Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baseball & Root Balls - Social Media Free Agents & Your Small Nonprofit

Illustration by Johnny Goldstein via Flickr

Nonprofit social media heavy-hitter Beth Kanter is gearing up for 2011’s SXSW. She’s proposed an interactive session based on a key theme of her recent book (co-authored with Allison Fine), The Networked Nonprofit, about how nonprofits can go from being standalone institutions to energy-filled networks. The key to this transition, and the focus of the session she’s proposing, are social media free agents.

What are Social Media Free Agents?

I’m one. Although I play in the minor leagues, I have a few thousand social media connections as well as connections to many micro and small nonprofits. I may contract with some of them, but I’m not a permanent employee of any. Using my social media accounts, I share information, bring people together, raise attention to issues, help organize support, protest, petition, and seek donations. I’m not as successful as I would like to be partly because I still have to make a living and partly because most of the nonprofits in my area don’t make use of me. My guess is that they don’t, because:

  • They don’t know how to use Social Media
  • They aren’t looking for SM Free Agents
  • They are worried about losing control over their message, so they prefer to hold “outsiders” at arm’s length
  • They don’t see the value in becoming a “networked” nonprofit

What’s a Networked Nonprofit and Why Should We Be One?

If you’re reading this, you’re already interested in knowing how to use Social Media. But maybe you don’t know that the goal of Social Media is to build a network, a community, not to put out a message. Social Media networks build support. Like a root system, it feeds your nonprofit – keeping its mission in the public eye, providing encouragement, volunteers, and funding. It’s part of the chemistry that turns the sunshine of grant and endowment monies, the water of donations, into growth and strength. Without this outwardly spreading root system, your small nonprofit would wither and die because sunshine and water aren’t enough by themselves*. Yes, I know: how did we get from baseball to rootball? Well, look at it this way – without a healthy tree we wouldn’t have wood for bats (quiet, you aluminum bat users).

I hope Beth’s idea makes it onto the session list for SXSW 2011. I’d like to know how I can help micro and small nonprofits make better use of Social Media free agents like me. We’re here and we’re connected. And we want to help.

*Air ferns are not plants.
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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Don’t Let Tom Swift Into Your Social Communications - Tell Me a Story, Part Tres

Tom Swift and The Visitor from Planet X - dust...Image via Wikipedia
Before the advent of Farmville, many a budding writer (or critic) had fun making up Tom Swifties. Tom, a young scientist, had his literary adventures around the same time as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and his author fell into a trap well-known to writers since the beginning of dialogue. He worried about using the word said too much and tried to avoid repeating it by finding other, more exotic words: declaimed, asserted, emphasized and more. This tended to make some readers take the works less than seriously and even worse, to “improve” upon them by creating lines of dialogue that ended with a bad pun (usually in the form of an adverb): e.g., “Run now to the back of the ship,” Tom said sternly. I know - ow. And that’s the point of this post: keeping your small nonprofit’s social communications sounding vigorous and sidestepping the potentially evil influence of the adverb.

Why Are Adverbs Bad?

Of course, adverbs are not bad. They have their place and though their use can be complicated, most often it’s only their abuse that can make them evil. Adverbs are abused when they are used to modify verbs or other parts of speech that don’t need enhancement. For example, is it better to say “The brakes screeched as the driver struggled to control the bus” or “The brakes screeched frighteningly as the driver struggled to control the bus”? I hope you picked the former because the inclusion of the adverb frighteningly to modify screeched is unnecessary and waters down the drama.

Generally, social communication in the form of posts, emails, tweets, or letters don’t require the sense of immediacy that fiction writing can, but that doesn’t mean that emotion isn’t needed and that unhelpful adverbs can’t be shown the literary door. Seriously now, how many times have you written a sentence and used the word “very” in it? How about “We are very pleased to announce” or “our nonprofit owes a very great thanks to –“? Yes. “Very” is the most overused adverb in the English language. Kill it. Kill it now.

Vigorous Writing

The answer to avoiding the not-so-helpful modifiers is to use strong verbs, nouns and pronouns. One of the best pieces of writing advice I was given is to maintain a high verb to noun ratio. Because verbs are action words, they tend to imply motion, movement. There’s a world of difference between “there was an accident involving two cars” and “two cars crashed into each other”; between “the campaign has been very successful” and “the campaign is a success!”

When you’re editing your communications, do a search for all the words ending in –ly and remove them. Read through the piece again and see if it isn’t stronger. Examine your verb to noun ratio and when possible, rewrite to increase the verbs. Make sure that the nouns and verbs are appropriate and provide as strong an impact as possible. When adverbs are needed, use them appropriately to add detail, to qualify and show how, when, why, or where or for making comparisons.

Think Teddy, Not Tom

Teddy Roosevelt was considered a bold and vigorous U.S. President. You want him grinning back at you from your social communications instead of the intelligent, but ultimately adverbial wimpyness of a Tom Swift. That boldness will translate into a more immediate connection with the reader and connection is the aim of communicating.

“Bully for you. Bully,” the author said, pie-eyed. Ow.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tell Me a Story, Please. And Make It GOOD! Part Dos

madison rose, a resale maternity shopImage by cherrypatter via Flickr

In Part Uno of Tell Me a Story... we talked about finding a hero and supporting cast and making sure the end of the story resolves the problem posed at the beginning. In this post, we'll talk about how your word choices can affect the story you're telling. And what I've seen over the years is that when it comes to writing, many small nonprofits write a clear but boring message - instead of inspiring people to action, the prose just kinda lays there like the one cube of gummy cheese left on last night's party platter. It's probably edible, but not appetizing.

Here's An Example That's Got Nothing to Do With You, And Yet...

On one of the numerous newsletters dumped into my mailbox every morning, I saw this:
Company offers clothing for pregnant professionals
Obviously a news item, I thought. But nooooo - it was actually written by the company selling the clothing. Did they pull the headline from a poorly written press release? Or did someone with no marketing sense write it? Hmmm... which would sound less bad?

Let's start by replacing the first word with an actual company name. We'll say, Professor Mom. So now we have:
Professor Mom offers clothing for pregnant professionals
Clear, but not very appealing. "Offers" is ambiguous.What kind of images do you get when you think of it? I got someone hoping to have something taken off her hands. Substitute a few other words and see what you get.  Seems like Professor Mom is catering to a specific niche of pregnant professionals, but the word "catering" is old-fashioned and slightly patronizing. The next word - "clothing" is serviceable, but vague. What kind of clothing? "Pregnant" should probably be left alone. The days when even professional women would be described as being "in a family way", "expecting" or "enceinte" are long gone. "Professional" is a key word in this sentence - they want to appeal to women in the workplace who are unable to dress casually, even when in a family way. Who would want to be part of a panel discussion on international banking while wearing a shirt emblazoned with "Bump, not plump"?

So what would I have written? Maybe my first pass would be something like:
Professor Mom specializes in fashion-forward apparel for pregnant professionals
Is that it? Nope. I'd keep working on it until I either hit the deadline or felt I'd really nailed it.

The Take-Away From Professor Mom

Make every word count - make sure every word you're using pulls its weight by evoking the images or feelings you want to touch on. If it doesn't, then replace it or drop it. Yes, it's time and thought-consuming enough to do this for one sentence; imagine doing it for a whole letter or report. Ordinarily, I'd suggest hiring a professional - like me - and I'll still endorse that idea if you've got the funding. However, I know you don't always have the money for outside help and you still have to get those social communications out the door, so here's to keeping them clear, but interesting.

In the next post, we'll continue to talk about keeping your writing vigorous and why adverbs are not your friends.
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