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Communicating To Different Audiences

Remember that when we’re communicating about Head Start, different people bring different perspectives to the table. Based on who you are, where you’re from, and what experiences and awareness you have, you likely have a unique opinion on who Head Start is, and what Head Start does.

Our mission statement is designed to work with the widest possible audience. That said, what follows are some tips to keep in mind if you need to tailor your message for a particular audience.

“We used the 'Tailoring Our Message' section of the Language Playbook to teach staff how to tailor their stories to the groups they are talking to. For example, when talking about potential health care partners, they would want to talk about screenings offered in Head Start and how they help kids.”

–Faith Carr, Douglass Community Services, Inc., Missouri

When you’re speaking with someone who has never heard of Head Start…

  1. Lean in to who we are and what we do

    Let our new mission statement do the work for you! By highlighting what we offer and who we serve, you can let the Language Playbook serve as your guide.

  2. Share your reason for being involved with Head Start.

    Connecting on a personal level matters tremendously when we want to help people understand the value of Head Start. Whether it’s an anecdote about a memorable moment or an achievement during your time at Head Start, or the reason you got involved with Head Start in the first place, paint a picture that shows your passion for the work you do.

    “I felt like Head Start was the perfect fit for me. I believe in the mission so much.”

    –Head Start Practitioner

    “I’ve been with Head Start for almost 32 years. I’m a former parent of a Head Start child. For me, what drives the work I do is that I can relate to the families we serve. I’ve been there.”

    –Head Start Practitioner

    “To me, it’s all about seeing the children introduced to so many new experiences. There’s a local theater program, and we were invited to go. The children, and even their parents, were looking around because it was their first time in a theater seeing a performance! To have them share their stories of how the program has impacted them, it always moves me to tears.”

    –Head Start Practitioner

When you’re speaking with a policymaker...

  1. Start by telling a story about a person who Head Start has helped.

    Head Start’s goal of helping at-risk children is something that virtually everyone can get on board with. But in the ever-polarized environment of Capitol Hill, our elected representatives need to hear more than just talking points about why our work matters. They need to hear real-life stories about the day-to-day impact our work is having. Paint a picture of a child or family who has personally benefited from Head Start—it provides policymakers with an emotional connection, and a reason to care about our work.

    The stories matter. Those in Congress who like us already know the data. Those who don’t like us won’t listen to data alone.”

    –Head Start Practitioner

    “I can go and brag about what we do at Head Start, but if I introduce a parent, we have someone who can say: This is what we can help people do. You can help more people like me.

    –Head Start Practitioner
  2. Pair that story with a statistic or two.

    After introducing a story, weave in a relevant data point to maximize the impact of your message. Policymakers care about results—so when we use numbers to connect an individual story to a broader trend, what we say becomes even more powerful. Visit NHSA’s “Research” webpage for data and information to support your message.

    “Before it used to be all about how we at Head Start felt. But we can’t tell that story anymore. Now we have to prove it.

    –Head Start Practitioner
  3. Speak to your local area—you’re the expert!

    Elected representatives know their states and districts are all unique. So when they hear that Head Start takes the time and effort to truly understand what an area needs, it underlines our flexible and comprehensive approach. Give an example of how you’re catering to the local community when you speak with policymakers. If you’re able to highlight a story from constituents in their state or district, that’s even better.

  4. Steer clear of language that’s polarizing.

    Some words can be polarizing—they sound great to some people, but make others shut down. With policymakers especially, language like this can do more harm than good. To have the greatest impact, it’s best to avoid phrases they may hear as politically-charged.

Examples of Words That Work

Head Start’s programs are locally-designed based on feedback from parents, teachers, and the community itself. For example, here in Providence, Head Start connects families to health services like immunizations, and vision, dental, and hearing screenings.

We believe in tailoring our approach based on what the community wants from us. Here in Contra Costa County, we created a centralized kitchen where children get three servings of food per day. The community we serve is very ethnically diverse, and so are the dishes we serve from Filipino chicken adobo, to Caribbean food, and more.

If you say... To us, it feels... Here’s the issue... Instead, try...
The phrase “social justice” Social justice is a good thing! Doesn’t everyone care about social justice?

“I’m looking at it from a political lens. I work with a philanthropist who’s all about social justice, but we don’t use that language. But everyone will say they want kids to succeed.”
- Head Start Practitioner

Describe social justice: Every child deserves an opportunity to succeed.

