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Toban Dyck: Taking your story to the stage

Writing and public speaking is not easy work, but someone has to do it

I was somewhere along Highway 2 between Holland and Glenboro, Man., when I took the call. I was on my way to speak at the Manitoba Beef Producers AGM about how the best way to reach any audience is through accessible, relatable and honest messaging.

“Why are you speaking at the Beef Producers AGM?” asked the caller.

It was a fair question. The caller knows me well and knows that I don’t have cattle.

I explained it as best I could — that I write about agriculture for Grainews and other newspapers and I work in ag communications.

This winter, I have had the honour of speaking to farmers at a few conferences. It’s been a challenge and one I’ve enjoyed, thoroughly. I’m on the road to overcoming what has been a crippling fear of public speaking. By the end of February, I no longer needed to read my speech. I could just get up there and talk.

I get asked to do these things on the assumption that because I write a lot about agriculture, I must be an interesting and engaging speaker with something to impart to a bunch of farmers.

What could I possibly say to a bunch of smart, experienced growers that hasn’t been said to them a whole bunch of times?

My initial reaction to this challenge was to throw in the towel and reject the offers, citing some drivel about how good writers are not necessarily good speakers.

However, “no” is not yet something I know how to say. So I accepted the offers and immediately began fretting about content, a process that lead me to a conclusion that I think has value. At least, it does for me.

The ag world is abuzz with people, many of them communicators like myself, urging farmers to tell their stories. The idea is that this will help build trust between the public and us.

I’m not opposed to this. In theory, it’s what the ag sector needs to do, especially when it’s becoming increasingly clear that consumers are not relying on science for their attitudes towards food and food production.

But, I am opposed to the notion that every Tom, Dick and Marry can just get up off their matts and start talking about their operations, to the public and in a way that reveals a side of agriculture that will sway opinion to the positive and build trust.

Writing is hard work. Telling your story is hard work. How often have you been frustrated at someone on your farm not because of something he or she did but because you were not able to clearly say what you meant?

My guess is often.

Good, honest, clear communication is something to be valued. The closer we can get to our thoughts matching our words, the better farmers we will be and the better ag ambassadors we will be.

It takes time and practice, though. Value words. They are important. They are extremely powerful. Storytelling is a discipline — a muscle that needs to be exercised.

“Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn,” said William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well.

Writing may not be your thing. And that’s okay. But whatever your thing is, practice it. Appreciate that it’s not easy.

There’s a need for the ag community to become better communicators and that takes practice.

Tell your story. Tell it again. Tell it again. Then tell it 10,000 more times. Then step away from the mirror and face the world. Then start working on your next story.

This is my central message and, if it inspired no one else, it inspires me. When I started writing I set aside one hour per day to practice. I still try to do that, even when I have other articles due. Clear, accessible and honest communication requires hard work and practice. But, I promise you, it’s incredibly rewarding.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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