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Be the Good News!

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyFebruary 2022 • February 23, 2022

Boy, do we need some good news. The world is out of sorts. It’s hard to go through a day without feeling glum or concerned for our future. We—music and arts education activists– can change that. We can put a smile on the day with stories of students making music.

We can be the good news. 

Stories as Advocacy
Feel-good stories serve a larger purpose in addition to lifting spirits. They serve as powerful advocacy tools in the advancement of arts learning. Think about your reactions when you see students who are engaged in joyous arts learning activities. Yes, it puts a smile on your face. It also provokes positive emotional responses related to the activity, the student, the program, and by extension the school or organization. 

Positive responses may then be linked to a greater likelihood that the viewer/reader would support your program. Think about the programs that have seen huge spikes in donations after a good news story is aired. Stories can promote visibility, demonstrate value among school administrators, drive audiences to your website and programs, and keep your program “top of mind” for potential donors and sponsors. 

Demonstrating impact through storytelling should be a natural fit for the arts education field. Turns out, though, that we’re not so great at it. Common pitfalls may include bad visuals, little or no context, too wonky (dry and data heavy), too “insider baseball,” or no story arc.

Keep in mind that communications departments at school districts are hungry for the good news. When working at Metro Nashville Public Schools, I would regularly get calls asking if I had any newsworthy stories—for internal newsletters to administrators, for school board briefings, for visiting groups, for the media, etc. Being the go-to good news person for the district communications team is a great way to leverage your opportunities for visibility. 

Teachers play an important role in driving interest through internal and public channels. As the adult who is closest to the student, stories from teachers provide that spark of authenticity. Some teachers have a natural affinity for social media and are brilliant in promoting their programs. Reach out to those digital natives if you need help. A good starting place is with everyday successes that may not be visible in the final work, describing the artistic process in a relatable way. Sample captions: “Breakthrough! Getting those tricky rhythms takes time, listening to each other, repetition, and a good sense of humor.” “Celebrate! Upper classmates welcome band newcomers with new mentoring program.”

Create Compelling Narratives
As a society we have increasingly short attention spans, thanks in part to the digital devices in our pockets. Narratives can still be powerful within the constraints of social media if we sharpen our focus. A strong “emotional hook” will draw audiences into the story. Focus on the surprising (less predictable) moments. A professional photographer once told me he looks for the gesture that comes before or after a posed moment. A gesture that might give emotional insight and draw the viewer in. Audiences want to know what a narrative means and why it’s important, beyond recitation of fact. (Goodman, pp. 28-29.)

As you become the good news ambassador for your program, remember a few ground rules:

  • Connect the activity with the larger mission and ultimate goals.
  • Imagine you are speaking to an audience that is unfamiliar with your field. Avoid jargon and acronyms.
  • Keep the focus on the students.
  • Stay positive. Celebrate accomplishments.
  • Use high quality photos and videos. 
  • Close ups are better than group shots to establish an emotional connection for the viewer. Get permission to post student images.
  • Keep the text brief. Rely on compelling visual images to tell the story. 
  • Regular postings on social media create the buzz of success. 
  • Choose social media platforms carefully. Monitor privacy concerns. 
  • Use ## and links to reach a wider audience.
  • Acknowledge all program partners and donors regularly. Link to their websites/social platforms.
  • Whether you are an arts administrator, educator, nonprofit arts provider, or teaching artist, take the opportunity to preach and reach beyond the choir.  

Be the Good News.

Reference:

Goodman, Andy. Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes: And How to Ensure They Won’t Happen to Yours. Cause Communications, 2006.

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of Laurie Schell Associates | ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise in coalition building, public policy and advocacy, strategic planning, and program development with a focus on arts education.

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