“Are You Still In the Office?”

Intersection readers in the DC-region, and many beyond, can probably recall the events of September 1, 2010 in Silver Spring, MD. It was the otherwise unremarkable Wednesday when James Lee took hostages at the headquarters of Discovery protesting Discovery Channel’s programming. Their headquarters was directly across the street from the headquarters of C.Fox Communications at the time. When Lee drew a handgun late that afternoon, police moved in, ending Lee’s life and saving those of the hostages.

At 3:37 pm that afternoon, before the situation ended across from our ninth floor office overlooking Discovery, I got an email from my dad in New Jersey. It asked simply, “Are you still in the office?”

At the time, I didn’t think about it much. I just replied briefly two-minutes later and moved on, while people far braver than I used skills far more important than mine to end chaos nearby.

When I re-read that email now almost six years since, the simplicity strikes me in contrast to the events of that day. Amid the complexity in so many lives and in so many ways a simple message stuck with me. It said so much, saying so little. The point was clear, without even being there. Perfectly thinly veiled masculinity. Something about it in the days following made me click File, Save As and I stored it away.

I say all of this as a reminder to intersection readers that you all have the ability to be powerfully profound communicators. You can all use communications for a change. You can all impact lives by what, when and how you communicate. Never forget it. Don’t always be so consumed by being technically correct, with process, the selection of every single word, your delivery, what channel you choose for your message, or always saying just “the right thing.” Those are all important things, but sometimes you just need to communicate. Don’t forget to communicate. Pick your spots. Find your voice. Connect with people. And remember simple sticks.

This Sunday would have been my dad’s 73rd birthday. He passed four months after that email. Happy birthday Dad. And yes, thankfully, I’m still in the office.

What’s Smart about the Dumbing Down of Language

In a recent Salon post, writer Erin Coulehan laments the dumbing down of language—a trend that, according to a new study, directly relates to one’s tendency to consume digital content. The study, which analyzed the writing samples of MBA students, found that “students who consume primarily digital content (such as Reddit and Buzzfeed) had the lowest writing complexity scores, while those who often read literature and academic journals had the highest levels of writing complexity.”

Beyond mourning the internet’s influence on writing style (“Not reading [classic literature] makes us sound pretty dumb and unrefined”), Coulehan seems far more perturbed by its harmful impact on “social perception and empathy.” She writes: “How sad for younger generations to not know the value of reading a text and subsequently becoming completely enthralled by the way the words make you feel. It seems we’re increasing exposed to gimmicky videos and emoji, full of sound and furious images of eggplants or crying –through-tear faces, symbolizing nothing.”

With respect, I must wholeheartedly disagree.

Now, I’m not exactly unbiased about emoji usage, which indeed seems to be taking over our linguistic ways of life. (Case in point: I recently texted the “grimace emoji” to my Cleveland Cavaliers-loving mother as a way to smooth over her complaints that I sent my son to school wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey.)  But emojis aside, I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here about the simplification of language—and it’s all about human connection.

The thing is, whether it’s the prevalence of memes, short phrases, or the recent proliferation of single words intended to convey strong feelings—paring down our communications to the simplest emotional elements works. And while obviously not appropriate ways to communicate in all settings, these devices remind us just how important it is to break through the clutter of an information-saturated world and connect with our audience at an emotional level.

In a recent New York Times essay about the proliferation of the word “thing” (and the ironic observation that “calling something ‘a thing’ is … itself a thing”), writer Alexander Stern agrees.

“It would be easy to call this a curiosity of language and leave it at that,” he writes, “[But] My assumption is that language and experience mutually influence each other. What might register as inarticulateness can reflect a different way of understanding and experiencing the world.”

In sum, although no one’s suggesting that you incorporate cat GIFs into your communications plan, I do encourage you to work harder to connect with your target audiences using the power of simple words.  As we know all too well in these troubling times, doing so can be a very effective way to leverage human connection for the greater good.

What I Know For Sure

When I was young, my mother would start each day by saying, “Do something good for yourself and for others.” It was her way of instilling the importance of service in me and my siblings, from a very early age.

