The Presentation Tip Guaranteed to Improve Your Performance

Have you ever started into a presentation and thought: If only I could push the reset button.

You were ready. You rehearsed. You even practiced in front of your dog. And yet, there you stood, as the energy of your audience slowly started to fade.

It’s happened to just about everyone, at some point. We misread a room, we don’t have proper context for who presented before us on that stage, or what else was on the mind of that potential donor. Perhaps we were simply so focused on delivering our own presentation that we failed to give our audience any good chance to enter into conversation with us.

As presenters, we’ve got 30 seconds (or less) to make a first impression. That first 30 seconds cements the tone of the entire presentation. If you don’t connect with your audience then, you’re likely not going to.

There’s a technique we teach at C.Fox; the same technique proven by the very best presenters in the world. And it’s guaranteed to change the way you think about opening your next presentation.

Rather than eking your way through every performance, use a little trick that makes connecting with your audience in that first 30 seconds incredibly sticky.

Ask a question.

Before your name. Before your opening remarks. Before your title slide. Ask a question.

So many presenters think the way to drive engagement right from the start is to tell a story. And they are halfway correct. Yes, storytelling is a powerful device. But, what many people fail to realize is that just diving into a story, no matter how compelling, doesn’t allow your audience a very good chance to become active listeners.

Opening with a question, like “Do you have kids?”, “Have you ever gone to bed hungry”, or “When’s the last time you went 24 hours without a phone?” gets your audience immediately and personally engaged in what you have to say.

The best presentations put the audience first. And that’s exactly where you want them as you lay out your case and deliver your call to action. Opening questions invite in, rather than tune out, your audience right from the start – which is unfortunately what happens when you lead with a slide “About Us”. (The fastest way, in fact, to lose your audience.)

So, as you gear up for that next donor pitch or presentation—as you practice your anecdote and prepare in front of your dog—consider starting with a question, and prepare to feel that room stick with you.

5 Ways to Use Twitter for Social Good

Twitter turned 10 years old on Monday, and, true to the spirit of the medium, tributes and analyses have been flooding in all week long.

We’ve seen “best of” lists and “history of Twitter” timelines. Tongue-in-cheek odes to Twitter Moments, and attempts to satisfy that collective need for instant gratification. We’ve seen at least a few observations about the world of “two Twitters”: the public company (which has lost 75% of its value in the past two years) and the “real-time information service” (which everyone loves.)

Whatever your take on Twitter and it’s “more or less uncertain future”, as Mathew Ingram of Fortune wrote this week, there’s no denying that it has fundamentally changed the way human beings interact. Specifically, in the ways we relay, and also consume, information.  At C.Fox, we leverage both sides of that give-and-take equation in communicating stories of social good.

It seems fitting then, for the occasion that this week we offer 5 Ways to Use Twitter for Social Good:

1. Twitter allows for “democratic philanthropy.” In this post for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, columnist Tom Watson explains how Twitter empowers individuals to play just as big a role in advancing social causes as “moneyed philanthropists”. He wrote: “On Twitter, it’s not who you know, it’s who you are, what you say, what you share, and how valuable your information is. Yes, Bill Gates will always have more followers than you do. But on Twitter, you’re in the conversation.”

2. It gives a powerful voice to those who feel voiceless.  In this New York Timespiece, activist DeRay McKesson, who protested the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, explains:  “What Twitter has done, specifically for traditionally marginalized and underrepresented communities, has redefined the public sphere. When I think about Missouri, people would’ve convinced you that we just did not exist in August 2014. Twitter was where the links were shared. It was where the images were shared. Literally, when people were told what was happening, it galvanized the nation.”

3. There’s really no better breaking news source for the events that shape our world. From the Fortune post: “The moment that US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, and Janis Krums put a photo of it on Twitpic; the protests in Iran and then in Egypt during the Arab Spring; earthquakes and tsunamis, mass shootings and men on the space and everything in between—that’s the Twitter beloved by news junkies everywhere.”

4. Its tools help you get smart – fast – on the conversations, causes, and campaigns that matter. If quick insights are your goal, Twitter Polls are a free, easy, time-bound, and wildly popular feature (the company reports that 1.7 billion votes have been cast since Polls were introduced last fall.) And tools like Twitter lists help you curate the most influential voices in your universe, easily scan for developments within the causes you care about, and stay organized all the while.

