The Power of a Story

Talking Leadership

The Power of a Story

Focus of the Family's John Fuller on how ministry messages can touch hearts and minds.

Interview by Mark L. Vincent

Christian Leadership Alliance acting president and CEO Mark L. Vincent recently interviewed John Fuller, vice president of Focus on the Family's Audio division, to garner his insights on effective communications for Christian ministries. Today, Fuller leads the Focus team that creates and produces more than a dozen different audio programs. These features are syndicated on thousands of radio affiliates worldwide and many are available online at FocusontheFamily.com/radio.

Fuller is also the cohost of the daily "Focus on the Family" radio program with Jim Daly and Juli Slattery, reaching millions of global listeners each week, a role he also played for Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Fuller is also host of the national "Weekend Magazine" and "Focus on the Family Minute" broadcasts.

He has been with Focus on the Family since 1991. Fuller's broadcasting career began in 1980 at a college radio station in Wisconsin. In subsequent years, he was involved in the start-up of two Christian stations in Tyler, Texas. He has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Texas at Tyler, and a M.A. in human communications from the University of Northern Colorado; he also studied at Dallas Theological Seminary. Additionally, Fuller serves on the National Religious Broadcasters board.

What does the Audio Division at Focus do?

Over the years, the department's mission has really become fine-tuned to creating audio content that connects the Focus on the Family message with a variety of audiences. We have a number of radio programs and online offerings, podcasts and such, which we utilize.

My charge to the team has been for us to continue the heritage that we have built over 34 years of audio excellence; creating radio features that touch people, giving them perspective, inspiration, and motivation.

We're also keen on getting the message into new channels. We have a growing awareness that radio's reach is phenomenal but that people are accessing radio in different ways. And so being in the digital space and being available to mobile listeners is critical. We're incorporating interactive multimedia elements to augment and support the audio programming. We're trying to create content integration with other messages, media voices, and channels in the organization.

Thirty-four years ago when the ministry started, it was with what is now the daily broadcast, the 30-minute program (it was a 15-minute weekly back in 1977). Now it is that plus all those other radio features I mentioned, and a very rich website and events, videos, books, and magazines. Today we have so many other touch points for folks. So we're trying as a radio program team to take content produced elsewhere in the ministry and weave it into what we're doing so that there is greater impact. Rather than having one article online about marriage, another perspective on the radio program, and yet another in a little video production, let's have all of that coordinated so that there is one big splash instead of several little ripples.

As radio cohost with James Dobson and now with Jim Daly and Juli Slattery, how have you seen God use radio to impact the Christian world?

It has been a tremendous privilege to be part of the radio effort here at Focus for 20 years now, either directly or indirectly. I believe deeply in the tremendous reach and the emotional impact that radio can have. It is a powerful tool.

We pray before every broadcast taping for what I call a "divine intersection," knowing that God can take what we offer in our humble way and use it to connect with people. When we offer a radio program, we know that he uses it. He uses it for his redemptive purposes. We are so grateful for that.

I think radio is a pretty special medium, as it distinctively speaks to individuals and can do so in emotional ways. In this world of increasing media chaos and choice, I find that when I'm online I'm often looking for information. When I listen to radio I also seek information, but what makes me stop and pause is story. Heart. That is what we've called the "theatre of the mind." Through the power of our radio programs we're seeing God utilize those qualities to convey much more than information.

When we serve up a story or a powerful anecdote on the radio, it has a different effect on the heart than just reading it might. And as people interact with our radio programming we often find that the even the hardest are touched and moved. They are brought hope, encouragement, and identification with a need. Our goal is to create compelling, emotional, biblically based radio programming that will ultimately move people closer to God and give them some practical takeaways for their family's situation and needs.

We are seeing God use the unique power of radio. In fact, I just talked to one gentleman downstairs in the Focus lobby who is a farmer. He said, "There are moments when I know I should keep moving, but I don't leave my tractor because there you are on the radio and you've got me in tears. I just sit and listen."