Her spirit of generosity inspires so much of who I am, and what I do. So, when I started C.Fox more than a decade ago, it was only natural that service to others would be at the core of our business model. We work hard each day to give as much of our time and talent as we can to help drive the missions of meaningful nonprofit organizations forward.

Six years ago, we significantly increased our public commitment to service when we launched the inspired thought Award, a nationwide grant of pro bono dollars to support worthy nonprofits. Our 2015 award granted $50,000 in pro bono communications services, but it’s our very first it Award grantee that inspires this week’s intersection.

N Street Village is the largest provider of housing and services for women experiencing homelessness in Washington DC. In the last several years, they’ve also become a national model for effective solutions. In 2010, we awarded them our first pro bono grant to help build their brand, tell their story, and engage new audiences. But, that makes it sound like any run-of-the-mill assignment. Our work with N Street Village transformed how we think about service, and set the foundation for the role we aim to have in all client relationships.

Yesterday, at their 10th annual Empowerment Luncheon, which raises funds to help homeless and low-income women achieve stability and make life-changing personal and professional gains, I sat back in awe as Oprah Winfrey delivered keynote remarks. She spoke about her commitment to intentionality; how being intentional in her own decision-making had changed her life, and how she viewed N Street Village as an “intentional organization.”

She went on to say, “In life, we all want to know: Do you hear me? Do you see me? Everyone who works at N Street Village understands that principle. They know that every woman who comes through those doors wants to be seen, heard, and to know that her life matters.”

And then, Oprah Winfrey announced a surprise commitment of $1 million to support the organization’s mission.

It was remarkable, it was overwhelming. It was perfect.

Mark Twain said “the two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.”

I’m certain that I have yet to discover my why (though I like to think I’m on to something) but, in the words of Oprah Winfrey, there is “one thing I know for sure: we are who we are based on how we treat people.” Service of any kind—whether a big commitment like Oprah’s to N Street Village, or a small act of service designed to “do something good for others”—it all matters equally, and it will always bring out the best in others.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Kim for N Street Village)

Going to Extremes in Communications

How a Busy Catalog and a Blank Sheet of Paper Can Make You a Better Communicator.

Every day when I return home, my mailbox has two, three or sometimes four catalogs in it, and they’re rarely addressed to me. I’m sure there’s some direct marketing algorithm gone awry, but it really seems a costly error.

Regardless, one such mailbox trip this week took me back to my university days—to a creative writing class where I was given two writing assignments, one on each end of the communications spectrum. The first assignment had to do with catalogs. If you’ve ever been compelled, or required in my case, to read through a catalog, I’m fairly certain you’ve stumbled across a few mistakes in the writing. Such was the point of my professor’s assignment, which was to examine catalog copy for spelling and grammar errors, and clumsy word choices. Then, once we found all of the errors, we needed to fix them in the space allowed. Her point was to force us to confront, and not be afraid of writing in constrained spaces, as there is always room for proper communication.

The same professor swung us to the other extreme with her next assignment. This one involved examining a single sheet of white computer paper, and then writing no less than two typed pages describing it. That’s essentially 800 words to describe millimeter-thin nothingness. Not easy. So what’s a communicator to do? We had to establish the obvious, then look for the details which others might overlook. Focus on the things that others might take for granted. When given space to write on a complicated topic, we must find a way describe it more clearly than anyone else can.

The combination of these two exercises is an important intersection in the power of good writing. When you put them together in practice, one can come to take a diagnostic view of almost any topic and communicate succinctly about it. That’s when we win as communicators. Whether a simple or complicated topic, when you can appreciate and value perspective, and apply discipline in the delivery of the message, you’ll be well on your way to A+ communications.

How a Digital Detox Can Boost Your Creativity

“The right to disconnect isn’t necessarily an obligation to do so, but it’s an opportunity.”

New Yorker columnist Lauren Collins made this observation in an amusing column this week about the French government’s workplace reforms that include a suggestion to shut down after-hours email. The piece got me thinking that we should indeed strive to unplug from time-to-time to connect in other ways, focus on being better parents and partners, and recharge professionally—especially creatively.

