Wisconsin Historical Society

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Five Tools to Help You Craft a Convincing Historic Preservation Advocacy Message

Five Tools to Craft Your Advocacy Message | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you want to make a case for historic preservation in your community, you will need to craft a message that communicates the multiple ways preservation can be good for your community. The five tools described below can serve as your preservation message toolbox. Use these tools to craft a convincing preservation message that supports your argument for preservation.

  1. Tool #1: Economic Arguments

    Preservation advocates often use economic impact studies to quantify historic preservation's dollar value as support for these preservation advocacy arguments:

    • To add new or expand historic preservation tax credits
    • To protect existing historic preservation tax credits
    • To add or enhance a city's preservation-related policies

    To maximize the impact of economic studies, you will have to work with supportive members of your target audience. Grandstanding with public figures in a public forum may work with some elected officials. But you might get better results through one-on-one conversations with elected officials' staff members, who often use statistics and studies to prepare policy recommendations for their employers or departments.

    While most preservationists find economic arguments extremely validating, statistics alone will not necessarily persuade certain individuals (or governments) about the value of preservation. You need to include an extremely compelling argument delivered at the right time, by the right people, to the right audience.

    Economist Donovan Rypkema is a frequent speaker at preservation conferences around the world. Like many other economists and the national Main Street program, he has long offered proof that preservation pays. According to Rypkema's research (PDF, 250 KB), preservation is:

    • An excellent investment of public money
    • An efficient job creator
    • A key element of top-ranked cities and neighborhoods nationwide

    To learn more, Rypkema's book, "The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader's Guide," is an essential reference for any preservationist faced with convincing government officials, developers, property owners, business and community leaders, or his or her own neighbors that preservation strategies can make good economic sense.

  2. Tool #2: Project Examples

    Highlight examples of successful projects to show how threatened buildings or sites have been rehabilitated and reused. Ideally, your examples should be from the same neighborhood as your project or within your community; or at least from somewhere in Wisconsin. Choose projects with the same financial scale and a reuse that might work for the threatened building or historic place you are trying to save.

  3. Tool #3: Tours

    Tours can be especially effective for making your preservation case. This is because tours allow successful projects to testify for themselves. Tours also inject fresh perspectives into arguments by removing the discussion from a conventional meeting context.

    While on the tour, highlight project examples to help participants visualize how your threatened building might be repurposed. You can offer conventional tours of completed projects, or hardhat tours of in-progress projects, where volunteers describe and show their work.

  4. Tool #4: Testimonials

    Testimonials offer compelling reasons why a building is important and valuable to the community. The best testimonials are a series of well-coordinated first-person perspectives that testify to the facts but do not recite them. Long, tedious speeches can undermine even the most carefully planned set of testimonials. Testimonials should illustrate why the building or place is threatened in the first place. Testimonials that also recognize the key audience and reflect something about this audience are even stronger.

    To prepare testimonials, create a list of opposing arguments for your preservation case. Then identify a convincing witness for each argument on your list. Here are two examples:

    • If saving or losing a building hinges on whether the building can accommodate a developer's plan for the property, find at least one developer who has successfully adapted a similar building to share his or her story.
    • If your threatened building's structural integrity is in question, find one or more credible structural engineers to testify.
  5. Tool #5: Memorable Analogies and Quotes

    An analogy will not make your preservation argument, but a good analogy – or even a good quote from someone else – can leave your audience with a memorable new way of thinking about your issue. Consider the difference between these two statements:

    • Statement 1: The state of history education in this country is terrible. I fear for the future of this country when tomorrow's voters don't know who Thurgood Marshall was.
    • Statement 2: Planning for the future without a sense of history is like planting cut flowers.

    The first statement is a generic complaint. It provokes mild agreement, but it is not memorable. The second, by historian and writer Daniel Boorstin, is memorable, provocative, and quotable. Historian David McCullough used Boorstin's quote during a 2005 Congressional testimony to support better history education in this country.

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Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.