Guest Post: What Good Do Your Words Do, If They Can't Understand You?

Jamilah King is a writer and editor. She currently works as news editor of Colorlines.com, where she coordinates assignments as news breaks, while covering urban politics, sexuality, music, and Internet policy. She also participated in GLAAD's National People of Color Media Institute in Los Angeles. Here Jamilah recounts her experience and relays the importance of  being an effective spokesperson.

Many reporters choose to stick in the background. It’s a virtue of the profession. By nature, and by training, many journalists are most comfortable being on the receiving end of a story. I know I am. As a journalist with Colorlines.com, a daily news site dedicated to race and politics, I’ve heard heart wrenching tales of people who’ve been forcibly removed from their homes, and trudged through the streets of a near riot armed only with a notebook and cell phone.  The pursuit of these stories was deeply embedded in the often blurry search for truth, which was born from the desire to play a part in building justice and maintaining a democracy -- two deeply held ideologies upon which this country prides itself on being built.

But it’s an entirely different story when you’re on the other side of the camera -- or the microphone, or the notebook. Suddenly, all of those lofty ideals go out of the window as you try to stammer and posture your way into not sounding like a complete idiot. I’ve known that feeling well. Often times, I’ve had notebooks filled with important statistics that the average person simply doesn’t care to know in all their nuanced, pragmatic detail. 

I’ve learned that the key is in the presentation of those facts. It’s the stories that you tell, and how compelling you can make them.

Last week at the GLAAD’s National People of Color Media Institute,  I was clued into the science in all of this. And as a journalist who’s committed to giving the public the information they need to stay informed and engaged, it’s my duty to try to master the art of powerful speaking. While I’ve spent the past week trying to explain the significance of presentation, I’m left only with lyrics from one of my favorite singers, Erykah Badu: “What good do you words do, if they can’t understand you?”

They’re fitting words coming from a performer. Because every media experience is precisely that: a performance. Some are sappy, indignant: Think Richard Nixon, defiantly hanging onto his last vestiges of power in early 1974. Some are rehearsed, yet persuasive: think then-candidate Obama, speaking in Philadelphia in early 2008 about his complex negotiation of race in America. Or Ronald Reagan, in 1983, urging his fellow Republicans to get in line with raising the country’s debt ceiling. 

Still other performances go largely unnoticed by historians, but do wonders in capturing pivotal moments in time. Think of Dan Choi, defending gay and lesbian soldiers who can now serve openly in the military. Or professor Melissa Harris Perry, explaining systemic black poverty in stunningly plain language. 

The tools of persuasion are in the clothes they wear, the gestures they make, and the messages they send -- after lots, and lots, and lots of practice.

The tools to the trade aren’t new, but they’re also not widely available. As a member of the LGBT community, I’ve had to spend a lot of time unlearning what comes most naturally to me: timidity, deference, and sometimes, silence. Those were useful tools when I was trying to survive as the closeted girl in high school. But in a television studio, and in the world at large, they don’t serve me very well. 

I was fortunate to learn some of these tools with a brave and accomplished group of people. GLAAD managed to bring together a diverse cohort with an array of experiences. There were gay southern ministers, out Hollywood actors, and transgender participants who dreamed of one day joining the military. We shared stories of childhood pain and professional triumph. And we learned from the best: the good and experienced staff at GLAAD, and Joel Silberman, a warm, caring and accomplished soul who’s performed his way from the stage to CNN.

My grandmother always told me that a closed mouth won’t get fed. It also won’t be heard from. And in times like these, we need all the honest stories and beautiful truths that we can find.

- Jamilah King