If you’re thinking of trying to bring a spark back to your creativity with a break from the digital world, here are some ways to go about it:

 

  • Force yourself to be bored. In a recent article for Fast Company, author Martin Lindstrom argues, based on personal experience and interviews with other creative professionals that “you need to be a little bored in order to generate your most inventive ideas and produce your highest-quality work.” And while the notion of forced boredom could seem counter-intuitive, it’s true that I’ve had some of my best creative writing moments during those “deliberate rendezvous with our unhurried minds that take a real effort to keep.”

 

  • Seek out solitude. There’s no greater way to evoke empathetic writing than to be alone with your own thoughts. In a 2014 Atlantic article, Joe Fassler brilliantly underscores this point: Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you… You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.  It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you’ve experienced in your life become the writing that you do.” 

 

  • Make yourself open to new experiences. Scientific American recently featured an excerpt from the new book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. It sheds light on a concept I’ve come to appreciate as a writer and communicator. To be at your creative best, you’ve got to change up the status quo. As Kaufman and Gregoire note, “The revelations and methods of Burroughs, Kerouac and other Beat writers illuminated an important truth about creativity, which is now backed by scientific research. We need new and unusual experiences to think differently.” Whether the experience you choose for yourself is “new” or “unusual” the bottom line is that unplugging can open you up to your very best ideas.

So, just in case you need another reason to slow down and allow yourself the opportunity to disconnect—and perhaps more importantly connect in different ways—here are three. I hope you’ll put them to work in your own life, and see just how your creativity flows.

,

Life, as We Don’t Know it?

Sometimes, the most unexpected stories stick with us, for unexpected reasons.

Last month, I heard a fascinating interview on NPR with Columbia University astronomer David Kipping. Kipping and his team are hot on the trail of alien moons. Yes, alien moons.

Astronomers have discovered planets orbiting distant stars, but they’ve never discovered a moon outside of our solar system—which we’ve learned (or at least I did after hearing the interview) is the critical element in the search for life beyond our planet.

The tale of these alien moons has been running through my head for weeks, but not necessarily why you might think. On the surface, Kipping’s pursuit is indeed fascinating and important, made even more so as the interest and investment in space exploration rises and the idea of a life beyond Earth seems within reach.

But, I’m sorry to say, the science of alien moons isn’t what stuck with me.

Rather, I starting thinking about the intersection between those alien moons and the kind of remarkable investigation and discovery I see happening in the social sector.

For most of us in the business of doing good, we have certain “stabilizing” factors. Most of us remain grounded by the people we serve, the missions we fulfill, and the value we provide.

But, what would life be like if we looked beyond the stability of what we do, or what we’ve built in order to affect significantly greater change tomorrow?

I’ve been asking some variation of that question in strategy sessions I lead for clients since I first met Mauricio Lim Miller, who instilled the idea of “questioning the expected” in me a few years back. And, it’s a theme that’s been backed up in recent months through inspiring conversations with Plinio Ayala of Per Scholas and Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools.

Questioning the expected, and being willing to explore new ways for an idea to thrive is really at the heart of our new Mission Forward series, which launches today, and will feature the voices of dozens of thought leaders, including the three mentioned above.

Over the course of the next 18 months, I’ll be moderating conversations with each of them—individuals who have pursued their own “alien moons”; who have pushed themselves and their organizations to look beyond their own stability, to think bigger and bolder about what it takes to find life in a new idea—and the philanthropist or partner who chose to invest early in their idea.

The curious thing, I believe, is that there are commonalities in each of the changemakers who are pursuing new and different solutions to old questions, and it’s why I am so excited for this Mission Forward series.

Just like Kipping and his alien moons, if you’re on the hunt for something that can bring new life and new clarity to your organization’s purpose, and your drive forward, I do hope you’ll join me this summer and fall.

To finding your own alien moon—

Know All the Words You Can, Just Use Them Sparingly

Next week, we’re re-launching www.cfoxcommunications.com. It will have an updated design, new mobile friendly features, and a few other adjustments to keep the site fresh and inviting. One of those adjustments, includes updated bios for our team paired with a favorite communications-related quote.

The need for the quote sent me on a brief search, which started as many do, with Abraham Lincoln. I tend to look to Lincoln for a good quote because of his near universal appeal and wonderful control of language. In this case though, while he does have some interesting thoughts on things like semicolons, I settled on a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower to pair with my new bio. It goes like this:

“An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.”

