In the November 1 First Monday Forum, representatives of Global Ties U.S. gave a fascinating talk about building constituencies for public diplomacy in their communities with business representatives, politicians, and with those who meet with our visitors. And it got me thinking of the role we can play in our own communities.
We can all help to build constituencies. Through our experiences both at home and overseas we have the best stories and that is exactly what people want to hear.
Since retiring I have done public speaking about the Foreign Service and I quickly learned that the experiences that we are able to tell about “Soft Power and Public Diplomacy” are exactly the stories that resonate the most with the widest range of people.
This story is the one which I think has had the biggest impact on the people who hear it:
It started out as a normal opening for a group of African religious leaders who were on an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). As usual, we went around the table asking the participants what they hoped to get from the program, but when we got to an Imam, his body language showed resistance and he stated “I preach against your country in my mosque.” A bit of a chill ran through the room. Any other government agency might not have let him into the country let alone spend money on a three-week program. However, this is exactly the kind of person we welcome. He was open-minded enough to agree to the trip while others in his country tried to persuade him not to come. He was uneasy at the opening, but we later learned that he wanted to come and see for himself what America was like.
Three weeks later our program officer held a closing at the last stop of his trip and once again we went around the table to learn what they had gotten out of the program. Our Imam said: “I was wrong. I am going back to my mosque and tell them that Americans are wonderful people.” He was true to his word. He toured mosques around his country. I later learned that he had gone on television with the US Ambassador to condemn the attack on the American Consulate at Benghazi.
I told this same story in October when I spoke to a group of 150 Road Scholars (formerly Elder Hostel) at the Chautauqua Institute. I told them that at the time of his trip we spent about $10,000 on the Imam’s program. Was that worth it?” I asked them. They unanimously and wholeheartedly agreed that it was.
When I was teaching at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) I was surprised to learn that the average attention span of an adult was 4 minutes. So how can you keep their attention for longer than that? Think of speakers you have heard. I bet the speakers that kept your attention the longest were people who could tell a good story. Many of us will forget the details of a speech, but we can really relate to stories about people. Another technique to remember in keeping an audience awake is to ask them questions and draw them out on their own experiences. Many of them have interesting stories of their own to relate to life overseas and interaction with diverse populations.
I usually start my sessions talking about building relationships and connect it to foreign policy. In every walk of life, we have to build relationships in order to get things done. And once you have that relationship you can start the negotiations. But first, you have to find the common ground and in finding common ground you begin to build trust.
Many years ago I read an autobiography by former Senator George Mitchell in which he related that his first step as Special Envoy in the Northern Ireland Peace Process was to bring both sides together over dinner. They were told they could not talk about politics or religion. They could talk about anything else, but not about the two topics that had divided them for decades. Mitchell credits that dinner with laying the groundwork for the negotiations that followed.
Why was it so successful? Because they no longer saw the opponents as “the other”. They started to see them as human beings who were not so different from themselves.
These are concepts to which average Americans can relate. It happens in all of our lives. It happens in our communities and it is the basis of diplomacy in general and the aims of our soft power efforts in particular.
The same aspects of soft power that appeal to foreign audiences also capture the imagination of domestic audiences.
When deploying Soft Power overseas you often don’t need language or education to experience how sports can unite people. Remember Ping Pong Diplomacy? Americans can relate to how jazz was able to penetrate the iron curtain and how performances of dance and music do not require language, are not controversial, and can make friends for America regardless of age or background.
Another favorite story relates to the experiences of a Washington DC-based Dance Company called Company E: Our Embassy in one country found it difficult to bring in American speakers and to engage in exchange programs due to opposition in the host country. The Embassy decided that arts programming was a way to reach an audience outside of the Capitol and to reach a young audience. Company E went into a region of the country that rarely saw Americans and worked with a local dance company to put together a dance workshop for young people. On the first day of the workshop, 200 plus young people were waiting outside the door. They were all accommodated and the local community was invited to watch the final performance. The dance company ended up with 200 more Facebook friends and a lot more friends for America.
So what are your stories? And to whom can you explain the importance of our work?
Organizations in your community are always hungry for speakers especially now that we can meet in person again. We have an exciting new opportunity to meet face to face and the energy that this generates is so gratifying and so powerful. Think about the connections you have in your community… schools, seniors groups, local clubs, and organizations.
And as to your stories ….well you know best what would grab the attention of others and highlight the good work that is being done on behalf of our country. You have probably told these stories many times before to friends, families, and colleagues.
You all have had amazing experiences in your lives, have a lot of great stories to tell and in sharing these stories in our communities we are building constituencies to support our efforts to make the world a better place through soft power.