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Connecting and Communicating on Mental Health

By Carrie Fox

After the great chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain passed away last week, his mother, Gladys Bourdain said in an interview with The New York Times that “he was absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this.”

As a mother, that line sat heavy with me. How do you know if your child is pain, if they are not showing outward signs of it? How do you know if anyone close to you—a spouse, a sibling, a coworker—is dealing with mental health challenges? And are there ways to see or spot the signs that someone is struggling, perhaps for longer than we may have realized?

Suicide rates are climbing in nearly every demographic, age group and geographic area, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s so much that stands in our way as parents, friends, and colleagues, to do something about it when we think we see signs of someone struggling. Questions like “How do I raise this issue with someone in an appropriate way?”, “What if I’m wrong?”, and “When and how do I even think to say something?”, can often stop us before we start the conversation.

I thought about this a lot yesterday, as I had the opportunity to sit down with our dear friends at the Youth Mental Health Project, an incredible nonprofit founded and run by Randi Silverman and Wendy Ward, parents who believe that mental health is imperative to all health. The Youth Mental Health Project empowers young people, parents, and caring adults with practical knowledge, support, and resources they need to nurture their children’s mental health and intervene when they recognize warning signs.

Mission Partners helped The Youth Mental Health Project in its early stages of growth with scale, but I believe their impact on us was just as powerful.

Here’s a bit from their website:

Half of all cases of mental illness begin in childhood, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. As research has consistently proven, early detection and intervention dramatically improve the long-term outlook for anyone with a mental health disorder. In addition, early detection and treatment can prevent an escalation of symptoms and possible co-occurring disorders, which are oftentimes more difficult to treat. Stereotypes, discrimination and fear, however, cultivate deafening silence around youth mental health. This makes identification and treatment extremely difficult. Families cannot seek help for a problem if they do not know it exists.

The following excerpts are shared from the Youth Mental Health Project’s free online resource Mental Health 101: Talking with Kids, which can be downloaded here.

  • How do I talk with my child about their concerns, and how do I know how much information they can actually handle?

You can begin by asking your children one or two open ended questions (e.g., What was the favorite part of your day today? What is one thing that has been on your mind lately? What do you think of what has been happening in the news lately?) Make certain to stop talking and listen carefully. Find out what their words mean to them.

  • How do I know if my child is dealing with depression, vs. going through a period of sadness?

The fact is that children do not try to feel unhappy, so prolonged or frequent emotional discomfort may be a sign of depression. If you are concerned, it may make sense to keep a log of the frequency, duration, and intensity of your child’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Also, keep note of your child’s ability to function. How often is your child unable or seemingly unwilling to do something or participate in an activity that seems typical or ordinary for other children the same age? The important thing to remember about depression is that the earlier it is recognized and treated, the better the outcome will be. Untreated depression can seriously impede functioning and healthy development and can lead to substance use, school avoidance or dropout, self-harm, and even suicide.

 

  • How do I know if my child is struggling with their mental health to a degree that requires intervention?

Brain research has taught us that what our brains forget, our bodies don’t. For this reason, if your child is struggling, you may witness noticeable changes in your child’s behavior, social activities, academic performance, physical health, or appearance. Signs a child is struggling can include, but are not limited to: Disruption in sleep/nightmares, lack of motivation, inability to focus, connect, or control impulses, loss of appetite, changes in personal care, long-lasting, intense, painful emotions, Intense worry, Increased irritability, anger, or moodiness, feelings of worthlessness, increased stomachaches or other persistent unexplainable ailments, or Disinterest in extracurricular activities or too nervous to attend.

As Wendy and Randi say, “we all have mental health, and in these unsettling times, it is more important than ever to remember that caring for a child’s mental health is just as important as caring for their physical health. To learn more, or to download a copy of their resource guides, please visit ymhproject.org.

