, I’m just a social media hound. I was talking to somebody recently that I need to pull back a little bit. But it’s my main way of communicating with people. My concern is that it has become so volatile, while I’m not without my volatility, I could do better at smoothing things over on social media. I insist on things being true, if you are going to make things up, I can leave it alone.
But as an elected official I don’t surrender my personality or my right to fire off an opinion as any whacko on the street. I don’t surrender that, you can’t have a government of, by and for the people if we have to better than everybody else. It irritates me that politicians are held to an unattainable standard that is bizarre and impossible.
“you can’t have a government of, by and for the people if we have to better than everybody else.”
Brandon – Whenever I find myself in those debates on Facebook, I try not to go into it looking to change people’s minds but to make them question their assumptions.
Yes, to be critical, if you have a well thought out reasons for why you believe a certain thing, we may disagree, and that’s that. But I will pound you if you can not back it up. At some point though you just have to be able to carry on a conversation with somebody that doesn’t think like you.
How do you feel about the use of storytelling to create fictional stories to spread an ideology or message.
It’s something you see politicians do on a regular basis. This storytelling is something that is a very effective means of communicating during campaigning. It’s the art of telling a story of someone you “met” while campaigning. Everybody does it, well Trump doesn’t, but Hillary does it, Bernie did it, Mitt Romney did it, George Bush would do it, I mean everybody that is a normal person does it.
Another way we have to tell stories is in the actual act of governing. This is when you are communicating with other elected officials, and you are trying to get maybe to a vote, to conclude a vote, and you need to convince somebody of a particular perspective. You have to ensure that the perspective you are trying to represent is conveyed to that person. At the same time, you got to be able to do it in a way that takes consideration for the other person’s perspective in consideration.
Brandon – Yea we do the same in marketing where we know our customer’s pain points, so we make sure to craft messaging and speak to them with empathy on those points. Yep, So there is a lot of storytelling, or rather story trading that goes on
“there is a lot of storytelling or rather story trading that goes on.”
Have you heard or told any powerful stories recently?
Last term I had two big issues that I was able to maneuver successfully on because I was able to illustrate the situation fully.
One was the Harding Street plant with coal burning. And just as bad as the mercury trail that leads out from the smoke stacks. They just go right across the city in the poorest parts of town.
Which is already inundated with the lead, and the highest density of food deserts. So you have mercury which is brain development inhibitor, lead a brain development inhibitor, and food deserts or food scarcity which is a brain development inhibitor.
Then you overlay those with your poverty maps. So the areas that were most devastated by the pollution coming out of the smokestacks were the areas that were already suffering from compounding effects of poverty, lead, and other environmental toxins. Being able to illustrate this by telling a story of an underprivileged child living in that area. A child that plays in the dirt that is full of lead, and full of mercury A child that doesn’t have enough to eat.
Brandon – I feel like you could tell that story to just about anybody and they would at the least have a context to what somebody else’s struggle is.
That’s the other thing with the mercury maps, when you burn coal it produces large particulates in the air. Often when we don’t have enough breeze through the city, and it’s hot enough it creates a dome over the city from the asphalt and concrete. You get the compounding of the sun and the large particulates; you end up with no zone days. We have a lot of no zone days, a lot of that has to do with large particulates. You can look at the map of emergency room visits for breathing disorders, and they follow the same path as the smoke coming out of the smokestacks.
Now that we got them to stop burning coal, we’re dealing with coal ash. Which is the residue from scrubbing the coal smoke. They take that sludge and put it in lagoons that surround the coal plants. Now that they aren’t burning coal anymore they want to retire these ponds. Some people are drying it out and digging it up and taking it to a landfill that is lined. Or at least they trenched around it or lined the ponds, so it doesn’t get into the ground water.
In Indy what they are doing is just drying it out and putting a cover over it. And it’s right next to the river, so as soon as it rains the water level in the ground comes up and rewets all of the sludge. Then when the water level goes back down, it takes with it all of the poisons and toxins that are in the coal sludge with it.
And that is our next fight!
Do you find there is a lot of segmentation with your stories?
Oh absolutely, there has to be because nobody resonates with the same issues. There are some people you can tell a really horrible gut wrenching stories too, and they are just like no, low taxes are all that I want.
Brandon – the same idea for us, we segment everything as much as we can
Yes, target, target, target, you have to have an audience, who is your audience, and what do they want. As narrow as you can make it for as broad a target audience you can find. The more you can do that more successful you will be. That requires you be able to articulate multiple perspectives. And not all of my colleagues can do that.
I think if there is a common or overarching message you could put on a t-shirt it’s that to be a good storyteller, you have to be a good story listener.