That doesn't happen when people are online checking the weather forecast. That happens when there is an emotive story. It is not accompanied by a bunch of pictures. Your mind is just left to kind of go there. We hear stories like that all the time. It is a tremendous privilege to be doing a work that impacts so many in such significant ways.

Sometimes Focus helps move an issue into the collective consciousness, like work you all are doing on adoption and orphan care.

What a neat thing God is doing in the Christian community in this area! He is stirring hearts in so many ways. Since our president, Jim Daly, rallied Focus to actively call, inform, and motivate believers to get engaged in orphan care, we've heard from so many who have shared they are getting involved partly because of what they heard or read from Focus.

I'll just share personally. It is with a great sense of humility that I have seen God use us this way. When the Lord told my wife and me to adopt some years ago, he used a number of points along the way to nudge us in that direction. One was hearing Steven Curtis Chapman telling his story at a concert. There were other touch points along the way, including our own broadcasts. Ultimately, after bringing our son home from Russia we had the privilege of talking about our adoption experience on the Focus radio program. Since that program, I've talked to several families who said, "We heard you talking about adoption and ultimately God used your story as part of our own adoption journey." Wow, what a humbling thing. It makes me tear up to think that I'm part of a movement to help the fatherless in the deepest ways.

How is Focus collaborating with smaller partners, including churches, today?

As an organization, we have realized that we don't have to do it all. For a long time I think there was a sense that, "We're Focus on the Family, we have a great standard for how to do things and so we should do this and that." There wasn't an acknowledgment, sometimes, that there were already some pretty good activities in that area of ministry and outreach.

Today there is a renewed sense of cooperation here with regard to events, publications, and initiatives. We're trying to identify individuals and groups that are doing something well and instead of recreating or competing with them, we're figuring out ways to work with them. One example is our collaboration with Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia. We've worked with Sherwood to help bring the Courageous film they produced to our audience's attention. That film is having an impact in the culture, and we wanted to make sure that Sherwood Pictures had some Focus resources to which they could point people and that men would find help for their parenting journey here.

As you consider your own journey in media, what key communications principles would you share with leaders of smaller ministries?

I started in Christian ministry at a local Christian radio station where we had a small staff. We each wore a number of hats and there was much to do. But what helped us as we launched that first radio station, and then another, was a very clear vision statement and strategy. We were using radio as a tool to encourage and equip the body. That shared value carried us along though the early years, and to this day the stations remain effectual and very strong voices in the community. That is a reflection of a clearly understood and articulated mission and strategy.

I would encourage leaders to always remember the ministry's vision and strategy and then decide which communications tactics support that strategy. Start at the beginning, get that right, and then build out ways to share those things. You might tell your story best through a newsletter. It might be through events. It might be a one-on-one proposition or perhaps a small group effort. But let it flow from your predetermined strategy, not be more than just a bunch of disparate activities.

Remember that few are really interested in hearing or reading your organizational mission statement. They want to know how that touches somebody. What difference does that make in someone's life? Particularly for the younger generation, we have to avoid making it all about us as an organization and instead focus on talking about the person who benefits from what we do. That kind of story - and it isn't corporate speak - fosters a sense of community and partnership amongst potential donors and even ministry recipients.

My first questions from a communications standpoint are always "What's the message?" and "Who is the audience?" Sometimes we get caught up with the form. "Hey, we need to start this because that's what everybody is doing." But when we jump in like that, into social media or some other communications channel, we're usually not thinking through audience or message. If we start with careful, thoughtful consideration of what we're all about as an organization and who we are trying to reach, then we can decide how to best get that message to that audience, recognizing that no one channel is going to be able to carry it completely.

You've got to be multifaceted in communications. For example, our team does radio but we support that with good web material, with a Facebook and Twitter presence, with a number of things. Once you have your strategy and use it to craft your message and your audience, you can build a communication plan that is more effective.

As you communicate, you have to be consistent, purposeful, and strategic. It is easy to act without strategy. It is harder to submit the activity to a strategy. We all have limited resources, so we must be strategic. That's particularly important for smaller organizations.

To learn more, visit FocusontheFamily.com/radio.

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