5.  In just a few characters, it can inspire and remind us of the many reasons we do this work. In short, it’s what #GivingTuesday has done for philanthropy, or what #BostonStrong did to keep a community together. It’s what #BringBackOurGirls did to spark a debate on the role of social media in foreign policy or what #SFBatKid did to restore our faith in humanity. Twitter shines brightest when it gives us instant access to humanity—at its very best, and sometimes at its worst. And in these 10 years, it’s given us more than one good reason to do good, for the good of others.

Happy Birthday, Twitter. May you always inspire us to do good.

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We Need More Unsolvable Problems

Do you think you could tie a ponytail with one hand?

How about tie shoe laces with one working arm?

Maybe you think you could insert a contact lens with weakened arms and hands?

Better still, could you design and effectively communicate a solution to any of these limited only by time, your creativity, and a $100 budget?

Not unsolvable, but not easy either. And yet that’s just what each freshman in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University experiences in the mandatory Design Thinking and Communication (DTC) course. It’s a remarkable offering that is more journey than course. It challenges students to fail as much as it challenges them to succeed.

And that is where the intersection is for me.

No matter the discipline, in order to meaningfully succeed and change lives, there needs to exist a willingness to go after the unsolvable and, as a consequence, experience failure along the way. And I mean really experience failure like some of these students do when they share their prototypes with people struggling with disabilities. It’s in those humbling moments in front of peers and those we most want to impress that failure can prove a great catalyst for advancement and innovation.

And the sooner we start failing the better. As Dr. Michael Milligan Executive Director of ABET an engineering program accrediting organization and C.Fox client says of the DTC course, it’s unusual to require freshmen to design products for people. Most programs don’t allow that kind of coursework for several years. But by letting people experience failure earlier it can help prepare them for the larger, unsolvable challenges when a fear of failure or an inability to deal with it simply won’t be an option.

And let’s face it. Budgets are always too slim to think they can sustain failure—just ask a freshman with the $100 in the DTC course. And there never seems to be enough time to get the solution in the hands of those that need it—look no further than those the DTC students aim to help. Yet to get to the break through solutions and do truly meaningful work, it’s often necessary to allow some measure of time and dollars to fail in order to evolve into success. In our own work for clients we often build in time for a few healthy rounds of review. It helps us make sure we are giving ourselves time to take some chances and calculated risks as we create communications solutions for clients.

So while I will try to keep my failures to a minimum, they are sure to happen. My failures tackling daunting communications assignments and obstacles over the years have given me insight to not repeat them, to avoid them, to see them coming, to know what techniques eliminate them, and how to turn them into advantages. They’ve propelled me to refine my own wordy and lackluster pieces into award-winning writing and campaigns. It’s in those failures and in their lessons that the capacity to take on the bigger challenges of tomorrow can emerge. So go on. Find something unsolvable. Fail at it and then win at it.

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The Day The Music Died

This week marks the 57th anniversary of the passing of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, and the 21-year-old pilot of their chartered plane, Roger Peterson. Their deaths in the early morning hours shortly after takeoff from Mason City, IA en route to Fargo, ND shook the music world to its core back in 1959. Years later, the shock was still being felt when it inspired, in part, Don McLean’s 1972 number 1 hit “American Pie” in which he referred to February 3, 1959 as “the day the music died.”
The tragic loss of these young people nearly 60 years ago matters for more reasons than could reasonably be recounted here. But, as I read some of the reflections of this week, I was reminded that there is always much more to a story, tragic or otherwise, than meets the eye. I was reminded that when we look deeper at circumstances and events, we learn more and appreciate more about the people behind the story. If experience is a great teacher, story is her best tool.
To some, the story of that plane crash in an Iowa field is simply a recounting of a tragic incident and nothing more. For others it’s just the beginning of how one moment in time came to be and how it impacted so many other moments in its wake. But for me, it’s the stories within the stories- the ripple effect- that’s hard to forget. Why a bunch of young musicians were trying to cram 24 tour stops into a three week window in the first place. Why a plane piloted by a 21-year-old pilot was the better option to an unreliable and cold tour bus amid a mid-west winter. Why Valens only had a seat on that plane as a result of winning a coin toss. What became of those left to go on like Holly’s pregnant wife Maria, who miscarried shortly after Holly’s death, as well as those who would follow in the musician’s footsteps. (The Beatles named themselves with a nod to Holly’s band, the Crickets.)
Stories within stories.
We know that stories can be powerful tools to capture attention, help people to remember, move people to care, and lead them to take action. And very often, it’s the intersections that live within stories–those discoveries that aren’t readily known–that are the most harmonious of all.

