By Medha Gudavalli, CCASA Guest Blogger
My palms are profusely sweating…armpits too…just realized my ear lobes are sweating which I didn’t even know was a thing. My mind is racing and I can feel myself talking in circles. Making eye contact with the person across for me, I catch a glimpse of their confusion and slight boredom.
Yup. Uncomfortable. This experience dominated my conversations, informal or formal, about the topics of sexual assault and domestic violence on my college campus.
Frequently in our profession as advocates, nurses, therapists, activists, or even students, we have to talk about sexual assault and domestic violence to people who don’t really know anything about it, who are disinterested, and who may even disagree. As someone who struggles with communication in this area, I would like to pass along some helpful tips derived from workshops from the Colorado Advocacy in Action Conference I attended last week, and my personal experiences.
Catharsis Productions and We End Violence gave some great presentations on making your communication more effective. As a first-time conference goer I did not expect to be snorting with laughter during these workshops—I mean this stuff is never funny…right? Well these folks showed me that humor is an awesome tool when talking about sexual violence. It engages your audience, translates a tough subject into the language of laughter (that everyone can relate to), and when interjected with serious moments it is extremely effective in making a point. Here’s one from Jeff (We End Violence) talking about consent:
JEFF: Imagine someone you’re really attracted to, it can be your significant other, Channing Tautum, literally anyone.
JEFF: Good, Now imagine you sitting across from that person on a couch. They look at you in the eyes and say, “Hey, so, you wanna have sex?”
I guarantee your first response is not going to be, “Ummmm NO Beyonce! God that was so AWKWARD. Just because you asked I’m going to walk away”
Your response is going to be along the lines of, “YES. Let’s go do that.”
(Also check out Catharsis in their “Sex Signals” Improv show)
Now I’m in the audience thinking, “Well that’s great but what if I’m not that funny?” What I have learned is that it is not necessarily comedy which made these presentations so great but the principles behind it. Humor allowed the presenters to be relatable and accessible and there are plenty of ways to do this outside of a comedy. Here are some tools the presenters and I have used to make my dialogue more effective without necessarily using humor:
- Be accessible
To me it means being someone who an audience member would not be afraid of talking to. Get rid of the intimidation factor to make room for conversation and mutual understanding. Catharsis Productions recommended using the line, “Hey I know there are going to be things that you disagree with me about, and stuff I’m going to disagree with you about. But can we all agree to respectfully disagree?”
- Jargon, Jar-what?
Not knowing what people are saying can be really intimidating. We are accustomed to acronyms (SANE, NSVRC, SA, DV, CSA, TDV, IPV). I personally get flashbacks to freshman year organic chemistry when I couldn’t understand a thing my professor was saying. Taking some time to test out a conversation on a friend and getting some feedback on what didn’t make sense can be really helpful. We are cursed with knowledge and sometimes cannot even pick out what is unclear.
- 467% of statistics are made up on the spot
What I think of whenever someone cites a stat. It’s really hard to translate numbers into actual experiences. Use data from that community if you can. Explain a statistic, “If there are 100 people in this room, 25% means 25 people are affected by _____.”
- Damn phones
Especially when presenting to a larger audience, I am so afraid that people will whip out their phones five minutes in. Catharsis Productions suggested that instead of shaming audience members (I used to call people out during a presentation if they were on their phone) maybe just take a quick second to say, “Hey, I’m addicted to my phone too. It’s hard to go an hour or an hour and a half without looking at Facebook or ESPN. But let’s agree to try our best to give each other respect and put our phones away. I’ll try not to be on my phone if you try too!”
- Call it out!
Knock out any judgements at the beginning. Sometimes male-identifying individuals get defensive when talking about stuff like this. From personal experience I have gotten the, “You hate men and think we all assault people.”
I like to talk about my best guy friend who I have an awesome relationship with. I talk about my respect for him, and I have found that it helps men relate to me. Another thing to do is to explicitly say, “I’m not here to tell you all men rape, and all women are victims.”
- Ask the audience about their views
The best presentations are interactive. Personally, it makes me feel like the presenter cares about me and what I think. It also helps me reflect about the information presented on better because I am actually verbally getting my thoughts out. Audience members are experts on their community, and as an outsider, getting their perspectives can give you a cue on what to talk about and how to frame it.
- Do some research on your audience
If you have time email, the place you’re going to speak at and ask some questions. Maybe request to connect with someone who will be in the audience. If you don’t have time, just take a quick couple of minutes to think about who you are talking to. For example, talking to a group of Navy Seals will be different than talking to a room full of survivors. Use the group to guide your discussion.
- And most importantly stick to one point or a thesis
Think about what ONE thing you want your audience to take away from your presentation. Do you want them to stop using the word slut? Maybe you want them to stop blaming alcohol. Whatever it is, this will undoubtedly help create a succinct and well-tailored presentation that’s easier to follow.
As a campus activist I have realized that small interactions have a huge impact and are a great way to prevent sexual violence, provide resources, and get people thinking. While communication, especially on topics like these, may seem scary it is absolutely crucial to our work. The good news is that you don’t need to be naturally gifted at speaking, but simply keep practicing and keep in mind the tips mentioned above.
Medha is a senior at Duke University, but grew up in Aurora, Colorado. She currently works as the Policy Intern for CCASA and hopes to use her experiences in women’s rights to fortify a career in medicine.