I Wish You’d Been There

April 22, 2014

I really wish you had been with me in the mayor’s office.

I was in Darrington, Washington, the small logging town hit hard by the March 22 mudslide that destroyed much of the nearby community of Oso. The slide buried about a mile of the highway connecting many of the 450 families in Darrington with their jobs, their grocery shopping and even the shipments to and from their lumber mill.

Though I wasn’t there on vacation, I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

On disaster assignment for the American Red Cross, I went to city hall with our district operations manager to talk about our work in the community. When we entered his office, the mayor rose from his desk stacked high with papers and gave us a hearty handshake. He wore a ball cap and flannel shirt – just what a Midwesterner like me would expect to find in a lumber town quietly tucked away high in the Northern Cascades. A faint smile on his unshaven face, however, failed to mask the strain of his mayoral duties.

“Initially we had concerns about giving up space,” he said, referring to the many outside groups that came wanting to help. That’s a typical response from those living in rugged, close-knit and self-reliant communities. “The Red Cross is neutral and I appreciate that,” he said. “Your work here has been stellar.”

While pleased to receive the compliment, I pushed to uncover unmet needs where we could help. “What advice would you give to us at the Red Cross?” I asked. (Here’s where I especially wish you’d been with me.) Without hesitation, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Keep taking good care of my people.”
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Do You Follow a Leader Who Deals in Hope?

March 27, 2014

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” Napoleon Bonaparte

Hope inspires us to believe that better, brighter times are yet to come.

Hope inspires us to believe that better, brighter times are yet to come.

Last week I participated in three days of intense training near our national headquarters in Washington, D.C. I left filled with hope and optimism after I’d met with some of the top leaders in our organization, (the American Red Cross).

On my flight home, I began thinking about my renewed hope, and the quote from Napoleon Bonaparte pushed its way to the forefront of my mind. “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

I thought about the leaders I’ve admired. They instill hope in others because they have:

  1. A vision. Leaders know where they are going. They envision what success will look like, and they paint a vivid picture so others can share in that vision. On the final day of last week’s training, our senior vice president for communications sat at my table in the dining room. As I asked him specific questions about the monumental changes occurring within the organization, he responded by saying, “I have a dream.” He then painted a picture of our yet-to-be-realized future. I could see it! I wanted to be part of it!
  2. A plan. Not only do great leaders know where we are going, they have a plan for how we’ll get there. They may delegate much of the navigation to managers who will guide us through the treacherous terrain, yet they always have a plan.
  3. Situational awareness. I don’t trust leaders who have a Pollyanna-like optimism. I want to follow someone who comprehends the complexity and challenges of the situation, yet is not daunted by that reality. Good leaders are fully aware they will face obstacles such as the scarcity of finances, the machinations of political opponents and the stubbornness of skeptics. Yet they press on.
  4. A team. Good leaders know they cannot achieve success alone. They recruit, train and empower competent team members. Like Moses, they have an uncanny way of reminding their followers that we’re all in this together.  Although we may spend time wandering in the wilderness, our leaders create teamwork by reminding us we are headed towards the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey.
  5. Resources. Too many people wallow in inertia, waiting until they are given ample resources. Early in my career a mentor said, “Resources flow to achievers.” That concept stuck with me. Early victories often are achieved with meager resources, but as momentum builds and success becomes a way of life, resources will follow. After all, wise investors want to entrust their resources to leaders who promise a great return on investment.

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10 Tips for Winning at Office Politics

January 14, 2014

If you hope to succeed as a professional communicator, you must spend up to half your time engaged in office politics.

California State University, Northridge - http://blogs.csun.edu/faculty-development/naturally-biased-brains-building-inclusion-in-the-workplace/

I didn’t say it was your fault.
I said I was blaming you. *

I recently gave that advice to a starry-eyed idealist new to her job. That was not what she wanted to hear, though. As a young professional, she dreamed of rising above the political fray and focusing on pure communications. (Oh, what they don’t teach you in school!)

