Johnna Miller: Think critically, speak effectively to people about agriculture

Heather Hamilton

Considering who your audience is, how they perceive words and phrases, and what they are most likely to believe, are all critical steps in successfully sharing information about agriculture according to American Farm Bureau Federation Director of Media Development Johnna Miller.

“Back in the day, you used to put your nose down and work hard and figured, ‘hey, that’s good enough. I don’t have time for all this other stuff. People know what I’m doing, they appreciate me, and that’s good enough. I’m not going to go out and tell my story,'” Miller said in regard to a common mindset that no longer applies as people, in general, have become more skeptical.

“Just having people like me go out and tell your story is not going to cut it because those skeptical people look at me and they see and [public relations] fleck, and that’s what I am. Granted, I work for the world’s largest farm organization, but if things change dramatically in agriculture … what you have to say about the life your living is so much more valid,” she continued.

To better reach audiences, Miller said people should determine who they want to talk to, and how to get the information to those people in a way they will understand and remember.

As an example, she played a video showing teenagers telling their teachers the latest slang words and phrases.

“Those words and phrases sound foreign to a lot of people, and the thing is that when agriculturalists talk, that’s what it sounds like. People hear words and phrases that just sound foreign and strange, and it’s just whooshing over their heads. What’s the point of making all this effort to get your message out if people don’t even understand what you’re talking about?” asked Miller.

She added that being mindful of words and terminology used in conversations can increase effectiveness of people actually listening and understanding what is being said.

“What is the message someone gets when you tell them they need to be educated about agriculture? They get defensive, and think, ‘why do I have to be educated about agriculture? I’m a dry cleaner, are you going to come and learn about dry cleaning?'” she asked rhetorically.

“What if someone came up to you and said, ‘trust me.’ What’s your initial thought? We do that all time. We tell people we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ve always done it this way, and to trust us because we know what we’re doing.

“That just won’t cut it. We have to explain why we do the things we do, and we have to have reasons for why we do them that way. It can’t just be because we’ve always done it that way. For instance, we use to harvest things by hand, and we don’t do it that way anymore. Is there a good reason why we don’t still do it that way?” continued Miller.

“We also talk about facts all the time, and this sounds like science. Well, when the economy tanked, Wells Fargo had this huge bash at this luxury resort in Vegas where they were taking thousands of their employees and spending all this money. They said they had the facts on their side because it was in the contract and is part of the cost of doing business in their industry.

“They may have seen them as facts in their favor, but most of the general public just wasn’t buying it, and there are things in agriculture that people feel the same way about. Take tail docking with dairy farmers; do they have a good reason for that? Well, it’s to protect their eyes, and people think, ‘wear some goggles,'” Miller said in regard to the mindset people take against fact-based persuasions.

She presented Google images to the crowd of a military campaign, the game “Operation,” and surgery, explaining they were the top image results when she searched for the word, “operation.”

“When you say operation, people aren’t thinking about your farm or ranch, they’re thinking about those images,” she said. “That tells us we’re using the wrong words. We should be saying farm or ranch or even homestead. Operation isn’t communicating what we want to say, and it’s not nearly as nice a word, and doesn’t bring up nearly the positive connotations that the words farm or ranch do.

“It’s about a conversation, and having that discussion versus just throwing stuff at them. When you let someone know you care, they’re more likely to listen to what you have to say to back it up,” she explained.

Telling the story of how you feed what you raise to your family, and that your production practices are based on the concept that the end result will be fed to your own family is a great way to make a human connection with a wide variety people, according to Miller.

“You build a level of trust by saying you do care, and letting people know there is human interaction, and you’re not just in it for the money. You’re going to talk to bankers a lot differently than you would soccer moms. You really do have to think about who people are, what is the connection, and how do I make it?” concluded Miller.