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Communicating Outside of Comfort Zones

By Carrie Fox

To communicate effectively, we know that the people with whom we’re speaking—the humans at the receiving end of our messages— are just as important as the words we use. But we also realize that the human element of communicating can be the most difficult element to master.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as we’ve been guiding several organizations to challenge the audiences they deem their priorities; to assess the words they use with their employees; and to consider what might happen if they broke out of their comfort zones in their communications messages. Across all assignments, it comes down to one key word: language. Is the language that you use having the desired impact with the people whom your brand is intended to serve?

In the weeks leading up to the now infamous Starbucks incident in Philadelphia, I had been reading “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First From a Life at Starbucks,” a great  business book by Starbucks’ co-founder Howard  Behar. It was fascinating to watch the scenario in Philadelphia play out because it completely contradicted Behar’s core philosophy to be human, first.

For Behar, the secret to building Starbucks had everything to do with building a company that had the potential to become their customers’ third place: there was home, then work, and then Starbucks. But, to win that coveted spot, Behar knew the company needed to foster a place where all felt welcome. And they needed to build a language of welcome across all class and color lines. But for one store in Philadelphia, and in hundreds of other stores where similar incidents have been reported—that language of welcome wasn’t deployed. In far too many instances, Starbucks employees lost sight of the person who was right in front of them.

I’d wager to bet that the Starbucks story can be found inside most of our organizations, whether it’s been reported or not. The language we build, inside the walls of our organizations, is often built with certain audiences in mind and there can be dangerous consequences if we don’t stop to think about how our language sits with those outside of our respective comfort zones. Who is understanding our message, and who feels left out? Even worse, who is receiving an unintended negative message?

The language we use to communicate across age lines is equally critical. Take for instance Generation Z. They are self-aware, self-reliant and drive, and they do not respond well to companies that don’t take their values and priorities into consideration. According to Marcie Merriman, author of the recent report Rise of Gen Z: new challenges for retailers, Gen Z is almost uniformly tech-savvy and content-hungry, and tend to be pragmatic, entrepreneurial, socially conscious and highly tolerant. “They represent a major opportunity for businesses attuned to what they want and how to deliver it,” she says. “The question is whether these businesses are ready to speak the language of this rising class.”

What language do you use in communicating your brand story? Is it one of welcome and inclusion, with words and actions that are accessible across audiences, or has your organization built a language of insiders, designed primarily for those inside your comfort zone?

If the latter is likely, a willingness to break out of your communications comfort zone may be just what you need in the year ahead. The real question is: how open are you to embracing it?

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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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The Trouble with Assumptions, and How to Keep Yours in Check

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”  Isaac Asimov

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I can only assume they’re going to do A…
  • For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume B…
  • I’m assuming they’ll have access to this information through D, E, and F channels.

Assumptions are baked into so much of what we do, and so many of the decisions that we make. We don’t always know the full story or the exact facts, and so we make assumptions to fill the gaps. They help us make sense of complex information, and can serve as an important guide so we know what questions we can ask.

But assumptions can be just as harmful as they are helpful. When we fall into the trap of not challenging our assumptions and instead begin accepting them at face value, or when we fail to recognize them at all, much bigger problems can set in.

The proven way to combat assumptions? Ask more questions.

Yesterday, we hosted our first of several Design Thinking days at Mission Partners. We convened a small group of curious people who each agreed to look closely at their current communications practices for where the traps of assumption lie. Within the first 30 minutes, it became clear that even when we believe we’re being open to information (myself included), we might not always be getting enough of the right information to make an informed decision.

Consider this: How many of the first impressions you make today will be based on false assumptions?

Think about this the next time you’re in line at the grocery store, or riding the Metro, or in your next team assignment at work. What assumptions are you making about the people you see, or about certain policies or practices as you move through your day? Take time to recognize your assumptions as you’re making them, and then consider how those assumptions might be wrong, ill-informed, or worth examining further.

For years, research showed that someone had 7 seconds to make a first impression. That’s not much time at all. But, it’s a lifetime compared to newer data which showed the actual time it takes for someone to judge another person’s character is .01 seconds. Milliseconds. So-fast-you-don’t-even-know-it-happened seconds.  And once that very initial assumption is set, it’s hard to break it. So, it’s even more important that we not only recognize when we’re making assumptions, but we understand how to be intentional about listening, learning, and understanding one another in order to differentiate false assumptions vs. reality.