When you’re speaking with someone skeptical…

  1. Start by telling a story about a person who Head Start has help.

    Spreading the word can be frustrating when you hear comments like this:

    “I was able to go on local TV to do an interview. And what was the first thing that came out of the reporter's mouth? ‘Well, we heard that Head Start doesn’t work.’

    –Head Start Practitioner

    Remember that no matter who you’re speaking to, it’s important to make sure your audience feels heard. When speaking to a skeptic, start off by briefly summarizing the question you are hearing from him or her. This shows you’re listening, and are open to continuing the conversation.

    Instead of... Try this...
    I disagree. It sounds like you’re asking about ______.
    That’s wrong. I’ve heard questions about ______ before.
    Actually, research has shown that… I’m hearing that you’d like to talk more about ________.
  2. Pivot to tangible facts about Head Start.

    After acknowledging the question, shift the conversation to facts about Head Start and our impact. Share a stat about our history, or an example of the advantage that Head Start participants gain. Starting with “it might surprise you to hear that…” injects a positive tone and frames the conversation as an opportunity for both parties to learn.

    Try this...
    It might surprise you to hear that... …Head Start has been in operation for over 50 years, and we’ve served more than 35 million children across the country.
    …Head Start children are less likely to need special education services and less likely to have been held back a grade.
    …Head Start children are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and receive a post-secondary degree, license, or certification.

    For even more examples of the results Head Start creates, check out the National Head Start Association’s annual Head Start Fact Sheets webpage.

  3. End with an example of how we’re working toward the future.

    It’s not just about where we’ve been in the past and where we are today; it’s about where we’re going tomorrow. We can build credibility by signaling we’re continuing to improve for the future. Ending with an example of how we are moving forward shows we’ve heard and understood their questions, and are always working to improve.

    Try this... Because...
    Head Start has been serving communities in need for over fifty years. We’re proud of our heritage and of all the things we’ve learned. But as we look forward, our mission is clear: how do we continue improving, and find new ways to help children and their families? This language shows we’re proud of our success, but we’re still continuing to challenge ourselves and the status quo.
    Our aim is to help make sure that every child in America has an opportunity to succeed, and we’re finding new ways to make this happen.

When you’re speaking with someone who qualifies for Head Start, but thinks they don’t…

  1. Acknowledge the perspective they bring to the table.

    Parents want the best for their children, and it’s not always an easy pill to swallow that despite their hard work to provide for their families, they could benefit from a little extra help along the way. Be sensitive to their perspective, and highlight the ways in which their children will benefit from Head Start.

  2. Let them lead the way—don’t overshadow their role as parents.

    Remember, parents want to know we’re listening to them. Don’t assume what their needs are before they’ve voiced them to us.

    If you say... Here’s the issue... Instead, try... Why it works...
    We’re here to...
    ...lead you
    ...inform you
    ...offer you resources
    …serve you
    “It sounds like we’re training parents to be better parents. That makes it seem like low-income parents aren’t smart enough to know how to parent.”
    - Head Start Practitioner
    We’re here to partner with you. “We support parents. We partner with them. They’re not broken.”
    –Head Start Practitioner

    To take language about partnership to the next level, talk about how Head Start provides and connects parents to resources and tools they need to be advocates for their children.

  3. Avoid buzzwords that could be alienating.

    When speaking with parents, be especially careful with how you describe who the program is for. What’s most important isn’t what the family’s income level is—it’s that the family’s children are eligible for Head Start.

    If you say... Here’s the issue... Instead, try... Why it works...
    low-income families “Few people categorize themselves by their income—and while we know what “low-income” means within Head Start, our audience may not. eligible families or qualifying families We know Head Start is perceived as a poverty program. When possible, we should avoid references to income. However, if pressed, say income-eligible or income-qualifying.

    To broaden perspectives of who qualifies for Head Start, we shouldn’t just focus on income as the main factor. There are other populations of children we serve:

    • children experiencing homelessness (including those living with family members, such as grandparents)
    • children living in foster care (importantly, these children qualify for Head Start regardless of family income)
    • children with hearing, visual, speech, or language impairments
    • children with intellectual and learning disabilities, autism, or traumatic brain injuries
    • children with orthopedic impairments
  4. Show them how they can get involved and benefit too!

    We know that parents can play a huge role inside the classroom, so be sure to highlight the many opportunities they have to be physically present in their child’s Head Start center—whether it’s volunteering in the classroom, engaging in parent council meetings, or participating at parent leadership retreats. You can even talk about how over 100,000 parents advance their own education each year because their children are enrolled in Head Start.