As a communicator, I’d like to think that I fail this definition each time I open my mouth or type something. The second part of the quote actually isn’t related to communications at all. That seems more to do with a flaw of character than anything else. But in terms of communications, it’s the first part of the quote that I find meaningful.

It takes me back to teachers and family that always encouraged reading—anything really—to build a strong and deep vocabulary. Words were always thought of in my world growing up as an indicator of success. They were the foot soldiers of stature, credibility, and authority. Without the right words, those things weren’t attainable. But then somewhere along the way I became a professional communicator. And it was a very strange thing. Because for the longest time, what was valued and invested in was the acquiring of words and knowledge of them. That set up a battle with a life’s work that valued them differently. It’s a contrast I struggled with for a while and that I still many people struggle with today.

And why is that?

Well here’s the intersection for me. Yes, it is important to collect words over time. We need to know how to arrange them and understand the meaning and likely use of as many of them as possible. We come across all manner of people and circumstances in life and being able to reach into that vault and understand can be a way to establish, build, and maintain important life relationships. However, as communicators we must never lose connection to our audience. We must never even get close to leaving them behind, buried in, or distracted by excess. Our charge is to convey meaning, to move people to action, to help people feel and care—to communicate—not complicate.

So the next time, you write or say something and a person says “gee that sounded really smart”, stop them and genuinely ask them, “but did it mean anything to you?” If the answer is yes, then job well done. If the answer is no, there’s still work to be done. Use fewer words that carry greater meaning. That’s what’s really smart.

Sign up here to receive the intersection straight to your mailbox, every Friday morning.

Make Your Team Work in Harmony

Silos. Think about what it feels like to be in one. Head down, blinders on. Singularly focused on what you or your department needs to achieve.  As the great social change pioneer Bill Milliken has said, “it’s as if the drums are on one side of town, and the piccolos are in another.” Not exactly an inspired or joyful place to be, though it’s the way most of us work on a day-to-day basis.

When it comes to addressing and solving complex problems, nothing is more effective than when a team is working in harmony with one other. Singularly focused perhaps, but on moving the same goal forward.

Inspired by Bill, we’re pre-empting this week’s Intersection post with the amazing video below, worth watching and sharing right now. Then, pick your head up. Peer across your organization, your community, or your sector, and ask yourself: Are we working together, in pursuit of a shared goal?  Could my team state that shared goal? If not, maybe it’s time to break those silos, and make the real music happen.

The Art of Writing With Empathy

You’re no doubt familiar with the old proverb, “Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”  It was top of mind this week as I dug deeper into some intriguing articles about the value of writing with empathy.

My favorite, “Empathy is the Secret to Writing that Sells, According to Science,” leverages neuroscience – specifically, a study of macaque monkeys done in the 80’s – to show how mission-driven organizations can spur audiences to action.  As the article notes, that famous study – which for the first time identified similar neurons in monkey and human brains – suggested that “empathy, as an emotional primer, sometimes puts our brains in the right frame of mind to be sold to.”

At first blush, the notion of writing with empathy for your audience may sound kind of obvious. As the parents and significant others among us know probably all too well – to persuade someone to do what you really want them to do, you’re usually more successful when you connect through the heart.

Obvious, maybe. But not always easy to remember. And especially difficult when you’re distracted, or pressed for time and resources – as so many organizations are these days. In a related Guardian Voluntary Sector Network post, UK copywriter Paul Chuter rather bluntly sums up the importance of spurring empathy in your audience: Charities do poorly when they sit down and just think about what they’ve got to say.”  (Sounds a lot like the C.Fox mantra of“Leading with the Why,” doesn’t it?)