Here are three more ways you can challenge your assumptions, and help to keep them in check:

  1. How well do you really listen? As in, listening without simultaneously forming a response in your mind. In yesterday’s session, we performed an exercise in radical listening. For 60 seconds, participants were instructed to just look at their partner. Learn one another’s faces. Stay connected to one another’s eyes. Then, we repeated the exercise, but gave each person 60 seconds to talk to their partner. And something interesting happened: the room softened, the relationships deepened, and people began seeing each other in new ways, picking up on little details they hadn’t noticed before. Assumptions we had made about one another in those first few seconds of meeting melted away.
  1. If you’re the curator of content for your organization, where are you sourcing your news? The easy assumption is that the sources we’re pulling from give us a well-rounded picture of the situation. But, what stories could we be missing? Are your sources the same sources week after week, or do you challenge yourself to go beyond the traditional news set? How often are you reaching out into your community to request news for future editions? How often are you exploring the news within the outer rings of your audience set—beyond your primary audience and into your secondary and tertiary audience—to see how the conversation and news is different there?
  1. What are the things you mean to know, but just keep assuming that you’ve got it figured out? There was a great episode of This American Life last fall, in which David Kestenbaum spoke with producer Diane Wu about her list of things she “means to know.” It made me think of all the things I mean to know, but never seem to find the time to explore enough to fully understand. So, I started a list too. And while right now the list seems to grow faster than I can check things off, it’s become a great exercise in intentionally learning and breaking my own assumptions.

There’s little we can do about first impressions. Our brains are hardwired to fill gaps of information with assumptions, and that won’t soon change. But, it’s what we do with the seconds, minutes, and hours that follow that make all the difference in this world.

Learn more about our Design Thinking Days, where you can safely explore and challenge your assumptions, and register for our next session at Mission Forward.

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Finding Swing: Syncing Up Your Team for Success

Rowing

In rowing, we call it swing.

All four, or eight, members of a crew cut through the water, their oars at the same speed, pulling with the same pressure, at the same time. It’s exacting. And difficult. But, when it happens, magic occurs. The fiberglass shell lifts, almost as if it’s floating on top of the water. And the crew, working smarter, not harder, is operating at its maximum efficiency, reserving energy for the final sprint to the finish.

Achieving swing can happen in the workplace, too. When a team crystallizes around a shared focus and common goal and focuses on working smarter, not harder, an incredible efficiency occurs. Workplace efficiency requires outlined roles, but on the outside, it’d be difficult to identify where the work of one team member stops and another starts. And the team always, always has each other’s backs.

Swing is what we aim for every day at Mission Partners. We work to achieve continuity across each project team we build, ensuring efficiency for our clients and effectiveness. We take the time to define exactly what it is we are working to accomplish, something we refer to as being “fierce in our focus.” Mission Partners takes this seriously from an operational perspective, but—especially for an agency that spends a significant amount of time helping organizations think about the words and messages they use—also from a communications perspective. Think about the confusion that could arise within an organization where team members are inconsistent in how they talk about the work they do or are out of sync in the ways in which they share the message.

Whether approaching swing from an operational or communications perspective, here are three ways you can build it within your workplace:

  1. Outline the Assignment

At Mission Partners, we always begin a project by defining the specific assignment and receiving approval on it from our client. No exceptions. If we can’t all express in crystal clear terms what we’re working to achieve, the chances that someone will be out of sync are too great.

In Action: Think about a project that you have on the horizon; it could be work, school, or personal related. What are you working to achieve? Write down, as specifically as possible, what the assignment is. If the project is feeling too large, try breaking it down into two or three smaller projects and write an assignment (and a due date) for each. Remember to always keep it simple.

