Strategic Communication for Change: An Interview with Nancy White

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Nancy White provides strategic communication, online community development, facilitation, marketing, and project management services for the community, non-profit and business sectors through Full Circle Associates, her Seattle, Washington based consultancy.

Nancy is on the advisory boards for BlogHer, Knowledge in the Public Interest and works with many other organizations. She helped set up and has been a key facilitator of the March of Dimes’ ShareYourStory blog community for parents with children in neonatal Intensive Care Units.

Nancy and I talked about a lot of detailed steps that can be taken to facilitate real-time online group communication. We then discussed larger thematic issues of online “community.” The topic of blogging as a support network for people struggling with medical issues was discussed at length, and is a great example of blogs doing very important human work outside of any technical field.

Nancy also shared some thoughts with me on bringing social change and non profit perspectives into any conversation. Finally, she had a lot of great ideas for how a conference can mix technical and social elements as well as structure and its absence to make sure that participants gain the most from attendance.

It’s a long interview so if you are only going to read part of it and have general interests, I’d recommend sections 4 and 5.

Table of Contents
All illustrations are fromNancy’s Flickr account.

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  1. Chat and IM
  2. Chat 2.0?
  3. The Perils and Potential of Online “Community”
  4. Medical Support Blogging and ShareYourStory
  5. Explicit Communication to Effect Social Change
  6. Conference Thoughts

Chat and IM

....conversation emerges out of banter about IM in Spanish and Portuguese, which neither of us are up for...

Marshall

...but chat is something that you do a lot of, and teach?

Nancy

I use IM a lot, chat some (less than before)

And I do teach facilitation of chat in my workshop

Marshall

eek, what's the difference between chat and IM?

Nancy

Chat as in a group. IM more as 1 to 1 or 3

Chat as scheduled, IM as spontaneous

Chat as in crappy chat rooms, IM as in easier apps

Marshall

interesting. I was going to ask about the pros and cons of the medium.

Nancy

I think it may be not just about the medium, but the purpose of the interaction and the preferences of the participants.

You will quickly notice that I am a person that sees many shades of gray. Few things are black and white! Context rules!

Marshall

When is it appropriate to use chat?

Nancy

I think it might be easier to give some examples where chat has made a difference.

For example, the immediacy of chat and IM can make some people feel more present...like there is really somebody there. It can feel much cooler and isolated in asynchronous communication.

Here [in IM/chat] we have that familiar pace of call/response that is so embedded in our human experience of conversation.

So it is, for some, familiar. That is if you are a fast typist and can read scrolling text on the screen.

For those who can't, it's HELL!

It is good for quick check ins, Q&A and where phone is not possible (cost, etc.). [Chat/IM] gives us that fast medium.

Marshall

So presumably negotiating those differences amongst participants is one of the skills important to facilitating online community?

Nancy

It can be hell in a large group where people go at different paces, threads get mixed and things go too slow for some and too fast for others, so as you move from 1-1 to many to many, there are choices to be made.

Knowing (idea) and sensing (common) what is going on, what people need and what is going on is important.

Some of it is simply good guessing. To be honest.

Marshall

Any kinds of feedback to watch for after guessing other than freaking out on the part of some participants?

Nancy

Start slow and build.

So that may mean starting with some more rigid protocols with large groups, or start with small groups to gain a sense of what is going on.

Then as a group gets a "sense" of itself, only use what you need in terms of control.

The lightest set [of controls] is always my goal.

Marshall

Are there steps that can be taken to deal with inappropriately dominant members of an online community the way it seems face to face can necessitate?

Nancy

I can tell you an interesting chat story if you want, about what we did when someone was quite uncomfortable.

Or I could answer that question.

Marshall

I'm interested in both to be honest.

Nancy
And of course, I presume you mean short of banning them, yes?

Marshall

yes

Nancy

OK, lets start with dominators.

First there are the skills that affect how people show up. Fast readers and typers have an advantage.

People working in their first (vs. 2nd, 3rd, etc.) language often have an advantage, so in chat, they show up more.

SO leaving personal style and intent aside for a minute, we have to think about what to do when we have this skill imbalance.

One is to use chat protocol where people are asked to "raise their hand" and wait to be called on. This is one of those heaven/hell type solutions.

