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Values and Message: Integrating Themes Into Your Nonfiction

The following is a guest post from the grand prize winner of our 21st Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Awards. For more information about the upcoming 22nd Self-Pub Awards, click here.

Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge is author of the first charter school law in the nation and the award-winning book, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story. As President of Ember Communications, Inc., she is a national speaker and consultant on Breaking Barriers and Redesigning Your Future, for leaders in business, nonprofit, and government sectors.

Ember Reichgott Junge, Zero Chance of Passage

In this post, she reflects on just a little bit of her time as a state senator and how this unique career helped her as a writer, particularly in integrating key values and strong messages in her nonfiction.

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It was 1994. As a Minnesota state senator, I was looking forward to meeting with advocates passionate about the prevention of domestic violence. They wanted me to sponsor proposals to improve our laws on an issue I championed for years.

They enthusiastically shared their proposals, requiring significant funding for a new “per diem” formula for battered women’s shelters, mandatory supervision of children in certain family law cases, and community protocols for doctors, police and others to prevent family violence. They handed me a list of 29 outcomes they wanted to accomplish with their legislation, most of which I didn’t understand.

Frankly, my eyes glazed over. If I, as their champion, didn’t connect with the cause, how would we ever convince the public and my senate colleagues to commit more funding to this important issue?

I agreed to sponsor the legislation on one condition: that we create a message that connected with ordinary people. How could we bring people to our cause, and not lose them in the details? This is a cause nearly everyone supports. No one should suffer violence at the hands of another.

We gathered a group of 20 people with a range of perspectives and knowledge around the issue. We started with the 30-second elevator speech. Try this: you meet a legislator in the capitol elevator. He sees you are with the Domestic Violence Coalition and asks why you are at the capitol. You have thirty seconds to respond before he arrives at his floor. What do you tell him?

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was hard work. This was a passionate group of people not used to talking in lay language or sound bites. The process took nearly three hours. But at the end of our work, we emerged with a consensus umbrella message that could steer listeners to any one of those 29 outcomes they wanted to accomplish.

Think of a message triangle. In the center, start with “We aren’t doing enough.” The three legs of the triangle go further:

We Aren’t Doing Enough:

  • To Insure Safety and Security for Women
  • To Hold Perpetrators Accountable
  • To Hold Each Other Accountable

Here’s the key: we translated our outcomes into “values” language that resonates with ordinary people. Values like Safety, Security, Accountability and Hope. The next day we told legislators that we weren’t doing enough to insure safety and security for women, and that is why we needed to change the per diem formula for battered women’s shelters. We weren’t doing enough to hold perpetrators accountable, and that’s why we needed our family court judges to impose supervised visitation. And we weren’t doing enough as citizens to hold each other accountable and that is why we needed community training protocols.

Did the new values message work? For the first time in a decade, the legislature passed significant funding to protect women and children from domestic violence. Values messaging was the connector. Values messaging conveys passion, mission, and urgency. Values messaging answers the listener’s question, “what’s in it for me?” Values messaging resonates with the times.

Writing nonfiction is no different. Whether you are writing a short opinion piece, a magazine article, or a full-length nonfiction book, values language is essential to connect your readers to your message. Too often we get mired in the 29 details or examples we are anxious to share with the reader, and never take time to connect the reader to our cause in the first place.

Some like to visualize this approach with a picture of a values tree. Before and during your writing, think about the values within your message. Key values might be opportunity, equality, leadership, compassion, community, abundance, inclusivity, integrity, or excellence. These values are the roots of your tree. Your (29!) talking points, or examples, are the branches on the tree. But unless you connect the branches to the roots, the branches will die.

The trunk of the tree is the Values Connection. It is the hardest part to write and the easiest to overlook.

Let’s take another example. Everyone supports education. But discussion around increasing funding formulas, teacher evaluations, and testing protocols can be downright boring.

Try this messaging:

If we value our future, we must value our kids.

  • Kids can’t wait. We must unleash the potential of every child! (opportunity, hope)
  • Educate today for a prosperous tomorrow (community, prosperity)
  • It’s the proven return on investment (accountability).

Does this connect with you? Likely one message connects more than another. If you are with the chamber of commerce, you’ll likely respond to the accountability value. If you are a parent, you’ll like the opportunity message. If you are a city leader, the community message may resonate with you. The advantage of the values approach is that messages can be adjusted to specific audiences by shifting to a different value focus, and yet still remain a part of the overall, consistent, umbrella message.

All well and good, you say. But how do I apply that to my nonfiction?

As you write, reflect periodically on the stories and examples in your writing. What are the values you are portraying? Identify the themes or patterns. Allow these themes to bubble up, just as the room full of advocates helped them bubble up. Have others read your writing and ask them what values they see. The values are usually there, though often not pulled out for the reader to see.

You don’t want to make the reader work hard for this. As you edit your writing, find ways to feature your values statements (the trunks of the trees) early in your story and your paragraphs. Set out the Values Connections early, then link them to your stories or examples. Repeat your Values Connections often in different ways throughout the piece.

In writing Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, I first wrote the story as I remembered it from my own experience and files. As I wrote, several themes emerged over and over. This was not just a history about the origins of public school choice and public charter schools. This was a story of ordinary people taking an extraordinary stand for change. It was a story about removing and overcoming barriers (yes, people gave chartering “zero chance of passage.”) It was a story about bringing together people to create long-term, bipartisan, and sustainable change from the middle of the political spectrum. These themes resonate with a wide range of people, whether or not they have interest in education or specific “branches” on the education tree.

The root values are pretty clear. Choice. Opportunity. Empowerment. Innovation. Partnership. Collaboration. Persistence. Independence. The tree trunks (Values Connections) encompass the themes above, including taking a stand for change, rising above obstacles, and compromising for common ground. Nearly every chapter of the book falls under one of those themes. Even some chapter titles reflect the themes: “The Unions: Breaking Up is Hard to Do” and “Chartered Schools—The Bleeding Edge of Change,” are examples.

The beauty of values messaging is that it is easy to incorporate into nonfiction writing because we are immersed in values messaging every day. Listen closely to commercial advertising around you. Identify the values. What resonates with you? Do the same for your writing. Your story will become even more powerful and persuasive and create the pathways you seek to inspire your readers and transform their lives.

* * * * *

Like Ember, you too could win $3,000 in cash, a paid trip to the Writer's Digest Conference, and the attention of prospective editors and publishers. The Grand Prize Winner of our 22nd Annual Self-Published Book Awards will also receive promotion in Writer's Digest (March/April 2015 issue), and much more! Check out details on all the prizes, as well as the prize packages for each of our nine first-place winners.

Enter your self-published book (must be printed and bound) into one of our nine categories (mainstream/literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, inspirational [spiritual , new age], lifestories [biographies , autobiographies, family histories, memoirs], children'spicturebooks, middle-grade/youngadultbooks, referencebooks [directories , encyclopedias, guide books], and poetry) online or via an entry form, today!

Hurry! Early bird entries must be postmarked by April 1, while all regular entries must be postmarked by May 1. All winners will be notified by October 17, 2014. All commentaries will be sent to entrants by December 1, 2014.

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