  1. Define Roles

In the boat, every position has a clear title and clear responsibility, with no overlap. This even goes for talking; it is the responsibility of only one person—the coxswain—to give commands, call cadence, and provide spoken motivation. All other crew members are expected to be silent. Similarly, but perhaps not quite so severely, Mission Partners has adopted the Management Center’s MOCHA model to assign responsibility and accountability to every aspect of a given project. This model eliminates any questions of ownership, ensures smooth execution of projects, and serves as a quick reference for internal and external stakeholders.

In Action: Consider a team project at work, school, or in your personal life. Using the below chart, detail each task associated with completing the project. List the team member who will play which role for each task. Remember, the Manager and Approver are often the same person, and not every task will have someone who plays the role of consulted or helper.

Task MOCHA Model
Manager Owner Consulted Helper Approver

For more on the MOCHA model, visit http://www.managementcenter.org/

  1. Practice

A few years ago, I returned to my high school as an assistant coach for the school’s novice crew team. Over the course of practices that season, I was reminded of two things:

First, that we all are all novices when we begin. That goes for rowing, and it goes for everything else, too. No one is born knowing how to play a violin or ski down a mountain. And—while there’s certainly something to be said for natural talent—no one gets to be an expert at anything without loads of practice.

The second thing I observed is the time it takes to form a team. When the team first started rowing together, this disparate group of women had almost nothing in common and barely knew each other. It took a few weeks of practicing before norms were established and the team was comfortable working together. This happens quickly in rowing; try lifting a 200-lb. boat overhead and not immediately feeling trust and appreciation for the seven other rowers helping you out. But in those first few weeks of practices, swing would’ve never been a remote possibility—regardless of the team’s skill at that time.

In Action: Practice. Practice at your own work and practice at teamwork. Find opportunities to build trust and deepen relationships. At Mission Partners, we end every staff meeting with team appreciation, sharing ways in which our colleagues go above and beyond with each other and with the clients we serve. Reflect on what the 200-lb. boat is within your organization. How can you build trust and deepen relationships on your team to ensure that someone will be there to help you lift it overhead?

Want to learn more about how to find swing within your workplace? Subscribe to the Mission Partners newsletter to find inspiration, resources, and the latest on events and workshops that we’re hosting on this topic. And, if you have a specific question, email it to me at bridget@mission.partners and we can explore it together.

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Building Equity and Breaking Bias in Storytelling

Mission Forward

Want to learn more about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling? Join us for our upcoming 2018 Mission Forward Spring Reception on Wednesday, May 16, at Mission Partners’ Bethesda office. Learn more and register by clicking here.

By Carrie Fox

“When You Know Better, You Do Better.” 

Maya Angelou

Tucked inside the March 13 edition of our What We’re Reading newsletter, we shared a story written by Atlantic journalist and science writer Ed Yong, who spent two years trying to fix the gender imbalance in his stories.  Inspired by his colleague Adrienne LaFrance, who conducted a similar assessment across all Atlantic journalism, he found that only 24 percent of his last 23 articles quoted sources that were women. And of those stories, 35 percent featured no female voices at all.

“I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.”

Yong’s heartbreakingly honest revelation, and several others like it, spurred my desire to dig in on ways that writers, marketers, and communications directors can build equity and break bias in their storytelling. Major news organizations from NPR to National Geographic have started looking inward to reduce their long-held biases in reporting, but that same fervor to address implicit bias in storytelling simply isn’t showing up from communications directors, marketing directors, and content producers of non-media organizations—even though it should.

What Ed’s story, and others like it, reinforced to me was that as writers, we inherently believe that we’re telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it is there.

If you were to assess the stories on your own website, in your most recent annual report, or across your most recent marketing campaign, how much bias would you uncover? What if the stories you’ve been telling are actually limiting your ability to communicate with your most important audiences? What if, in elevating your organization’s “best” stories, you are unintentionally leaving out some of the most vital voices from your organization’s narrative?

Biases exist in all of us, simply based on our own lived experiences. But anyone can learn to break biases in storytelling, with the right tools and perspective. 

Here are a few tips we’ve started implementing to help our clients write with an equity lens, inspired in part by the findings of Ed Yong and other journalists:

1.  When you focus on who your stories are about, and who benefits from them, you’re more likely to be inclusive in your storytelling.