Success in communications requires that you be a savvy politician. Politics, by my definition, is amoral. In other words, it’s neither good nor bad. Politics is how things get done. When you engage in workplace politics, you can either build or you can destroy. Your choice.

Here are several ways I attempt to use office politics to help me succeed as a marketing communications professional:

  1. Create necessary alliances. Business thrives on partnerships and collaboration. I always want to work on important projects that are much bigger than I can accomplish on my own. Success requires that we align our resources and work together to create the synergy to get the job done.
  2. Think win-win. If one of us loses, we all lose. I look for ways to help others succeed, though I’m not shy about establishing boundaries and defining what a win looks like on my side of the equation.
  3. Focus on projects worth doing. I’m only human and can never accomplish everything. Therefore, I must prioritize my work. Negotiating during the prioritization process is very important. Call it politics, if you like, but I try to build a consensus among my co-workers and especially my boss regarding what projects are most important. Read the rest of this entry »

My PowerPoint New Year’s Resolutions

January 1, 2014

In reviewing the past year, I realize I’ve frittered away too much time looking at boring, useless PowerPoint presentations. I’ll never get those hours back.

Fewer PowerPoints would make this a better world.

A presenter and an audience should have real, authentic conversations. Such conversations almost never involve a PowerPoint presentation.

PowerPoint presentations might be helpful when someone is sharing graphs, pictures or other visual content. Too often, though, PowerPoint slides are overcrowded with text that stifle communications, especially when the presenter reads aloud—word-for-word—the endless prose projected onto the screen.

I believe fewer PowerPoints would make this world a better place in which to live, to learn and to work. Do you agree?

Towards that end, I hereby resolve that during the coming New Year I will become a better communicator by minimizing or even eliminating the boring PowerPoints that threaten to clutter my life. Are you with me? Will you join me in this important revolution? Here’s what I commit to do.

When I’m presenting, I resolve to:

  1. Use PowerPoint only when it is the best option for communicating. Contrary to popular opinion, not every workshop or training session requires a PowerPoint. When I’m in front of an audience, I’d much rather talk with people rather than at them. I want to create an atmosphere where we have an authentic conversation. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a real conversation that included a PowerPoint presentation.
  2. Never create a PowerPoint using bullet points. Okay, there’s a slight chance I’ll break this resolution if I’m trying to explain a hierarchy of ideas. Wouldn’t it be better, though, to create a separate slide for each bullet point? That would make things cleaner and would also keep the slides moving faster.
  3. Never use complete sentences on a PowerPoint slide. If the audience needs the exact wording of something for future reference, I can provide that in a handout. Otherwise, a couple of keywords or images on the screen will be enough to focus our attention and prompt me to say—in my own words—whatever idea I’m trying convey. Read the rest of this entry »

Help Stamp Out Photo Clichés!

June 18, 2013

Photo clichés. You know you’re looking at one if you see a picture you’ve never seen before, yet somehow you feel like you’ve already seen it a thousand times.

Shooting a cliché requires little creativity. All you have to do is copy something you saw someone else do.

Examples of photo clichés include:

  • Your bare feet at the end of a lounge chair pointed towards a sunny beach. I’ll forgive this cliché if the feet have a nice pedicure and they’re connected to great looking legs.
  • Food or drinks you’re about to consume in a restaurant. Haven’t we all done this?

    Is a selfie still a cliche if the reflection is a rain-spotted windshield instead of a bathroom mirror?

    Is a selfie still a cliché if the reflection is on a rain-spotted windshield instead of a bathroom mirror?

  • Selfies taken in a bathroom mirror. I guess taking your own picture is better than having a portrait photographer follow you into the bathroom to capture that tender “duck face” moment.
  • Snow accumulations on your back deck or front porch. Okay, I myself posted such pictures on Facebook and Instagram just four months ago, so I’m not claiming to be sinless.
  • Bridal parties outdoors jumping into the air. Knees are usually bent showing their extra loft in that brief, defiant push against gravity. (My daughter proofreads my blog posts and she reminded me how much she likes that photo in her wedding album.)
  • Donor check presentations. These are always published for donor recognition and seldom for reader interest. The good news is that nonprofit newsletters are becoming obsolete so we won’t see these clichés nearly as often.

