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What Bias is Hiding in Your Writing?

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

Yogi Berra was right.  You can, in fact, observe a lot by watching. The baseball great, who would have turned 93 this weekend, had his fair share of Yogi-isms, but this one has always been my favorite.

Yogi Berra was one of baseball’s greatest catchers, one of the Yankees’ greatest players, and one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. He didn’t set out to be a communications icon, but the little delights of his catchphrases have lived on far beyond the baseball diamond.

I was thinking of this particular phrase recently, while hosting a workshop for a group of communications professionals who wished to examine how their stories were sticking with various audiences. Early on, I could sense that the group was confident about their individual approaches: they were doing what they needed to do in order to inform the content they were producing.

Everything seemed in good working order until I asked a few additional questions about how often members of the group listened to their readers, how they curated story ideas and how they collected feedback.  It wasn’t long before the group realized that they could all stand to do a bit more listening, and a lot more observing. Not necessarily of others, but of their own individual practices.

Observation is so much more than just watching, or listening–it’s a much deeper mental process. Observation allows us to understand information in new ways; it helps us see what’s possible, what’s feasible, and what’s avoidable. And while it is one of the most critical aspects of storytelling, it’s not always employed effectively.

Think about it: How much time do you spend observing your work, and what do you do with the information you collect? If you’re developing content for your organization, who are you calling on for interviews, and who might you be leaving out? How often are you inviting in feedback from your community, and how are they informing what you write about?  How does that investment of time in observation compare to the time you spend formulating ideas, opinions, or content?

Observing is hard, I get it. There’s so much to be done, in so little time, often with so few resources, that we must just keep pressing forward.  Press the story forward, press the campaign forward, press the strategy forward. Observe as best as you can along the way.

But, what if you’re missing something crucial in how you’re presenting information, or packaging stories?  What might more regular observation uncover?

Later this week, I’ll sit down with Ed Yong of The Atlantic to talk about one very important observation he made about his own work, and what he has since done as a result of that observation. We’ll be joined by the founder of StoryCollider, Liz Neeley, who is pushing the envelope in how science stories are told, and how they can be told more simply, and authentically.  They’ve both mastered the art of observation, and I’m thrilled that they plan to share some of their well-honed tips with us.

Our daily lives are busy, and our task lists endless. The notion of observing our own storytelling practices doesn’t always seem feasible.  But, to get to the heart of your best stories, consider Yogi Berra’s words. You may be surprised by what you might uncover.

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Building Trust: Tips for Becoming a Better Spokesperson

By Carrie Fox

Earlier this week, I facilitated a media training workshop for a group of senior leaders in sustainability, though I admit the session featured more far more than media training 101. With a mix of traditional media training, presentation training and message development, we had a busy but powerful day. And in just a few hours’ time, we saw each of our spokespersons improve their confidence and their ability to articulate their most powerful messages.

How did we do it?  Through teaching the art of improv.

The premise is simple. Improv performers don’t know what will happen onstage until they’re up there. They must know their lines, but they’re not reciting their lines from memory. They’re delivering a message, in the moment, and pivoting as needed to deliver their most compelling performance.

However, most spokespersons enter into media interviews or presentations with long winded talking points or a script that doesn’t easily allow for real-time pivoting, which reduces their ability to establish credibility. As we all know, conversations simply aren’t linear, and spokespersons—very similar to actors—must anticipate what might come next.

As I’ve shared in recent posts, to be an effective spokesperson or communicator of any kind, you must know with whom who you are speaking, and calibrate to their needs. What do they want to know? What do they expect to hear? And how can you serve as the best resource for them in that moment?

In his book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face?, Alan Alda (yes, Alan Alda) and his 6-year-old grandson discover an unusual tree. His grandson asks, “how did it get like that?” and thrilled with his curiosity, Alda jumps at the moment to talk about evolution — for 45 minutes. The next day, Alda overhears his grandchildren talking, and when his granddaughter says “that sounds like a question for grandpa,” his grandson replied, “I’m not making that mistake again.”

As Alda shares in his book and as we taught in the training, understanding your audience is the most important step to building trust and credibility. The more we establish a connection with our audience, the better chance they’ll listen to what we have to say—and possibly even accept it.

Here are a few other tips we shared in this week’s training:

Keep your Key Message Points Close.  Think about your role of spokesperson as an actor on the set of a film. You must know your lines, but you’re not reading your lines…you’re reacting to what the other person just said. And to do that, you must be an excellent and active listener.  Getting comfortable in the active listening role means that you MUST know your content. Spend time committing your key messages to paper, and practicing them (out loud), which will allow you to act in confidence that you’ll be able to pivot wherever an interviewer goes.