Bias-free language does not discriminate, but instead includes all readers in a fair and friendly manner. Here are a couple quick ways to test if bias is showing up in your writing:

  • Review your writing for the appropriate use of pronouns to ensure neutrality when referring to a person’s gender identity. For instance, “each manager must report his numbers at the end of the month” presents a bias, as compared to “each manager must report their numbers at the end of the month.” (For a deeper dive on the use of gender-neutral pronouns including the use of non-binary pronouns, check out this New York Times article by Raillan Brooks.)
  • Replace gender-biased terms such as salesman or chairman with bias-free terms, such as salesperson or chairperson.
  • Focus on people, not their conditions or current state, i.e. person-first language. We all experience different moments in our lives, but one need not be defined by those moments. There’s an important difference between describing a homeless person and a person experiencing homelessness, or a foster youth vs. a young person living in foster care.

2. The most important and influential voices in your organization are not always the most expected. 

For years, organizations have been pressed to present their impact via stories, often elevating one or two of the best examples of impact. This small set of success stories is rarely representative of the whole, and may be reinforcing your organization’s own biases by portraying what your organization believes is a picture of success vs. what your community might believe to be success.

  • Assess your own unconscious attitudes and associations to better inform your storytelling. One of the most effective (and free) tools for testing your own unconscious bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created and maintained by Project Implicit, a consortium made up of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.
  • Make content accessible. Beyond examining who is showing up in photos, and which voices are being elevated, have you considered translating your materials so they can be equally accessible within your community, or developing a closed-captioned version of your impact video? Do you offer an option for multiple languages on your website? Take the time to ensure that everyone in your community can access and understand the messages you’re sending.

3. Check your work with a fresh set of eyes, and never discount the importance of community feedback.

Before publishing your next article, annual report or issue brief, test it with people outside of the organization to see if the language you’re using resonates with them. Ask what changes they’d make to change or strengthen the story to make it more inclusive. Then, ask yourself:

  • Are the pronouns she, he and them used close to an equal number of times?
  • Are the pronouns she, he, them, or racial and ethnic role models, used to reference non-stereotyped roles?
  • Is any language about people written as people-first as in, for example, “people with diabetes”?
  • Have labels or conditions been used inappropriately as nouns to describe a group, e.g. “D.C.’s homeless population”?
  • Do you know, or do you need to ask, which term is preferred for a national origin, race, or gender identification for a specific audience?

What we know, just as Ed found in his process, is that it often takes an outside perspective to help discover an unconscious bias. And then, as Maya Angelou so beautifully said, when you know better, you can do better.

Want to learn more about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling? Join us for our upcoming 2018 Mission Forward Spring Reception on Wednesday, May 16, at Mission Partners’ Bethesda office. Learn more and register here.

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What Would You Write?

By Carrie Fox

Simple messages can have a lasting impact.

In the summer of 2016, Carolyn and I attended the Social Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. It was, as it always is, a gathering of powerhouse social entrepreneurs, community leaders, and change agents all committed to developing and advancing impactful social partnerships. The two-day Summit was rich with inspiration and real, face-to-face, no-phone-required connections.

But, the most inspired moment for me came during the opening session. That’s when photographer Robert Fogarty introduced me to his powerful project, #DearWorld.

Since its inception, #DearWorld has traveled the globe, capturing stories of love and loss from Boston marathon bombing survivors to the people of South Sudan. They’ve visited Syrian refugees in the second largest refugee camp in the world. They’ve traveled to Joplin, Missouri, where 160  residents died in a tornado; and Brooklyn, New York, where a 6-alarm fire destroyed 111 homes during Hurricane Sandy. Their most recent series, covered 40 victims’ families, first responders and survivors of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.

Fogarty, who started the project in 2010, originally as a project called Dear New Orleans, has a simple request for each of his photo subjects:

  1. Reflect on your personal story, whatever it may be
  2. Write a message on your skin that symbolizes your personal story
  3. Share your portrait with family, friends and colleagues

The one “rule” he says, is that whatever message or phrase you choose, there must be a real story behind it.  He asks people to share one message to someone, or something that they care about.

