In this age of ever-shifting algorithmic allegiances, it can feel as though the same social platforms introduced as tools for improving communication and connectivity can drive us further apart. While communicators constantly swap platform-specific tips and tricks for maximizing their brand's social reach, many of us forget to apply the real-world skills that connect us to the people in our non-digital lives.
In her upcoming book, "Purposeful: Are You a Manager or a Movement Starter?," Jennifer Dulski, the head of Groups and Community at Facebook and former president and COO of Change.org, explains why and how real-life skills can make a difference in the digital space. For entrepreneurs, activists and communicators alike, "Purposeful" discusses how inspiring your followers, persuading decision makers and navigating criticism can actually help articulate, rather than muddy, one's goals and plan of action.
"We sometimes talk about the fact that a lot is changing in our world," says Dulski, who will be the keynote speaker at PR News' Social Media Awards luncheon on May 23 in New York. "But there are also some things that really don't change—human nature, the desire for connection, the desire to make change and make the world better. Technology just makes them easier."
On the heels of Facebook's F8 developer conference, we spoke with Dulski about the benefits of facing one's fears and showing vulnerability in your communications, and the magic that happens when communicators use both data and storytelling to build a movement.
PR News: There’s a section early on in "Purposeful" where you explain how reciting a personal acronym helped you overcome your fears. What advice would you give to those people whose fears render them unable to communicate their vision effectively?
Jennifer Dulski: IICDTICDA (if I can do this, I can do anything)—this unruly acronym I share in the book—is not an acronym so much as a philosophy about doing things that scare you so that other things can seem less scary. It's not about being fearless, it's about finding ways to overcome the fear. Sometimes starting small is the key thing, and one way to start small in overcoming your fear is to take things you're afraid of and try them, even if they are also small.
An example I didn't include in the book: I used to be afraid of flying. So when I was in college, I went up in one of those gliders, which seemed insane once I got into it. The idea that I could be in a plane that didn't have an engine that somehow still lands really helped me get over that fear. So this idea of starting small also applies to overcoming fear and starting movements.
The book talks a lot about that, and my favorite metaphor for that is the idea of the "standing ovation," where it takes a single person to stand up and clap. Sometimes that can be a scary thing, too, to be the one standing up while everyone else is sitting. And then a few more people stand up, then suddenly everyone else is standing. A small action of a single individual can influence the actions of others.
"The key to this is that you start from the end result that you want and work backwards to the necessary preconditions of that outcome."
PR News: You also write about constructing a "Theory of Change." Can you summarize this concept? Any general advice for how social-savvy folks can brainstorm their own personal TOC?
Jennifer Dulski: The simplest definition of the Theory of Change is that it is a hypothesis of the steps that will lead to your desired outcome. Think of it as "A+B+C=D." The key to it is that you start from the end result that you want and work backwards to the necessary preconditions of that outcome.
We did this at Change.org, and I do this on my team at Facebook. Anyone who has an outcome that they want to achieve can start with the end in mind, and then think about what needs to happen in order to influence the people and the processes that you need to change in order to influence that outcome.
If you take a petition on Change.org as an example, in order to create the change you want, some of the steps you have to take [include] understanding who is making that change, how you frame a request to them that will be answerable by them—something they have the power to change—and also who or what may influence them. One of the things that people forget sometimes is that when you want to create change, it's helpful to understand the motivations of the people or institutions that have the power to make the change you want.
"One of the things that we were trying to do was understand people's sense of their own agency. The goal was to empower people everywhere to create change, and that means people have to believe they can."
That's really powerful for movement starters. I tell some stories later in the book about how, earlier in my own career when I was trying to influence people and I didn't really understand what it was like to walk in their shoes, I wasn't as perceptive at persuading them as I was once I understood that better.
PR News: Maybe the reverse engineering approach answers some of this, but I wonder how our audience can we construct their specific Theories of Change to accommodate shifting metrics/measurement goals.
Jennifer Dulski: If you start with the Theory of Change, you essentially get a formula that you're trying to move, and then ways that you move it—the tactics, the metrics—can change. I give an example in the book about trying to understand the impact of Change.org, and one of the things that we were trying to do was understand people's sense of their own agency. The goal was to empower people everywhere to create change, and that means people have to believe they can.
We weren't quite sure how to measure it, but we knew what we wanted to achieve, and we took a few different approaches until we landed on something that we thought worked. It makes sense to not get too hung up on the specific metrics, but rather on the vision that you're trying to achieve, and then be flexible about the way you're measuring that.
"Business people tend to use a lot more data, activists/social organizers tend to use a lot more storytelling, and I think your audience sits at the crossroads of those two things. Leveraging them both is really the magic here."
The other thing that's interesting for your audience as part of the Theory of Change is that step about influencing people. So much of it ends up being about really great storytelling, and I think there's a thread through the book I call "leadership thread," which is the idea that both activists and entrepreneurs have many of the same skills it takes to start movements.
I do think, at the same time, there are some skills that they can learn from each other. Businesspeople tend to use a lot more data, activists/social organizers tend to use a lot more storytelling, and your audience sits at the crossroads of those two things. Leveraging them both is really the magic here.
PR News: The Parkland survivors seemed to accomplish something similar, combining their data and storytelling acumen to realize their vision.
Jennifer Dulski: Exactly. They are illustrating almost every tip I give in the book. They are perfect examples. They're vulnerable, they're telling their own stories, they're inspiring supporters, they're handling criticism beautifully, all of those things.
PR News: Your words on the power of vulnerability are almost contrary to some old ideas about the importance of keeping up appearances. If you go into a job interview or a first meeting, vulnerability is traditionally understood as weakness, but when you can communicate vulnerably about something you're deeply engaged in, it shows your audience that you can be emotionally present with it.
Jennifer Dulski: That's right. It also makes people much more eager to rally behind you if you're willing to share your own story.
PR News: Toward the end of the book, you emphasize the importance of surrounding yourself with people who can hold you accountable, which may be easier said than done for some folks. What obstacles do you think might prevent professional communicators from practicing accountability?
Jennifer Dulski: It's generally fear of failure, and fear of disappointing people, that causes us not to share those goals with others and find people who can hold us accountable. My view is that, first, if people actually understood the research that says the simple act of sharing your goals with someone else makes you more likely to achieve them, they might be more likely to do that. We've seen it everywhere from quitting smoking to losing weight.
The other thing I talk about is this concept that even the best athletes in the world have coaches. We want to be better at what we do. The best way to do that is [to] find people who can give us feedback and make us better. That also holds us accountable. Imagine if you were Steph Curry or Michael Jordan or Serena Williams, and you thought you could do this without a coach. You wouldn't be nearly as good. Those coaches help them do better, and hold them accountable, when they aren't doing as well as they could be.
"Purposeful" will be published on May 22 by Portfolio/Penguin.
Follow Justin: @Joffaloff