So what’s the solution? How can we shoot more creatively and avoid taking boring, cliché pictures? Here are a few suggestions for us amateur photographers who want to be more interesting: Read the rest of this entry »


Three Premises for Effective Social Engagement

May 7, 2013

Within the American Red Cross, we prefer to use the term “social engagement” rather than “social media.” The word media focuses on tools and technology. Engagement, on the other hand, defines the desired outcome of interacting with our community through the use of social networks.

Last week I spoke at a statewide conference attended by public information officers (PIOs) from various government agencies. There I outlined the following three premises for effective social engagement:

Premise #1. Social engagement requires human interaction between two or more people.

Too often, corporations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations speak in an authoritative, inanimate voice. Interacting with them on various social networks feels like you’re dealing with a robot, not a real person.

Granted, the name or face of the person speaking from within the organization is seldom identified. Yet the corporate entity should at least act and sound as if it is a real person.

The more human an organization becomes, the more likely people will engage with it.

Premise #2. If you’re not having conversations, you’re not using social media right.

Some organizations push information outward, mistakenly believing that one-way communication is sufficient to connect with people.

The best organizational communicators are good conversationalists. They listen. They join existing conversations. They offer additional information and, when needed, correct misinformation. They welcome comments and thrive on the ensuing interactions.

I am most impressed with organizations that engage me in conversations where I feel as if I’m talking over a cup of coffee with a friend.

Premise #3. Success in social engagement requires the deliberate blending of personal and professional.

People like doing business with people they trust. Trust is built as we get to know each other as real humans. A formal, sanitized professional persona does little to connect or to engage us with others.

Professionally, I am known mostly as a marketing strategist and a communicator. That’s a narrow definition of who I am, though. On a personal level, I’d also like people to know that I’m a husband, father, friend, mentor, teacher, blogger, volunteer and community citizen. I’m much more effective professionally when people know something about me personally, something more than what’s printed on my business card.

In summary, I have some simple advice to anyone responsible for creating content on a corporate Facebook page, Twitter feed or other social platform.

Be real.

Be conversational.

Be personal.

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When Does a Cliché Become a Cliché?

April 28, 2013

At the end of a long day filled with horrific TV news saturation, I tweeted,

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase “our thoughts and our prayers.” When does it become a cliché?

“It doesn’t (become a cliché),” said the first person to respond. “Provided it’s said with sincerity, it’s the right thing to say.” Within minutes I received several similar replies. “Only when it is insincere,” said one. “When we stop feeling it,” said another.

For the record, I never questioned the sincerity of the public officials who expressed those sentiments. Public Information Officers are trained, after all, to offer statements, and I believed the array of spokespeople were truly sincere in what they said.

Yet, throughout the day, I heard the phrase “our thoughts and our prayers” so many times that it began to sound trite and canned. When the same words or phrases are repeated often enough, they sound like clichés, at least to me. Perhaps they were not clichés when they initially rolled from the mouths of various speakers, but they likely sounded that way when they hit the ears of the listeners.

A cliché sincerely expressed is still a cliché. For example, I’ve interviewed many job applicants who were sincere in the answers they gave. Their responses sounded trivial, though, because they used the exact same words to tell me the exact same things other candidates were saying. Sure, the interviewees were sincere, yet they failed to stand out because they relied too heavily upon worn clichés.

So when does a cliché become a cliché? Is the answer determined by the sincerity of the speaker? Or, could oft-repeated phrases automatically become clichés when the listener has heard them so many times they lose their original punch?

Canned phrases, sanitized talking points and clichés do not get the job done. Spokespeople need to find new ways to keep their messages fresh and relevant. They should speak from the heart and express sincerity in their own unique voice, avoiding the exact same phrases others rotely repeat.

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