Through the project, Fogarty has collected thousands of photos: portraits of children living in refugee camps (“I want the life I had to come back”) to survivors of the Boston Marathon (“Still Standing, Still Beautiful”). He’s collected stories from first generation college students (“I’m going to college”), to first-time moms (“Precious Life”) to cancer survivors (“C is for Courage”) and formerly homeless individuals (“You believed in me”).

The compelling project is storytelling in a very real, raw and vulnerable form. It’s a challenge to capture your life, your philosophy, your story in 7 words — typically — or less, writing it on your hands, face or body in black Sharpie. As Fogarty said from the stage, “We all have stories to share, and they deserve to be heard.” This is his way of amplifying them.

The project made me think a lot about what my words would be. How would I define what matters most to me, and what message I’d want to share with the world? Maybe it should be a simple “Kindness Matters”, or a channeling of my favorite Keb Mo song, “There’s More Than One Way Home.” Maybe it should be about my daughters, or my approach to work, or my mom.

And then it hit me.

In communications, we often get wrapped up in getting every word right, so much that the power of the story can get lost in the process. Fogarty’s project is a good reminder that effective messages are often the ones that come from the heart. Overthink the message and you can lose it.  If you’re true to the process of storytelling, you’ll naturally know where to go in telling your story — what has impacted you, inspired you, saddened you, or angered you. That’s where you start.

So, without any more thought, I’d say:

Change Starts with Me.

Click here to watch Robert Fogarty describe #DearWorld in his own words, and see some of his most compelling portraits.

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Creating A Customer Experience That Goes The Extra Mile

There’s a yellow Post-it note that’s been anchored to my desk for many months now. It’s scribbled with a newish take on an old adage by Hall of Fame football player Robert Staubach, who said “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.” 

It’s a mantra we all try to live at Mission Partners; a reminder that our brand is built in the moments when we go beyond the expected to deliver the extraordinary. When our clients realize we didn’t just hear what they said, but we were listening between the words for what they were really trying to say. Or, when colleagues realize we remembered their best days—or were thinking of them in their hardest moments. In either case, and in many examples beyond these two, we do our best to show up and act our part, as their partners, through those moments. I believe our success has been fueled in part because we believe in the people for whom we get to serve, just as much as we believe in their mission, and we allow that belief to inspire our work.

I’m in the midst of reading Howard Behar’s book, It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks—a powerful read on how to build trusted, innovative, and strong organizations and leadersand the breakthroughs that can occur when when you put people over profits. In it, he recalls a short anecdote about how serious sprinters don’t see the finish line at 100 yardsthey visualize the end of their race at 110-yards. That way, when you’re in a race, no one will overtake you before you reach the finish line.

As Behar writes, “this concept applies to everything we do. It tells us to think beyond the whole, or we may always fall short and undermine our results. We need to think beyond our potential to achieve great things. If you shortchange your dreams, if you shortchange your sense of who you are, you’ll shortchange your life.”

At Mission Partners, we realize that our purpose is to help others move their missions forward, often in times of great change or organizational transition. We realize that our role is to help organizations and their people communicate in a way that can build trust, belief, buy-in, or understanding.  And we realize that our role is to develop strategies that can help people get beyond whatever is broken, to a place that allows breakthroughs to happen.

This spring we’ll begin taking that role to a new level, when we open our new Design Thinking studio in our Bethesda office.  One of the first things we’ll offer for our clients—and the extended community are open Design Thinking Days…sessions for our community to bat around their big, exciting, unwieldy, or maybe not fully formed idea with someone who can listen, and then help to ideate on solutions. It’s one offering in a mini-series of new content we’ll soon roll out under our Mission Forward umbrella of services.

I often write in these posts about the importance of understanding your audience—and then calibrating to their needs. These new Design Thinking Days are just one example of how we listen to our own advice. It’s about going the extra mile, finding the added benefit, and creating the unique value, that can help our clients move their missions forward.

Learn more about our upcoming Design Thinking Days and consider attending our first session this spring.