In a way it is way way controlling for those at ease. But it really gives a chance for those without the chat skills. It sort of evens things up. But rarely ideal.

Then there are the stylistic issues. For example, when I work with groups from different cultures, some cultures have a very strong tradition of "socialize first" - so we could spend an hour's chat just "saying hello!

Going back to options about skills.

One is to right up front ask the fast-ies to simply slow down. One trick is to ask them to remove their hands off the keyboard between posts. It is a little "consciousness raising" sort of activity. They often don't realize their fingers are flying so fast. They are working in second nature.

You can do "turn taking around the circle" by using the list of who is in the chatroom as a guide.

Sometimes mid chat I ask everyone to take their hands off the keyboard then I do this.

"OK, now everyone take your hands off the key board and stretch your arms up to the sky...

wiggle your fingers...

take a DEEP breath....

breath....

breath...

breath...

breath...

breath...

Now think about the most (salient, important, interesting, unusual) think you have learned in the past minutes. Lets now focus back on that. Hands back on the keyboard.

Marshall

Oh wow, and people are responsive to that kind of thing?

Nancy

Yes, they are. People don't realize how much tension they hold when deeply engaged in a chat. Physically. Hunched over their keyboards. Tense.

Marshall

tell me about it!

Nancy

Eyes straining. After this sort of break, the chat can become more focused and coherent. People start paying attention in a different way.

That leads to the story.

In an online facilitation workshop we were doing our 2nd chat and one member right off the bat expressed frustration.

He felt there was no listening, no depth. He felt alienated.

One of the other members happened to be a harpist (who plays in hospices for those dying or very sick) and had a great clip on her website.

We all opened another window and went to that site...

Marshall

wow!

Nancy

and started listening to the same piece of soothing music...

and just took it in for a minute or two...

then we came back and had an amazing conversation.

I cite this story when people tell me we can't bring our hearts or spirits into conversation online. We can. But sometimes we need to trigger ourselves in different ways.

Adding other media can do that. It is POWERFUL.

Marshall

that sounds fantastic.

Nancy

Think about how passionate people feel about causes in NPOs and NGOs. We need to be able to use that energy productively online as well as offline. So heart and spirit matters.

It is fantastic. And I think we are just starting ot understand how to open these channels for those who are not not "text naturals."

Marshall

Are those the same types of things you do in an international chat, or are there other useful things you'd like to recommend?

Nancy

In international chat I usually remind people of slowing down, watching jargon, plus using the dot dot dot and GA trick.

I learned this from two fantastic AOL chat mesiters, Sue Boettcher and Eva Shaderowfsky.

GA means go ahead. Here is how it works...

to keep people from having to wait...

too long while you type a long thought...

you break it up with ... (dot dot dot)...

to indicate you are not done....

this way people know not to interrupt...

but you don't keep them waiting too...

and when you are done...

you type GA so they know you are done and they can go. GA

Marshall

...

Nancy

It is making turn taking visible. We know how to watch Face to Face. We don't necessarily have the ability to see that online. So we go a wee bit more explicit.

Chat 2.0?

Marshall

That's great, mind if I ...

ask about this in the context of the changing web?

Nancy

Sure. Say more!

Marshall

Chat has been around a long time, is it changing with Web 2.0 type developments?

Nancy

One example is the use of IRC (internet relay chat for the non geek) that many have been using in combination with other tools.

So for example, a couple of weeks ago John Abbe got a group of folks...

together to start building a wiki around non violent communications techniques...

and he kept an IRC chat channel open for a period of time to support those working on the wiki.

They tested ideas, helped each other on the chat...

and put the content of their work on the wiki. So the wiki was content, chat was negotiation, meaning making and process which disappeared after the content was done.

Now the down side of this is the early adopters are great at using multiple tools, learning new things and creatively figuring out new mixes of tools.

Let me rephrase that. Early adopters with TIME do this.

Marshall

for sure

Nancy

But for most of us mere mortals, the barriers here are high to getting to that creative sweet spot.

It is still more wish than fulfillment.

On the other hand, some second wavers are doing very cool things with IM. The application is easier.

The interface gives them some features that they can get quickly and put to use.

Marshall

Like what?

Nancy

Avatars for that personal touch

File transfer

Now VOIP [Voice Over Internet Protocol, like Skype]

Web cams for those that like live [communication] (not me - I like to work in my jammies!)

Marshall

Have you been using VOIP much?

Nancy

More and more and more. Fast growth

I am working one international project now heavily using scheduled Skype conversations.

Marshall

How does that landscape look in terms of collaborative communication?

Nancy

Talk on the Voip, take notes in the chat is the practice that I and many of my colleagues are using.

I see much more emphasis on synchronous voice than ever before.

I'll admit, I miss some of the reflective asynchronous stuff. In some ways I'm a dinosaur about that.

But I've started incorporating more audio as attachments into my asynch work and people report that they love it.

The Perils and Potential of Online “Community”

Marshall

So I've heard people say that in the changing online landscape "online community" is no longer an applicable concept...

but it sounds like that's not your experience?

Nancy

Ah, now there is a 5 hour conversation.

First, community is a word that we confound all the time, and don't always have a shared meaning. It screws us up over and over again.

Second, the notion of online and offline has become increasingly blurred. So we think about how a community expresses itself online and offline, and less about "online community" per se. That said...

the concept of the power of groups online is bigger than ever.

I'd like to suggest that we carefully use the word community and use other words where appropriate...like network, group, etc.

Few groups online are communities. There's my soapbox!

Marshall

When do you feel comfortable using the word community?

Nancy

Here are my general parameters A defined group of people...

with some shared intent or goal who are together over time.

So that shared goal in a physical neighborhood is living in that neighborhood.

Marshall

And the pitfalls of misapplying the term?

Nancy

1.) romanticizing and thinking we are in a community when we aren't (and get disappointed when people don't act in our model of community)

2.) exploiting people (i.e when a commercial interest says they are building community, when they are only trolling for customers. Be honest. People create communities. It may be around a brand, but they have to create it.)

3.) simply confusing people because they understand the term differently than we do.

Those are my top three at this moment.

For example, look at the phrase "community generated content."

Community is seen as a means of production, not a set of relationships between a group of people with a shared goal.

The community part is just "sound good" stuff. Not real. But communities can produce content.

Marshall
That could disguise anti communal intent if it was seen as just a means of production, or misunderstanding between participants at least.

Nancy
Yes

Exactly.

It's just like the confounding issue of hierarchy vs non hierarchy. It misses the point of context.

We can condemn, for example, anything hierarchical. Or we can say remove all process and let people do what they want. Sometimes that is the perfect set of conditions, but not always. Likewise community has a really important place in the world, but it doesn't answer everything! LOL

Medical Support Blogging and ShareYourStory

Marshall

So you worked on the March of Dimes’ ShareYourStory, correct?

Nancy
Yup, I was on the team and I'm the community host.

Marshall

What does that mean you do?

Nancy

What I do as the community manager is pretty simple.

I read everything that is posted to look out for health issues that need to come to the attention of March of Dimes health staff ...

I look out for people who might be in crisis and make sure they get pointed to resources if another member doesn't do it first. Honestly, the community does most of the work. I'm just there as a safety net.

I help folks with technical issues... fix glitches, teach, etc.

Marshall

That sounds like a pretty involved, skilled position to me!

Nancy

and finally I am the janitor. Move things to the right place, archive old stuff, remove duplicate and "oops" posts.

I guess if you were starting from scratch it would feel that way...

it feels very natural and intuitive to me now. Been doing it a long time!

I also think some people are more "natural" at it than others!

I always advise people to prioritize that natural talent over technical skill. Technical skills can be taught!

Marshall

So the set up and implementation of that...

what sorts of lessons learned did you come across in your involvement with that project that other non profits should know?

Nancy

First, it might be helpful to point to the piece Lee LeFever of CommonCraft and I wrote up about it. Lots of details. Second, and more generally, always take the cue from the community. Build from their strengths, interests and talents.

Don't overbuild at first. Start with a smart but spare skeleton and let things evolve.

Try, get feedback and iterate. This is the beauty of the net... it is mutable. Think of it as digital play doh.

Also http://www.fullcirc.com/weblog/2005/11/share-birth-of-march-of-dimes-onl...

There is a delicious tag for shareyourstory with lots of other posts Lee and I did during the redesign phase. Little things and I think little things matter.

Marshall

Have there been positive things that emerged there that you didn't foresee?

