It’s How You Say It: Lessons from the Net Impact Conference

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During the 2014 Net Impact Conference in Minneapolis, MN this weekend, Natalie DiNicola, Vice President of Sustainability and Signature Partnerships of Monsanto, co-presented Saturday morning’s keynote panel titled, “Debating the Future of Food. I found it odd that Monsanto, a ‘sustainable agriculture’ company notorious for putting farmers out of work, privatizing water, misusing chemicals, controlling food supply, fighting GMO labeling and contributing to the declining bee population was a sponsor of conference catered to a politically somewhat left of center leaning bunch. But hey, if you go into anything with an open mind, you’ll never lose.

Not one. Not a single person that I interacted with at the conference supports Monsanto or buys into their misleadingly altruistic mission to “support farmers.” However, every single person I spoke with- despite their distrust and dislike of the company and Ms. DiNicola’s word-smithing avoidance to answer ANY questions plainly and directly– all agreed that had this been a formal debate, Ms. DiNicola would have won over M. Jahi Chappell, Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who powerfully and eloquently discussed alternative visions of agriculture that could help farmers keep money in their own communities.

After the conversation, a woman in the audience read a long excerpt of the recent New Yorker article, Seed of Doubt:

Although India bans genetically modified food crops, Bt cotton, modified to resist the bollworm, is planted widely. Since the nineteen-nineties, Shiva has focussed the world’s attention on Maharashtra by referring to the region as India’s “suicide belt,” and saying that Monsanto’s introduction of genetically modified cotton there has caused a “genocide.” There is no place where the battle over the value, safety, ecological impact, and economic implications of genetically engineered products has been fought more fiercely. Shiva says that two hundred and eighty-four thousand Indian farmers have killed themselves because they cannot afford to plant Bt cotton. Earlier this year, she said, “Farmers are dying because Monsanto is making profits—by owning life that it never created but it pretends to create. That is why we need to reclaim the seed. That is why we need to get rid of the G.M.O.s. That is why we need to stop the patenting of life.”

After reciting the text VERBATIM (unintelligibly quickly), she asks Ms. DiNicola, “Have you heard of greenwashing?” in a very drop-the-mic kind of way and immediately went back to her seat. Now, I’m all about speaking truth to power, but come on. There is no zinger here. The New Yorker is a widely circulated and read publication. She wasn’t the first person, nor the last, to bring it to her attention. Moreover, answering (read: deflecting) contentious questions is this woman’s job. She’s coached and practiced to deal with attacks. Addressing her in that way brought the attention to the audience member’s histrionical disrespect and away from the actual issue at hand. Even worse, she turned an audience of over 1,500 people who supported her position against her. How did this help?

Public sector ambassadors, social justice workers, anyone advocating to advance access to opportunities for human beings and those concerned about the human condition should MUST have a level of training to speak compelling and passionately about their issue with poise and finesse. Most of the time, we’re speaking about things that really make us mad and often impact us in visceral ways (like the Ferguson shooting, health inequalities, mass incarceration or the fact that the United States is the only developed nation where the number of women who die of childbearing increases each year).  However, I do not believe that those in power with authority to make decisions that impact what pains us would be so persuaded by emotional pleas and impassioned rants. As any public speaking course would advise, know your audience.

Back to Mr. Chappell.

To say this man is brilliant is a gross understatement. Even glancing at his accomplishments and credentials is enough to make my brain hurt. In person and on stage, Mr. Chappell is personable and comes across as deeply committed and knowledgeable about placing people at the center of agriculture and agroecology. So much of what he said melted in my ears like butter such as,

“The problem with saying that the market will work it out is that farmers don’t have the money to have that vote.”

He paints an alternative vision of agriculture, one that,

“Sustainably supports farmers, keeps farmers who want to keep farming on the farm, gets farmers the prices they need and improves access to sufficient and diverse food.”

Mr. Chappell raises critical points like,

“Certain countries in Africa can’t produce enough food within their own borders to feed their own populations.” We need to find ways to keep money in their communities. 

Trade deals are not a transparent practice and many of these deals hurt farmers. 

Farmers are trapped on the “treadmill of production”.

“There are too few companies for farmers to really have a choice.”

“GMO labeling is the best way to start the conversation.” 

Unfortunately, if you’re not gathering nuggets, Mr. Chappell’s argument gets muddled with agricultural and chemistry jargon. In other words, he lost me. Had it not been for my notes, I would have no way to explain his position to anyone because he didn’t take me through a story.

So what did I walk away with from this experience? Deploy emotion as a strategy and only use it with purpose.  One of those purposes should not be to get something off your chest. Translate technical and content expertise into relatable and compelling stories. Even if you don’t have time to craft and practice your argument, I believe it’s important to at least know your audience and your objective for addressing them- especially if you do so publicly and can leverage the support of those in the room. Speak clearly, concisely and with confidence. Without these basic elements, you may find (as I OFTEN have) that people won’t remember what you said – even if they agree – and more on how you say it.

 

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