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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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.
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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 »
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:
- 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.
- Cheesy images or clip art. Not every slide needs artwork. If in doubt, leave it out. Less is more, and I appreciate simplicity.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hyperlinks. Really? If I can’t click on them, don’t show them to me.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 »
May 13, 2011
Any success I might claim as a marketing and communications professional would necessarily include a lengthy and sincere list of acknowledgements. The English poet John Donne observed, “No man is an island.” In other words, we are all interdependent. Other people always contribute to our success.
In my work, I am most productive when I am surrounded by people who are:
- Grateful. They are glad to be alive and they find things to be thankful for. With an abundance mindset, they focus on what they have rather than obsessing on their deficits.
- Strategic. They think before they act. Before succumbing to the gravitational pull of tactics, they think things through in a purposeful way. They wrestle with questions that begin with the word why?
- Competent. Once they see the big picture and understand why something is important, they know what to do and how to do it.
- Curious. Curiosity never killed anyone. I love interacting with those who think with a beginner’s mind. They are the antithesis of so-called experts who already know the right (and only) way to do something.
- Creative. With a curious mind, creative people look at things differently. They see patterns that others miss. They are able to juxtapose existing ideas in a way that creates something new.
- Innovative. The Harvard professor Theodore Levitt put it this way: “Creativity thinks up new things. Innovation does new things. There is really no shortage of creativity or of creative people in business. The shortage is of innovators. The major problem is that so called “creative” people often pass on to others the responsibility for getting down to brass tacks. They have plenty of ideas but little business-like follow-through. They themselves are the bottleneck. They make none of the right kind of effort to help their ideas get a hearing and a try.”
On the other hand…
Occasionally I encounter individuals who drain my energy and erode my effectiveness. They are:
- Victims. When something goes wrong, it’s never their fault. Someone else is to blame. They’ve had bad luck and were the unfortunate victims of circumstances. They feel powerless, living their lives in a reactive rather than a proactive mode.
- Dinosaurs. They remember the good old days when things were much better. (I really think they just have very selective memories.) The world changes too fast to accommodate those who cling to the status quo, refusing to adapt to the climate changes.
- Devil’s Advocates. They don’t move conversations forward, though they try to appear intelligent with their searing questions. They hinder progress. They are usually part of the problem, not the solution.
So, that’s my list. What’s on yours?
March 29, 2011
Sometimes marketing is viewed as a magical elixir that will somehow cure whatever ails you.
In my 20-plus years of marketing experience, I’ve come to realize that good marketing is based more upon common sense than upon creativity. Though marketing can work wonders, it is not a panacea that will transform failure into success.
As much as I value good marketing, I believe there are times not to launch a marketing campaign. My advice is to delay any marketing activities when:
- We are unclear what success will actually look like. Without clearly defined goals, we are merely groping in the dark, hoping to grasp something—anything—of value.
- We feel compelled to act before we think. In our fast-paced world, we will always experience the strong gravitational pull of urgency. Focusing on what is urgent, though, will often entice us to overlook strategy and jump prematurely into tactics.
- We want to begin with communications. A good marketing process ends with communications but that’s never a good place to begin.
- We focus on obstacles rather than opportunities. Though we must always understand reality, we will never leave the starting blocks if we focus on the hurdles between us and the finish line.
- We have no champion for the product or service. We may all agree that a particular program is important, but unless someone with passion assumes ownership of the program’s success, it will flounder. Of course, marketers will be the easy targets of those who need to blame someone for a product’s failure.
- We believe everything will be okay if only we can “get the word out.” I cannot be more emphatic in stating this: raising awareness is not a marketing goal.
- We talk more than we listen. Marketing success on a 2.0 world is all about having conversations, not trying to speak louder.
- We are unable to profile a target audience. Only the naive believe there really is such a thing as the “general public.” We are headed towards marketing failure if we neglect to define a primary audience. After all, to target everyone is to hit no one.
- We ignore the concept of marketing exchanges. Marketing is based upon the premise that we must build win-win relationships where we exchange value for value. Marketing is never a one-way transaction.
- We cannot differentiate our product or service. If we don’t know who our competitors are, and if we cannot articulate how we are different and better, then my advice is simple: Turn off the lights, lock the door and go home. The party is over.
October 27, 2010
Engage in interactive conversations with my national leaders.
Our national headquarters in Washington D.C. is staffed by a solid team of marketing and communications leaders who “know their stuff.”
Though I’ve only exchanged e-mails with our national president and CEO, Gail McGovern, I have great confidence in her leadership. I’m also proud of the fact that she left her position as a marketing professor at Harvard University to become our national leader. How cool is that!
Gail is surrounded by professionals who have a lot to share. I mostly interact with those who work in marketing, communications, public affairs and financial development.
Nationally, the Red Cross is becoming one seamless organization, much more so than any other major nonprofit I’m familiar with. I am pleased that our process of becoming “one Red Cross” does not feel like a top-down, dictatorial directive. Rather, it’s a highly-interactive process led by our national leaders. We connect using frequent conference calls, webinars and training sessions. Project leaders solicit considerable input from the field.
As we move forward, I’m eager to continue interacting with people I like and respect.