Register now for ICON 2023, which features compelling thought leaders, breakout sessions and multiple networking opportunities. The Saver Rate ends on Sept. 13.
Michele Norris, an award-winning journalist, emboldens audiences through candid discussions about race, culture and communication in America.
With a distinguished decade-long tenure as the host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and a thought-provoking role as a Washington Post Opinions columnist, Norris helps unravel entrenched beliefs on race, diversity and bias while empowering her audiences to engage in difficult conversations within their communities.
In 2010, she launched what became a Peabody Award-winning initiative, “The Race Card Project,” which fosters conversation among individuals about their differences. A book based on the project is out in January.
Ahead of her Oct. 16 keynote address at ICON 2023 in Nashville, Tenn., Norris talked with PRsay about the challenges of discussing race, the power of brevity, and the key to building community.
When starting The Race Card Project, did you ever envision this kind of response — more than 500,000 personal narratives from people in all 50 states and nearly 100 countries?
I had no idea that The Race Card Project would turn into such a rich and deep archive of the lived experience around race. I began this project because I thought people were so uncomfortable talking about race that they needed some kind of prompt or invitation.
It began with postcards that asked people to summarize their thoughts, observations, memories, trumps or laments about race in one sentence that had only six words. I printed 200 postcards at my local Kinko’s and passed them around on my travels when I kicked off a 35-city book tour. I was stunned when so many postcards started coming back in the mail, and I scrambled to print more so I could essentially leave them everywhere I went.
After we created a website and digital submission form, the inbox evolved and now the vast majority of our cards are submitted online but I still love the postcards because there is something about seeing someone’s six-word truth written out in their handwriting.
The answers are the basis for your forthcoming book “Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race.” As you look toward its January release, what are your aspirations for readers to take away from the book?
I hope this book is a conversation starter. I hope people who read “Our Hidden Conversations” start having conversations of their own with their loved ones and co-workers, neighbors and friends. I hope it stokes curiosity about other lives and other spaces and other perspectives. I hope families and communities and circles of people read the book together and share their own stories.
What do you think the six-word reflections in The Race Card Project tell us about the power of brevity? What can our audience of PR professionals learn about communicating — especially complicated subject matter — from these micro-essays?
We have all heard someone tell us at some time or another to keep it simple and it can feel cliched, but sometimes it happens to be true and that is true in matters of race and identity.
I am certain that there would not be more than half a million stories in our archive if we had simply asked people to send in their stories about race. Asking people to keep it short — really short — at just six words made it easier for people to approach the exercise and it also allowed them to distill their thoughts to get to the essence of what was important to them.
This is useful in stoking conversation and it is also useful in kickstarting almost any kind of writing exercise. One of the reasons I knew the six-word prompt might be potent is because I do something similar when I begin a writing exercise or when I have something I need to communicate. I try to reduce it to a single sentence that gets to the heart of my objective or agenda and then use that as the foundation for the writing.
This seems like it would be particularly useful for PR professionals because they are often communicating complicated ideas that need to be memorable or sticky or pithy. It’s not necessarily finding a slogan. It’s finding the heart of the matter and then building from there.
America is as divided today as it’s been in a very long time. What are some steps that people can take to start building community even when we might disagree?
I think one of the most important skills that people can develop is to figure how to work productively with people they might not agree with or might not even like. I am not going to pretend this is easy but it is essential.
One way to do that is to acknowledge that people have different experiences and perspectives from the outset. I tend to shy away from using the phrase “common ground” because I don’t want to assume that people occupy the same ideological terrain.
But people who occupy the same physical space — whether it be in a workplace or a community or even at the Thanksgiving table — can engage with each other despite their differences if there is an agreement at the outset that people have different points of view but common goals, or other things that could keep them tethered to each other.
I also find that if people agree at the outset to “stay at the table” even when things get rocky, that can help create a steady sense of community. The instinct is to flee when things get rocky but a tacit agreement to stay connected and listen can reap dividends.
And finally, I think curiosity has its own currency. It is beneficial to understand people who have different points of view, not necessarily to win them over or convert them, but rather to understand where they are coming from. It does not mean you endorse another person’s point of view but it always helps to better understand a different experience or perspective to attain something close to a 360-degree understanding of our complex world.
You’ll be speaking with us at ICON 2023 on Oct. 16. What can attendees expect from your session? How do you view your role as a speaker?
While I am listed as a “speaker,” I love interactive sessions so I hope we will have a lot of audience engagement. I am a storyteller but I am also a story-collector and I will bring many of those stories with me when I arrive in Nashville so attendees have an opportunity to hear the kinds of stories that topple into our inbox everyday from people who are often talking honestly about race and identity in America in ways they have never expressed out loud before.
Attendees will get to hear the hidden conversations that shape our world in profound ways, even though they are rarely articulated. The kinds of things that confine or define us.The stories that simmer quietly inside people and yet influence how they order their steps in life. I am both excited and honored to speak at ICON 2023.
John Elsasser is PRSA’s publications director and editor-in-chief of its award-winning publication, Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.