Thursday, July 29, 2010

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

Work with schools : a librarian's assistant te...Image by New York Public Library via Flickr
Writing is hard. Although it doesn't inspire the fear that public speaking does, most people (including professional writers) faced with a writing task will do everything in their power to put it off. Lucky people will hire someone like me to do the job. But in a small nonprofit, there usually isn't enough budget to farm out every writing task, so there you are - looking at that blank computer screen and wishing you'd paid more attention to that tweedy guy with the weird cologne who taught composition.

It's All in The Story, Kid

It doesn't matter what the thing is - thank you letter, Facebook post, grant proposal, plea, or annual report - it involves telling a story. If you know how to tell a story, you can write just about anything.

How Do I Write a Story?

There are a few steps to writing a story (note that I didn't say a "good" story; that's next week's post):
  • Know what story you're writing
  • Have adequate supporting characters (concrete details)
  • Make sure the ending satisfies the beginning

Know What Story You're Writing


In composition class, this would be the theme or premise, the point of the whole thing that you're trying to communicate. It could be a moral, a proverb, the way you think things work, but in the end, it's the story you're trying to tell.
This is the story of...
           ...what happened to the money someone donated
           ...what grant money will be used for
           ...how the year shaped up for the nonprofit

Once you know what the story is supposed to be about, you need the characters. