A Lesson on Communicating from Hurricane Sandy

Carey Nieuwhof, a pastor in Canada, fantastic communicator and leader and Preaching Rocket member, posted some thoughts on his blog about communicating.  We can’t say it better than Carey, so with his permission, here is the complete post.  

I don’t like the line of thinking attached to this post. For sure it falls in the ‘true but not admirable’ category.  Yet I have this thought every time a natural disaster strikes.

So here goes.

If you’re like me, you’re checking the news frequently about Hurricane Sandy.  I’ve been texting and messaging friends who might be impacted by it to see if they’re okay.  It hits close to home.

The media coverage is constant, front page and urgent. So is my interest in it.

Question: why?

Well, we’re in North America.  And this disaster is going to strike in…North America.  The closer something hits home, the more interested we are.

Why is that?

While this is likely somehow related to our innate selfishness, I think the following thought captures the dynamic:

When you’re in the story, you care about the story.

Sadly, I don’t have the same level of engagement when disaster strikes elsewhere.

For example can any of us actually name the some of the worst natural disasters in the last ten years?  Hurricane Katrina with 1,300 dead? For sure. The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 in which 225,000 perished?  Yes. What about the European Heatwave of a decade ago? Maybe. 70,000 total died in it.

But do you remember Cyclone Nargis that killed 140,000 people in Myanmar (Burma) in 2008?  Afraid I don’t.  Or the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake in China that killed 84,000 people?  Me neither.

How is that 1,500 people die in a tragedy in New Orleans and it’s top of mind, but almost a quarter million people die in China and Myanmar and I can’t even remember?

Again, this isn’t admirable, but for most of us, it is true. Fire trucks on the scene of a blaze in South American are almost irrelevant to most of us, unless the fire they’re fighting is in a dorm room where your daughter is staying on a mission trip. Then all of a sudden it is very relevant.

When you’re in the story, you care about the story.

The problem for preachers and those of us who communicate is that we’re often trying to get people to care about things that are far from their minds or hearts. We are trying to get them connected with a God who seems far away (even if he isn’t), and connected to causes half way across town or half way around the world.  How do you bridge that gap?

You start by finding common ground (this is a great Preaching Rocket principle). As a communicator, you can establish common ground in several ways when trying to rally people around a cause far removed from their immediate world:

  • Tell a personal story about a time when you faced a crisis and someone helped you out.
  • Encourage people to remember a time when they were in deep need and someone helped them out.
  • Talk about a similar (but smaller scale) event that happened in their life time or neighbourhood.
  • If you have no story like it, try putting people into the story as through their imagination:
    • Imagine a wall of water that came out of Lake Simcoe (insert community here) and wiped out the cities of Barrie, Orillia, and five neighbouring townships leaving 100,000 dead.  What would you do? How would you respond?
    • Imagine someone came to your home and took your daughter from her bedroom while she was sleeping…
    • Imagine that you were away from home, helpless to get back, and you knew your family was in the path of a tornado you were helpless to prevent…

Like you, I’m praying for the people in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  And as a Christ follower, I will remind myself to pray more for people I’ll never meet whose stories we’ll barely hear.

But as someone committed to helping people care passionately about things that we don’t naturally care about, I’ll also spend time trying to place myself (and others) in the stories that matter most in this life. Because on this side of eternity, we live in a world where we care most about the stories we see ourselves in.

I look forward to the day we’ll care about everything the way God does.  Until then, finding common ground so we can see ourselves in stories we should care about will continue to be a discipline I hone.