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Stuck in a Rut? 5 Ways to Jump-start Your Creativity

Millions of Americans are still feeling the effects of last weekend’s record-breaking “Snowzilla” blizzard, recently ranked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the fourth worst snowstorm to hit the East Coast in more than half a century. And today, seven days later, we’re still reeling. I think I can safely speak for the masses here in Washington, D.C. when I say quite simply: We’re over it.

School closings and cancellations, communities still plowing side streets and clearing out cul de sacs, and snarled traffic all week long – it’s enough to make anyone feel stuck in a rut. And while it’s never fun to feel stuck, it got me thinking about the parallels we can draw to our work as professional communicators, constantly mindful of the need to keep our ideas and thinking fresh.

Just in case the winter blahs have also got you feeling in a rut, here are five tips for jump-starting your creative juices, courtesy of the C.Fox team:

  1. Change your physical location. Getting out of your seated position by standing or walking around forces a cognitive shift. At the C.Fox office in Bethesda, we have a “community standing desk”, which folks working from at different times throughout the day to keep those creative juices flowing – especially during those “I-need-a-boost” right-after-lunchtime hours.
  2. Pet a dog. (Seriously!) When you feel good, you’re more creative, and studies have shown that the simple act of quietly petting a dog for just 15 minutes produces an influx of “feel good” hormones that benefit both the human and the dog.  (Great news for our Chief of Staff, Baxter Fox, who’s been known to enjoy ample scruffs from Yours Truly on a regular basis for this very reason.)
  3. Get down to a kid’s level. This is a mantra of the working parents on our team, especially during these past few days of entertaining little ones indoors. Literally get down on the ground and try seeing life as a toddler would, or take a seat, “criss cross applesauce”, and take in the sounds and sights of the world around you. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes can do amazing things for your creativity.
  4. Rely on a little help from your friends. At C.Fox, when a member of our team sounds the “help, I’m stuck in a rut” alarm, we assemble what we call a “Big Think” – an all-hands-on-deck, rapid-fire, creative brainstorm session. Once we assemble, we hear everyone out: no idea is a bad idea. Then, collectively we whittle away at all of the concepts on the table until the best “gems” form. It’s amazing what we can come up with in 60, or even 30 minutes, of concentrated creativity.
  5. Turn the problem on its head – quite literally. Our own Carrie Fox has been known on more than one occasion to break out into a headstand when she’s feeling stuck and looking for a good idea.  If you’re equally daring, I encourage you to try this one too.Studies show – and yogis agree – that getting that blood flowing to your brain gives you a great energy boost and a whole new way of thinking how to tackle the problem!

We still have a ways to go before spring makes its glorious appearance (51 days away as of this writing, but who’s counting?) But this doesn’t mean you have to let winter blahs wreak havoc on your productivity. Next time you feel stuck in a rut, try at least one of the tips above, and you’ll be surprised at how soon your creative juices start flowing.

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A Different Kind of Hunger

In the snapshot, a young woman has paused to look in the mirror of the lobby of a building. She’s got her young daughter with her in a stroller: the little girl is bundled up in a coat and hat, rubbing her little eyes to fight the tug of sleep. The woman, camera in hand, is capturing the moment with a selfie. She’s titled the picture “Something to Smile About,” and it documents her experience struggling to make ends meet in the nation’s capital.

Next to the photo, a caption reads:

“I was still homeless, and I was still struggling to take my daughter to see a nanny so that I could go to work. I had to take a metro and a bus and the commute was difficult and I was feeling sad. But I looked in the mirror and thought to myself that there’s always something to smile about. Even though I was the one who was exhausted, my daughter was the one who was falling asleep, and that made me laugh.”

The woman’s name is Judith and she is one of seven Washington-area women whose photos went on public display this week at THEARC in Washington, D.C. as part of the opening of this city’s chapter of Witnesses to Hunger.

Witnesses to Hunger is a research and advocacy project that features the photographs, words, and up-close-and-personal experiences of “the real experts on hunger” – moms, dads, and caregivers of young children who are experiencing hunger and poverty, and it comes to D.C. in partnership with C.Fox client Martha’s Table.  Leveraging their own experiences, Witnesses advocate for local, state, and federal policies that help alleviate the challenges of poverty – from access to quality nutrition programs to affordable housing.

Listening and learning from each of these courageous women—Judith, Kim, Nef, Jessica, Lelise, Terra, and Renee — who chose to put the daily challenges of their lives on public display for the greater good was a powerful reminder that the strongest voices in any debate are often those least likely to be heard.  Their hunger to be ‘heard’ was felt loud and clear this week, as we became their witnesses to change.

To learn more about the Witnesses to Hunger project in partnership with Martha’s Table, click here.