Practice the Basics. Being an effective spokesperson means more than owning your lines.  It means being ready for the unexpected.  Think about who your audience is and what they might ask you.  Force yourself to think beyond the expected questions to uncover the tough questions. In our session, we used a bean bag to literally toss “hardballs” to one another as a way to practice active listening and to stay on our toes. Remember, preparation leads to increased confidence, which leads to your ability to achieve your goal: delivering a powerful and compelling message on behalf of your organization.

Step into their World. This phrase is a mainstay in improv. It’s a reminder that the scene isn’t about focusing on you. It’s about focusing on other people and the setting, rather than making yourself or your message the center of attention. In an interview, you’re also part of a scene that’s larger than yourself. Even if it feels like you’re the center of attention, remember you’re there to show how you fit into the whole picture. What role can you play? How can you best contribute to the development of this story?

Listen Fully, and Keep your Eyes on the Audience.  The best place for your eyes is on your audience—not in your notes, or on your PowerPoint presentation. Practice holding your gaze just long enough to make a connection with your interviewer or audience. And when you must reference your notes, do not read from them. Use your notes as a reminder, but nothing should ever come out of your mouth when you’re looking at down at those notes.

When building trust, it all comes down to preparation. You must start by knowing your messages, but you’ll find success once you’ve built a routine of preparation and practice.  And by keeping your audience at the center of the story, you’ll be ready for prime time, in no time.

Interested in improving your skills as a spokesperson or presenter?  Email me to learn more about our upcoming media, message and presentation training workshops.

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Three Ways to Make Your Message Stick

By Carrie Fox

Think about the last request you made of someone that went unanswered. Maybe it was to a colleague, a potential funder, or a journalist.

Why do you think they didn’t respond?

Maybe the request came in at a bad time. Maybe it was communicated on the wrong platform, buried in an inbox, left on a voicemail that’s rarely checked, or lost in LinkedIn messaging. Or, maybe the message itself was just plain off. Not relevant. Not interesting. Not understood.

According to a recent survey of nonprofit communicators, more than 7 out of 10 nonprofits describe their messaging as feeling “off target,” but those same communicators are at a loss for how to adjust their messages for increased “stickiness.”

The good news is that those who are getting regular (and positive) responses from their requests all have three little things in common with their messaging: they are real, they’re relatable, and they’re repeatable.  Great communicators can articulate their requests in such a way that others embrace them freely and actually feel compelled to provide support.

So, where do most communicators go wrong? They bury their own headlines. They bury their why – the reason that this message matters to the reader, and the reason it matters now.  Instead of articulating that ask right up front, they bury it in paragraph after paragraph of conversation and copy, rather than simply inverting that conversation and leading with their most important point. By the time the ask is made, the reader is almost always long gone.

What we’ve learned in the last several years of watching how people communicate is that there are three kinds of messages that spur action. And when used in tandem, the power of this message trifecta truly comes to life:

1. Make it Real

If you want someone to do something for you, you’ve got to give it to them straight. That means in plain language. Put the technical speak aside, and speak to your audience as you would speak to a friend. Some individuals believe that the more complex their message, the more impressive. But just the opposite is true. The simpler you can make your messages, the more compelling it will be.

2. Make it Relevant

After 20 years of pitching stories to the media, I’ve gotten pretty used to hearing, “but tell me why THIS story matters.”  What’s different about this ask, and why should your audience care? Relevant messages are those that people hold on to; they’re the kind of messages that tap into people’s heads and hearts simultaneously. Relevance is also a vital door opener to any ask, so be sure to show that you’re in sync with what’s happening in the world of your audience, and that you understand where you fit in to their agenda. Do this well, and you’ll find your audience turning into your best advocates and allies.

3. Make it Repeatable

Feed your audience a good story that proves why they should care. Stories help people who are less familiar with your work understand its impact, but they also provide a ready-made vehicle to get others talking. Tell a story that can help to bring the importance of your ask to life, and you’re much more likely to make someone remember it and then repeat it to someone else.

So, to get your next big ask to stick, ask yourself the following before you hit send:

  • Is it real? Are my words simple and understandable?
  • Is it relevant? Have I made it clear why I’m asking now, and what kind of impact this support could make?
  • Is it repeatable? Have I done a good enough job proving myself? Have I included a story or anecdote that reinforces my point in a compelling way?

Nail this messaging trifecta and know that your chances of a positive reply are surely improved.

Looking for more communications tips? Sign up here to receive our next monthly newsletter where I’ll share the power of communicating with empathy—and the top ten ways you can do it better at work and in life.