Nancy

Biggest thing - people took to blogs far faster and easier than I would have predicted. I'm happy to have been proved wrong.

Marshall

Even non technical people?

Nancy

In this case - the context of families with babies in the Neonatal ICU - I think the plan to simplify the blogging interface was important.

Marshall

How was it simplified?

Nancy

I also suspect (no analysis data to prove) that the beautiful design by Susan Lyons of the March of Dimes just sucked people in. It felt like home.

We took out a lot of the stuff that was in the app we are using.

Fewer choices.

Rearranged the buttons to be similar enough to the discussion forums they were already familiar with, but different enough to tell the difference.

Marshall

What app was it?

Nancy

WebCrossing http//www.webcrossing.com - hosted ASP

I was worried people would not distinguish what goes where with the blogs and forums.

Nancy

We did a lot of thinking and ASKING in the community to consider the question of "what goes where."

What I find most interesting is that some of the members, who started out with few technical skills, were interested in learning HTML. So we taught them a few things and they just played with it in a very creative, generative way. Others choose to ignore it.

The interface is such that there is less emphasis on formatting.

They love the inline pictures. We had to build a widget though, to resize pictures as this particular community did not have photo resizing skills and ... as you might imagine... giant pictures can be problematic.

More General Thoughts on Blogging for Support Around Medical Issues

Marshall

So blogging is a candle and a mirror?

Nancy

Haha

You saw that, eh? [Video of Nancy explaining what blogging is to her.]

Yes, I still very much believe what I said in that video. And this is not what I expected when I started blogging.

I thought it was all about the candle - showing my light to the world. All about me , me, me

But it can very much be about others or about us, the collective.

It can be about ego, it can be about content, it can be about spirit, heck it can be about love and hate. Everything that is human.

Marshall

We've been following some cancer survivor blogs at Net Squared, it seems that community support around medical issues...

Nancy

HUGE

Marshall

is a good way that blogging and the web can be of use.

Nancy

The testimonials people post on Share blow me away.

Marshall

A recent Pew study put that as one of the top social uses in fact.

Nancy

When there is something compelling to draw us together as human beings, regardless of the environment, magic happens.

Makes total sense in my experience, Marshall. When I worked in public health, I saw the magic of parent support groups for families dealing with FAS.

They were figuring out email lists before most parents, by far, because they could connect with someone who truly understood what they were experiencing.

Not just intellectually, but in every sense. That matters. A helluva lot.

Marshall

That's fantastic, given the circumstances.

Nancy

http//www.technorati.com/tag/shareyourstory Yup. I know it sounds really sappy, but as humans, we need each other.

Explicit Communication to Effect Social Change

Marshall

So you seem to bring npo/ngo and social change perspectives into contexts outside of where they usually live.

Nancy

Always

Because they are present everywhere, even if we are not paying attention to them.

Marshall

Any advice for us newbies in trying to do that?

Nancy

And our role as a very privileged set of people must stay in sight.

Ask questions.

Don't be afraid to look stupid and unknowing. Unknowingness is a prerequisite for knowledge.

Take yourself and the issues seriously, but not TOO seriously. That scares the &%($# out of people.

Break things down into smaller question bites if the big question is too big for the moment.

A small piece of dark chocolate goes a long way

Balance your ego and passion with humility. All are needed, but sometimes us bleeding heart do gooders are our own worst enemy. Finding a common language to talk with others is important.

Marshall

Especially in the kind of context we've been discussing, how can we draw the line between being allies and co-opting the voices of others?

Nancy

REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTION.

In fact, one that I struggle with. As I get older, sometimes I wonder if the world "help" is actually a very big trap.

So I think by helping make things discussable, by convening, holding space for exploration, we can avoid assuming we know what is best, speaking for others where they did not ask to be spoken for, and assuming that anyone WANTS our help.

So maybe here we are more mirrors than candles, eh?

Reflecting what we see and see if others see the same thing. Then figure out what's next.

Dang, that sounds preachy!

Marshall

And I need more specifics!

ok, so...

how can we balance avoiding "speaking for others where they did not ask to be spoken for, and assuming that anyone WANTS our help" on one hand and the general calls that get made for the privileged to speak out?

Nancy

Are you familiar with Open Space as a practice?