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A Year in Stories

Earlier this week, Google launched its Year in Search, a look at the “biggest moments of 2015 and the trillions of questions they inspired.” From the refugee crisis to terror attacks, from overcoming prejudice to marriage equality, 2015 was a year full of defining moments that shaped our world view and our perspectives of one another.

I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on this year through the stories that impacted and inspired me. Stories that changed my views on issues, stories that drove me to take action. Stories that fueled my curiosity, and the focus of our agency’s work.  Then, of course, there were the stories that simply made me appreciate life.

This week’s intersection is a look back on 2015 through some of the stories that stuck with me most.  As we close out this year, my hope is that one or two of them inspires or energizes you, too. If they do, I hope you’ll let me know.

  • The most inspiring financial story of the year: Known by the nickname “Wall Street,” Curtis Carroll teaches financial literacy at San Quentin Prison, helping inmates prepare for life after incarceration, despite the fact that he is serving a life sentence. A must-listen. (The Kitchen Sisters/NPR)
  • The story that redefined the phrase “high school dropout”: This year, I found myself on the inside of neighborhoods in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., where students attend schools that cannot serve them, where young students are limited in their pathways to building real-world skills, and where promising young leaders live in communities that cannot keep them safe. Emily DeRuy captures the very real effects of allowing scores of young people to fall off the “adversity cliff.” (Emily DeRuy/National Journal)
  • The story that hit closest to home: In May of this year, the death of a young and promising journalist named Charnice Milton in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 hit us hard at C.Fox, especially because of the relationship we had just formed with her. This remembrance of her in The New Yorker is one of the most poignant, and served as a driving force in my own philanthropy this year. Related, Charnice’s last published storybefore her death is equally worth the read. (Sarah Stillman/The New Yorker)
  • The story that set the agenda for social change: Many well-intended organizations have announced plans for sweeping change, but have gotten into implementation and found that it’s easy to fall back into the same comfortable rhythm of before. But when the Ford Foundation announced it would focus entirely on inequality, it felt different. I found a valuable and relevant message in Darren Walker’s description of the future: “The way we work a year from now should look different than the way we work now.” (Alex Daniels/Chronicle of Philanthropy)
  • The story that I couldn’t forget: When a photo of drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi was released, it truly brought the migrant crisis into focus and made the tragedy personal. These words still ring in my head, from Aylan’s father after filling out forms at a morgue to claim the bodies of his family: “Now I don’t want anything. Even if you give me all the countries in the world, I don’t want them. What was precious is gone.” (Anna Barnard and Karam Shoumali/The New York Times)

As this small sample of stories shows, this was a year of great emotion, reflection and resolve. It was a year that deepened my respect for those who work to strengthen families and communities, and it was a year that reinforced our agency’s desire to tackle big issues from a new perspective.

As we close 2015, may you find peace and joy—and a deepened commitment to move your own mission forward in 2016.

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$45 Billion of Good

There are certain days that make the experience of welcoming a child into the world that much sweeter. I lived that a few years back when my first daughter entered the world, earlier than expected and right on Mother’s Day. It made me think being born on New Year’s Day, Father’s Day, or anytime around Thanksgiving Day would add something just a little extra special to an already surreal moment.

Such was the good fortune of Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg last week with the birth of their daughter. And shortly after, the new parents shared an open letter with their daughter—and the rest of the world—on the social media platform Zuckerberg created. In it, they shared their desire to commit themselves to work “advancing human potential and promoting equality for all children in the next generation.” They went on to pledge a remarkable financial investment to help achieve that work—99% of their stake in Facebook stock, presently valued at $45 billion.

What’s ensued since the letter’s release has been a largely supportive chorus of messages from like-minded philanthropists like Warren Buffet, Melinda and Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg. In contrast, some have aired questions about a system that allows for the amassing of such wealth and the potential negative consequences for its concentrated and possibly misguided deployment.

But what struck me was the intersection of the message’s substance and delivery method.

On substance, the vehicle through which the giving will take place—a limited liability company—will give their initiative flexibility to invest and become involved in issues in ways a traditional nonprofit structure would find challenging. And while possibly a less transparent model in terms of reporting on activities, it seems yet another sign of philanthropy moving to a more investment, entrepreneurial mindset that may well challenge the traditional structures we know today. In the wake of this announcement, it will be interesting to see what, if any, shift occurs in how others launch or restructure their giving.

