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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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 »

Things I Hope Never to See (Again) in a PowerPoint

July 15, 2012

Recently I awoke from a long afternoon nap. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked around and realized I was in a conference room with other people.

At the other end of the room was a laptop, a projector and a screen. On the screen I saw a sleep-inducing PowerPoint that served as the teleprompter for a presenter who spoke in a monotonous, soothing and hypnotic voice.

Hoping no one noticed my return from a soporific state, I reached for my pen and tried to give the impression I was taking notes. Instead, I found myself making a list of things I hope to never again see in a PowerPoint presentation. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. More than six words per slide. PowerPoint should be the backdrop against which the “actor” performs. With more than six words on a slide, it’s too easy for a speaker to use it as a teleprompter and read from a prepared script.
  2. Cheesy images or clip art. Not every slide needs artwork. If in doubt, leave it out. Less is more, and I appreciate simplicity.
  3. Spreadsheets or tables. Some business people do not realize that PowerPoint and Excel are actually two different Microsoft Office products. For me, a spreadsheet projected onto a screen never works. Never.
  4. Fancy slide transitions. The purpose of cute transitions is simply to wake up an audience, alerting them that a new (and hopefully more interesting) slide is coming. If the presentation is designed correctly in the first place, elaborate transitions are merely distractions.
  5. Hyperlinks. Really? If I can’t click on them, don’t show them to me.
  6. Bullet points. Here’s an idea:  take each bullet point and make a separate slide for each. Then move more quickly from slide to slide.

Somewhere right now, someone is preparing a PowerPoint presentation that I must endure in the coming days or weeks. If I could give that person only one bit of advice, it would be this:  Please, please read Garr Reynold‘s book Presentation Zen.

The book gives practical advice on reaching an audience through simplicity and storytelling. Now in its second edition, the book is available in both paper and digital formats. I own both, so next time I’m incarcerated by another boring PowerPoint presentation, I can make good use of that time and re-read Presentation Zen on my iPad.


Three Reasons Why I Write News Releases

July 8, 2012

In my career as a corporate communicator, I’ve written hundreds of news releases. My reasons for writing those releases fall into three categories:

  1. I have something newsworthy to share. The only good reason to write a news release is because it contains actual news. That’s so basic that any further explanation would only be condescending to my esteemed communications colleagues.
  2. I need to recognize a donor or partner. In the nonprofit world, a donation will occasionally carry with it a high expectation for publicity. In such cases, it’s pretty easy to decipher the communicator’s motives for writing a news release. If the headline and first paragraph focus mostly on the donor, you can assume that donor recognition was the primary reason. Granted, many sizable donations have a significant impact in the community. That is inherently newsworthy and therefore deserving of a news release (which would automatically move it to my first category).
  3. I am too weary to fight internal politics. Entrenched within any organization, you will find someone who believes that his or her “cotton candy” fluff is newsworthy. (Actually, if you’re a communicator, that person will find you.) Perhaps they want recognition during a special month honoring their particular profession. Maybe they just feel good about what they do and want the world to know. Reluctantly, I’ll admit that on rare occasions I’ve taken the path of least resistance and written an insipid press release merely to pacify someone for political reasons.

Three Questions to Ask Up Front

Here are three questions that help me to focus on writing news releases that actually contain news. These are also good questions to ask at the beginning of any communications project.

  1. Who do we want to communicate with? If we don’t know who we are targeting then we should not be communicating. To speak to all is to speak to none. There is no such thing as the general public.
  2. Why do we want them to have this information? What do we want the target audience to do with the information we share? Is there a call to action? “Getting the word out” is a means to an end. Raising awareness is a process, not a goal.
  3. What is the best way to share this information with them? A news release is typically distributed through the traditional media—TV, radio or newspaper. Sometimes, though, social media can be a much more effective way to communicate with a target audience. At other times we might find it most effective to mail a letter, send an email or write a handwritten note. After all, a news release is not the only tool in a communicator’s toolbox.

By definition, a news release contains news. For good reason, it is not called a publicity release. Disseminating news is the only valid reason to write a news release. Doing so for any other reason compromises our integrity and relevance as professional communicators.

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Marketing OR Communications? If You Had to Choose, Which Would You Pick?

August 8, 2011

For years I have been amused when a nonprofit organization would label one of its key departments “Marketing AND Communications.” To me, that always seemed redundant. After all, you never hear a CFO claim responsibility for the Department of Finance, Accounting and Accounts Payable.

A university president once talked with me about leading his marketing and communications team. When I asked if he would consider shortening the title for simplicity, he emphatically declined. For that and other reasons, neither of us seriously considered forming a working partnership.

Later, when I taught marketing at another university, I spent considerable time talking about the relationship between marketing and communications. I never believed the two terms were synonymous or interchangeable, and I drilled into my students the concept that communications comes at the end of the marketing process.

Five years ago I left my position as Vice President of Marketing at United Way. Although communications was part of my portfolio, it always grated on me when my CEO referred to my department as “marketing and communications.” Although I appreciated his thorough description of my team’s role, I also thought he was being unnecessarily redundant.

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Career Transition, Blog Posts and a Presidential Hug

July 7, 2011

Three months ago I learned that my job at the American Red Cross would likely be eliminated.

Nationally, the Red Cross has been undergoing a massive, top-to-bottom reorganization that will affect every person affiliated with the organization. The restructuring will reduce expenses and increase revenues, all with a focus on keeping the mission relevant in a rapidly-changing environment. To their credit, our national leaders have openly shared the unfolding changes via e-mails, online videos and frequent conference calls.

Anticipating that my position would be among those eliminated by the end of the summer, I shared the discomforting news with my wife and family. Then, with the clock ticking towards the start of a new fiscal year, I launched an under-the-radar job search. I first revised my resume and LinkedIn profile. With the full understanding and support of my boss, I shifted my networking into a higher gear and sent e-mails to a couple dozen strategically-placed contacts. I was encouraged by their immediate offers to help.

Prior to launching the public phase of my job search, I developed personal business cards, a career-highlights brochure and an assortment of collateral materials to use when the appropriate time came. Read the rest of this entry »


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