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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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The Women We Admire Most

By Carrie Fox

“We all move forward when we recognize how resilient and striking the women around us are.”
Rupi Kaur

Every day, I enter a workplace surrounded by women I admire; women who press for progress on issues that matter to them—not for them, but for the greater good of communities around them. It’s a remarkable community to be part of, and to watch in action. It’s a community that allows me to live out ideals that I find important as Brian and I raise two young girls—girls we want to be courageous, caring, and confident in their voices and actions.

And, every day, as I get to know my colleagues more, I see that this group of women with whom I work each possess just the ideals I wish for my own daughters; and that the people and experiences that shaped each one of them have in turn made them some of the most special role models for me and for my girls.

For that reason that I knew I would get remarkable answers when I asked each of them this week, as part of International Women’s Day, who they each admire most. Here’s what some of us shared:

Carol Tyson is the reason I feel so compelled to do this work every day. She represents everything good in this world. It was hard to understand just how much she was sacrificing for me and my siblings when we were little, but it became abundantly clear as I matured, and then became a mother myself. My mom has a deep sense of purpose, a drive to learn something new every day, an ability to connect with everyone she meets in a meaningful way and a commitment to leave this world better than she found it. I learn something important from my mom every day, but perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned (though I can’t say it’s always easy in practice) is that anything is possible when you enter every day with an open mind, and an open heart. (Carrie Fox)

• I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many admirable women, but today I’m going to go with my mom, Margaret Pooley. She’s brilliant, funny, inspiring, beautiful, and strong. Most importantly, though, she is always 100% her confident self. (Bridget Pooley)

• The woman I admire the most is my mom, Bernita Marshall. I can’t quite put my thoughts into words afraid that I will get emotional, but I admire her strength and the love she shares for her children. (Bayonia Marshall)

• Lisa Schmidt is the woman I admire most. And while there are tons of things I admire about her, one of them that stands out the most is her heart – she’s the most caring and genuinely selfless person I know. (Sarah Schmidt)

• Without question, my grandmother, Rose Silvan. Grandma Rosie was the last of 3 children and the only one of her siblings to be born in America. Her family immigrated from a town called Brody in Austria-Hungary (now the Ukraine) to flee Russian pograms in the about 1902. The town, once home to thousands of working class Jews, was essentially wiped out 40 years later in the Holocaust. She was born in Brooklyn, shortly after the family arrived through Ellis Island…Grandma lived in Greenwich Village, and never worked full time. She volunteered constantly, both in formal and informal ways. When my mother was sick for many years as a child, Grandma essentially raised me – the youngest of my 2 siblings. We would walk and walk and talk and talk in NYC (she never bothered with bus or subway unless it was more than 60 blocks), and she stopped to help every homeless or needy person on the street asking for money. Except she didn’t give them money – we’d take them to lunch, or coffee, or the grocery store. Sometimes she’d bring them home with us for a shower and a meal, dress them in my grandfather’s clothes, and send them on their way. From my grandmother I learned that people are people – and that trappings make no one person “better” than another. She taught me about mutuality – both by her example and with her words. She died in 1994 – about a month before Josh was born. His middle name is Ross – for her. (Carolyn Berkowitz)

• When you ask who I most admire, it is hard to narrow down the list. From my childhood best friend to my current roommate, from my first intern coordinator to my current bosses, from the women I have met in places from rural West Virginia to Ethiopia, I admire so many women. The two that I most, most admire are my mom, Becky Lee and younger sister Grace Lee. They both inspire me every day when I chat with them on the phone. I could go on and on about their character, courage, and brilliance. (Hannah Lee)

As I embrace the theme of this 2018 International Women’s Day, and carry it with me for the year forward, to #PressforPress to accelerate gender parity, I want to honor and personally thank each of the women that we at Mission Partners most admire. Margaret, Bernita, Lisa, Becky, Grace, Grandma Rose, and my mom, Carol, for it was their courageous and caring actions, their sacrifice, and their sense of purpose that fostered this remarkable group of women for whom I call colleagues, friends, and role models.