So how can you make empathic writing a habit?  Here are three tips to live by:

  1. Make sure your purpose is clear.  No matter what the communication – whether it be a direct appeal letter, a petition, or a campaign email – expect the first question that pops into your reader’s head to be: What are you expecting me to do about it? If you don’t state clearly and succinctly how your reader can help you solve the problem you’re seeking support to solve, you’ve just wasted a critical opportunity – not to mention a ton of staff time and postage.
  2. Connect the dots for your audience. Copywriting guru Chuter explains (again, in delightfully blunt fashion): “You need to draw a connection between the action and the outcome… [F]or example the phrase ‘Can you help us to help the starving refugees?’ disconnects the action of donating with those on the receiving end – the refugees – by putting the charity in the middle. Instead you should simply say something like: ‘Can you feed starving refugees?’ because it is [your audience’s] action – giving money – which is enabling that to happen.
  3. Avoid unnecessary adjectives. I absolutely love this tip – which I recently found in anold Lifehacker post. Why? Because it’s both unexpected and completely logical:

[Adjectives] are, in fact, one of the worst elements of speech and even make a listener or reader lose trust. Writer Kim Perez explains: ‘Using single words to describe actions and objects quickly brings them to mind. When someone “stabs” a straw into their drink we see it, but “pokes swiftly” is not so clear. When a person “meanders” it is more accurate than “walking slowly.” A man whose foot is described as a “hoof” is much more vivid that having “gnarled toes and sole.”’ …. [Perez] goes on to explain that “too much unnecessary text induces skipping”, which shows how detrimental adjectives can be. What we easily forget on a very high level is that using less words builds trust. So any words that don’t convey meaning can erode our readers’ and listeners’ interest.”

Achieving empathy in your writing starts by being genuinely in touch with the person on the other end of your intended email, or the people who you hope will read your annual appeal letter. Making sure your ask is clear, your desired outcomes are understood and your words are simple will go a long way in getting those same audiences to move your mission forward.

Sign up here to receive the intersection straight to your mailbox, every Friday morning.

The Messaging Trifecta

Think about the last big request you made of someone that went unanswered. Maybe it was to a colleague, a potential donor, or a journalist.
Why do you think they didn’t respond?
According to a recent survey of nonprofit communicators, more than 7 out of 10 nonprofits describe their messages as off target. That leaves 30 percent of nonprofit communicatorswho feel that people are truly hearing their key messages.
Good news: those who are getting regular (and positive) responses from their requests for support all have one thing in common: they lead with the why. They’re able to articulate their unique reason for being in such a way that others embrace it freely and actually feel compelled to support both the organization and, often, the asks that follow.
Leading with the why is not a new concept, and it’s one you’ve likely heard us talk about before. By now, you’ve likely watched Simon Sinek’s blockbuster TED talk, and you’ve heard how critical it is to give people a reason to engage with your work right at the outset. But knowing that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do.
The reality is that most organizations bury their own headlines. They bury their why – the reason their organization’s work is important and critical at this moment in time –  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 organization gets to making their appeal or their ask, they’ve already lost the listener or reader because the case hasn’t been made.
What we’ve learned in the last several years of watching how nonprofit leaders 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:
  • 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 me as if you speak to your friend or neighbor. 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 they’ll actually be.
  • Make it Relevant. After 15 years of pitching nonprofit stories to the media, I’ve gotten pretty used to hearing, “but tell me why THIS story matters.”  “What’s different about this organization’s style, or approach, what’s unique?” or even “Why is it important for us to be doing this right now, at this point in time?” Relevant messages are those that people hold on to, so much so that they go from being allies to advocates and perhaps even ambassadors of your brand. Relevance is a vital door opener to any ask, so be sure to show that you’re in sync with what’s happening in the world around you, and show that you understand where you fit in to the larger picture.
  • Make it Repeatable. Feed me a good story that proves why I should support you. Stories help people who are less familiar with your work understand its impact, and they provide a ready-made vehicle to get others to talk about you and your organization or to step up and do something about your cause. If you tell a story that paints a picture of your organization and the impact you’re making, you’re much more likely to make someone remember it and repeat it to someone else.
So with your “why” at the ready, but before you send out that next big ask of a funder, a board member or a corporate partner, ask yourself the following:
  • Have I made it clear what my ask is all about? (Have I made it real?)
  • Have I made it clear why I’m asking now, and what kind of impact this support could make? (Have I made it relevant?)
  • Have I done a good enough job proving it? Have I included a quick story or anecdote that reinforces my point in a compelling way? (Have I made it repeatable?)
Nail this messaging trifecta and know that your chances of a positive reply are surely improved.
Sign up here to receive the intersection straight to your mailbox, every Friday morning.