On delivery, there’s a lot to appreciate. A traditional, personal letter juxtaposed with and executed on a digital platform. A message, at least in part, about giving released on the increasingly popular Giving Tuesday. A commitment to future generations set to the backdrop of the arrival of one of its participants. Add it all up and you’ve got a well-packaged message that may well be looked upon as pivotal in the work of purpose-driven organizations and those that support them.

The letter and the vision it lays out are reminders to us that these are both daunting and exciting times. While there are great challenges that stand in the way of the Zuckerberg’s envisioned future for their daughter, there is also great momentum from all sectors to bring their best resources and talents to bear. Most of all, it reinforces for us that this is indeed a good time to be doing good, for the good of others

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Continue the Mission

It was 2001 and New Yorker columnist Joe Klein was fresh into retirement.  But, that take at retirement would be short-lived. It would soon be September 11, 2001 and as he recounts, nine of his neighbors wouldn’t return home.

Klein spent the next several years covering the war and in his newest book, Charlie Mike (code for Continue the Mission), he explores the lives of veterans who continued their missions of service even after their formal military careers ended.

One of the veterans featured in the book is Jake Wood, co-founder of Team Rubicon. We first came across Jake and Team Rubicon in 2013 when the organization applied for our it Award. We’ve followed them with admiration ever since.

Team Rubicon came into existence in 2010, just days following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Veterans Service Organization, founded by Jake and fellow former Marine William McNulty, provides military veterans with purpose, community and self-worth through volunteer service by using their unique skills for disaster response, humanitarian crisis intervention, and community service.

Jake’s path of service is of particular interest to me. In continuing his mission, he found a way to keep advancing the work he loves, while creating a platform for thousands of veterans to do the same. As I reflect on his commitment to Continue the Mission, I see many lessons in his actions:

Complex Problems Require Teamwork: Team Rubicon’s success is a good reminder that when it comes to solving complex problems, such as responding to one of the worst-ever natural disasters in the western hemisphere, there’s tremendous value in creating space for new and different solutions, vs. relying on any one organization or idea to go it alone.

The Power of Purpose: Team Rubicon’s vision to build a veterans’ network of First Responders has delivered far more than aid to post-disaster recovery efforts. The network provides a renewed sense of purpose for veterans who miss the structure, mission and camaraderie of a military unit, and it gives them a new way to serve.

Never Underestimate Your Skill Set: Just as Team Rubicon volunteers have put their military training to work in new ways, we all have skills that can be used in new or different ways. Challenge yourself or your company’s hiring manager to look beyond what’s on the resume to how those direct skills may transfer to even greater reward in advancing your mission.

To learn more about Team Rubicon, or to support their work, visit

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A Nation of Givers Overlooked in a Season of Consumption

Last Sunday morning, around 8:00am, I found myself in a grocery store near my home. It’s actually a pretty peaceful time to be in a grocery store. I was about twenty feet into the store when I saw a clerk removing the last remnants of Halloween candy from the shelves. He was replacing them with snowflake-trimmed cookie tins and monster-sized holiday assorted chocolate samplers. And, so it had begun.

I couldn’t help but wonder, “when did we start glossing over Thanksgiving?” Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. But, it got me thinking about the messages we see, the perceptions we have, and actions we take as Americans as it relates to consuming and giving.

It’s widely held that Americans are voracious consumers — all too eager to spend and consume goods perhaps beyond our means. Yet, as overlooked as Thanksgiving is becoming as the holiday sandwiched between October and December, we still are a nation of givers — regularly giving away 2% of GDP (north of $300 billion) annually. Along with Myanmar, America is ranked number one in giving and stands alone across the giving dimensions of time, money, and helping a stranger. Even with that, it seems America is still often largely portrayed as consumer vs. giver of anything, including thanks.

As someone who wrestles with perceptions, realities, and how things are portrayed on a daily basis, I find things like Giving Tuesday (December 1 this year) now in its fourth year to be vital. It’s vital not only for the direct good that’s done, but it’s also a beacon of goodwill and philanthropy in America. And I’m encouraged to see creative extensions of Giving Tuesday like the storytelling competition backed by the Gates Foundation. In it, the Foundation is offering $5,000 micro-grants to further advance nonprofits that have benefitted by a remarkable act of generosity. The act of generosity is to be recounted on Facebook in an essay by those that provided it to the nonprofit and then the stories will be voted on by page visitors.

It’s efforts and actions like those that occur on Giving Tuesday, and everyday across the country, that are true catalysts of change in people’s lives. Perhaps finding ways to draw the focus to the giving that we do today would help encourage even more giving tomorrow. And at the same time, it might also swing the balance of perception so as not to forget how America can still be a nation for others first.

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