Marshall

No.

Nancy

The concept is powerful. We open the space, convene those who want to be there, and hold the space so that everyone who wants to speak can. But what happens is up to everyone in the room, not the convener.

This idea of convening and holding space, not designing what others will do, feels very powerful to me.

So that means the invitation has to go beyond the privileged and our familiar circles.

We need to not only tap into our networks, but the networks of our networks until we reach the outer edges where we ourselves rarely/never go.

And bring that edge into the circle.

The periphery , as a concept, is very potent. Lots happens there.

Conference Thoughts

Marshall

Right on. Can I ask you about conferency matters?

Nancy

sure

Marshall

Net Squared is all about bringing tech companies, early adopters and non profits together to support the work of the non profits, ultimately, but I also believe it's important for the npos to influence the patterns of tool development and philanthropy. I think everyone does.

So the whole thing is working up to a conference in SF in May and we're trying to provide as much value as possible via the site and blog in the meantime.

Part of what I'm asking interviewees though is about conference ideas. What sorts of things could you imagine as being helpful, vital or inspiring at a conference like that? or, if you prefer to share thoughts on conferences generally that's ok too

Nancy

Well, I'll start with a general comment. I think it is useful to distinguish between conference as 1. content delivery mechanism, 2. conference as networking and finally, 3. conference as a place for meaning making, work and creating shared outcomes.

Most conferences focus on #1

Most attendees focus on #2

Few do #3 and I wonder about that. Mostly I think it is about moving away from the idea of expertise via presentation and into open spaces where people can find each other and work on shared interest/goals

I think there is a place for all three.

But I think we over rely on #1

If you look at how humans learn, #1 is not a strong leader!

I'd ask, how can you convene and open space for the conference attendees to create an experience where they connect with others and do something together that matters to them?

I mean, what if you took the radical step and had one or two key notes each day, maybe one break out presentation track, then the rest of the time was a giant open space.

(see http//www.openspaceworld.org)

I think you would light a giant, productive fire

The challenge is, this freaks some people out

Until you've experienced a great open space, it can sound wacky.

And people are reluctant to pay a registration fee as they don't quite grok that everyone can have a significant contribution as a a giver or recipient

Open Space. World Cafes (could be great and you have Juanita Brown in the Bay Area.)

Identify what content is best delivered in a presentation or panel and what is best negotiated in small groups. Design accordingly.

Do VERY few full group presentations.

Don't have a single keynote who's presentation is just as effective in a podcast or written piece. Use that time as almost sacred for people who bring that spirit of passion and mobilization, not just content.

Do an appreciative inquiry event - oh that would be really cool

Marshall

Do you think that presentations on various particular tools, like "a quick intro to RSS" or however they were set up, could work?

Nancy

Why not have a RSS booth in a hands on tech fair where people walked around and someone SHOWED them then they tried it.

Think of a giant room with many booths, each with a tool or technique.

Marshall

that's awesome!

Nancy

Newbies with pros

Hands on

People could then give feedback and the next demo would be even better.

By the end of the day;, the newbies could be giving the demos

Marshall

That is a really neat idea Nancy.

Nancy

Do a giant paper wiki with all the learnings... to visualize the power.

Have volunteers putting it into a real wiki, real time

Project the wiki

Compare the paper and projection and people instantly get what a wiki can be. They've touched the paper then seen it into electrons Have areas where people practice online interactions with different tools.

Have areas where people can have linux installed on their laptops by experienced folks

We are doing a project where we are sending a pen drive preloaded with Open Source apps and firefox along with the online course curriculum.

(In the 2/3rds world with poor connectivity, few people own their own computer.)

Have members of Shareyour story from the bay area teach blogging!

Not the geeks!

Marshall

now that is a good idea

Nancy

Have people share war stories on starting their blogs - what they did wrong as well as right. Give a prize to the best blooper, then dig into what it means for practice.

Use story circles where people sit down for 5 minutes and share a story, extract a learning then feed it into the conference hive mind (wiki, tag, whatever)

Constantly highlight the collective and individual experiences and wisdom

(as you can see, I have no shortage of weird ideas)

Can you spell INSOMNIAC?

Marshall

well I sure can't thank you enough for all of this

and for all the work you do

Nancy

Thank YOU!

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