6 Important Communication Lessons from Cardinal Dolan's New E-Book
Yesterday Cardinal Timothy Dolan released an original e-book called True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty, timed to coincide with the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom. It is a tour de force piece in which the Cardinal explains with clarity and brevity why the Church preaches a Gospel of Life, and why this Gospel of Life "offers us a pathway to building not just good laws, but a free and virtuous culture as well." This is an important read not only for Catholics, but for anyone who wants to understand why certain core beliefs of modern culture threaten human life and liberty. (If you'd like to learn more about the book's content, Brandon Vogt has a good review here.)
In addition to the insights contained in the text, there is another lesson that we can learn from Cardinal Dolan here, one that is also critically important: How to take a good idea, and communicate it effectively.
The annual Catholic New Media Conference is coming up later this summer, and in keeping with the event's theme of "Marketing Your Message," the organizers are encouraging all Catholics to think about how we can best convey our ideas. I think that the relevance of this topic to the modern Church can hardly be overstated; as the culture at large spirals further and further into confusion, it will be increasingly important for us to make our voices heard in the noisy marketplace of ideas. True Freedom should be used as a case study for this subject, since it is a prime example of packaging a message well, then utilizing the proper communication channels to disseminate it effectively. Here are six key things we can learn from the example Cardinal Dolan has given us:
1. Tell us a story
"Stories are the preferred way that human beings learn," screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi said in her chapter of the book Style, Sex, and Substance. Echoing Aristotle, she emphasized the importance of a well-told, deeply human story for getting and audience's attention and increasing its receptivity to a message. Who wouldn't rather read about a human soul transformed by a truth, rather than a dry, purely academic discussion of the same idea?
True Freedom offers us a powerful illustration of Nicolosi's point. The beginning of the book is neither a wordy preamble nor a convoluted summary of the philosophies that will be analyzed. Rather, Cardinal Dolan writes in the first two sentences: "When I was a newly ordained priest in Saint Louis, one of my weekly assignments was to visit an elderly couple who lived in the parish. Every Friday I’d bring them Holy Communion and would spend some time just sitting and talking with them." He tells the touching story of what this man and woman taught him about the dignity of human life, and then, throughout the book, he uses that vignette as a touchstone to bring lofty, theoretical ideas down to the level of the individual human life.
Cardinal Dolan includes other brief tales as well, like the bittersweet moment in which 9/11 workers found a single blade of grass sprouting up from beneath the rubble. Through these stories he turns what could have been a dense and difficult read into a memorable book that engages the reader both emotionally and intellectually.
2. Tailor your message to your audience
Anyone who's taken an intro communications class knows the importance of considering your audience before you craft your message, but it's surprisingly easy to overlook this commonsense advice. Especially here in the internet age, when anyone can publish a message that people all over the world could theoretically access, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the question of audience and blow it off altogether. But when we never take the time to decide exactly who it is we want to reach, our communications can become unclear and unfocused, and end up not resonating with anyone.
In the case of True Freedom, Cardinal Dolan is writing to Catholics; however, he clearly wants his message to be accessible to people of all backgrounds, and he "frames" his book accordingly. For example, because Cardinal Dolan is conscious of his non-Catholic audience, he does not assume that his reader is completely bought in to the idea that Catholicism teaches universal truths. The Cardinal wisely takes a few paragraphs to make the case that the ideas he's discussing matter to everyone, like when he discusses Blessed John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. Cardinal Dolan writes:
John Paul II directs his teaching not just to Catholics, not just to Christians or people of faith, but "to all people of goodwill." This is rather important. True enough, his teaching is expressed in terms of religious belief, but this fundamental concept of the sacredness of all human life -- which deserves dignity, respect, and protection by law -- is rooted in natural law, a source of ingrained principles accessible to all, not just religious folks.
Natural law is a concept of objective truth, known by anyone with the power of reason. For instance, it is always and everywhere wrong to deliberately take the life of an innocent person. This is an objective truth, and it is not relativized by the special interests of religious preference, class, gender, or individual bias.
Cardinal Dolan also references the wisdom of folks like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Confucius to emphasize that even those outside of Catholicism have long valued these principles as well.
3. Joyfully speak the truth
One of my favorite things about this e-book is its joyful tone. Cardinal Dolan is not apologetic about what he has to say. His writing isn't weighed down by a "Gosh, sorry, but I've got some bad news for you guys..." kind of vibe.
Whenever we have to deliver messages that people don't want to hear, it's tempting to adopt a hesitant tone, even if we know we're speaking the truth. Cardinal Dolan reminds us that the truth always makes things better and always improves the human condition, and that we should never feel guilty about proclaiming it. In his book, every paragraph carries a feeling of confidence and hope. The Cardinal's personal zeal for his message is infectious, and by the time you get to the last page, you're left feeling energized, equipped, and deeply aware that a life lived with an understanding of natural law is, as the title of the book suggestions, a life of true freedom.
4. Choose your media wisely
Ten years ago, the average person didn't have to make tough decisions about how to publish his work; there were few options, and the access to most avenues was limited. These days, it's easy to create your own book or start a website; anyone with a camcorder and a Youtube account could even produce his own television show! Having all these options is great, but it means that we need to educate ourselves about our choices so that we can select the media that best fit our messages.
True Freedom is an example of a book delivered through well-chosen media. The fact that it's a book gives it a gravitas that it would not have had if the same message were, say, published as a post on a website; yet the e-book format gives it a pricepoint that is accessible to anyone, and allows it to have up-to-the minute content, which is important since it was intended to influence a social and political landscape that is very much in flux.
5. Market appropriately
When you've spent weeks or months toiling over your new website or book or video series or whatever it is you're creating, it can feel exhausting when you realize that you now have to go market it. Even folks who are lucky enough to have deals with publishers or record companies are usually expected to sell their own work: These days, all content creators must be marketers as well. Yet too often this part of the creative process is an afterthought, and otherwise good projects go unnoticed, in part due to ineffective marketing.
One of the things Image Books did to promote True Freedom was to send customized announcements to a variety of media outlets. The email I received was a model promotional piece: It included compelling excerpts from the book, a personalized message about why I might enjoy it, and was concise enough that I could scan it quickly. Different media require different methods of promotion -- this particular strategy would probably not have worked well to promote a blog post, for example -- so it's important to learn the best methods for promoting your particular project. If you don't know where to start, websites like Austin Catholic New Media and The Church and New Media have a lot of great resources for familiarizing yourself with the modern media landscape.
6. Seek excellence
The good news is that now anyone can publish a book or a video or a podcast or a website; but the bad news is that now anyone can publish a book or a video or a podcast or a website. The modern marketplace is noisy, and even the best communications strategies can only go so far in terms of making your message heard. But if you work hard to convey your ideas to the best of your ability, you will likely find an audience for your work -- the world is always hungry for top quality content.
And this is, ultimately, why you should read True Freedom. It's not just Cardinal Dolan makes important points that we need to understand now more than ever, or that he's used media effectively to convey them. The main reason I think you will enjoy it is simply because it achieves that distinction that sounds simple but is quite hard to do, and is all too rarely seen in practice: It's just a really good read.