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Go Out to the Prairie!

By Trina Adler Barno, Program Leader — Health & Nutrition

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin in a loud and active household with four brothers. My dad was not very tolerant of a lot of chaos in the house, so when the horseplay got to be too much for him, he would command in his booming voice “You kids either knock it off or go out to the prairie!” Considering my Midwest roots and the fact that I lived and breathed the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child, my dad’s command always conjured positive images of frolicking in grassy fields with rolling hills and butterflies. Although not a Midwest prairie, our grassy backyard served as a good alternative for burning off our excessive energy.

When my dad died, his brothers came to town and spent time with us telling stories of their family growing up in a very poor neighborhood in Chicago. Uncle John told us how my dad and his brothers would be “sent out to the prairie” whenever they got too rambunctious in the house. It turns out that in the inner city of Chicago, a “prairie” was an empty lot between buildings, typically lined with demolition debris, garbage, old car tires, and dead appliances. My brothers and I were surprised to find out that my dad’s vision of “prairie” and our “prairie” were not at all the same.

I have been thinking a lot about this memory and communication lately. When we develop and deliver educational programs, Extension has always prioritized engaged, interactive, clear learning sessions that illustrate messages through visuals, props, and back-and-forth discussions to make sure the message is understandable. But sometimes when we communicate with our stakeholders — partners, funders, supervisors, decision-makers, and even co-workers — we abandon our great Extension educational methods and too often rely on bland, text-heavy, lengthy reports and emails.

This week, I will present to a group of agencies who implement SNAP-Ed across the nation about communicating the value of SNAP-Ed to stakeholders. Our newly-formed FD Communications Team has been hard at work helping me prepare for this presentation, including putting together a SNAP-Ed program report in “infographic” style. For those of you not familiar with infographics, they are visual images such as pictures, charts or diagrams used to represent information or data. Infographic images can replace words and bring concepts to life in a fast and easily understandable manner. For example, consider the difference in the following:

78.9% of Minnesotans get less than the recommended levels of physical activity (aerobic and muscle strengthening). 
Which is easier to understand? Which is a faster read? Which is easier on the eyes?
Every one of us has daily opportunities to communicate messages to stakeholders. I challenge you to ask two questions of yourself before you write your next email, prepare your next report, or deliver your next message:
  1. Am I making it easy for my stakeholder to receive this message? 
  2. Do I know that my stakeholder understands the message the same way I do?
In other words, have you provided the important facts without overwhelming the stakeholder with details? Are you talking about the same prairie?

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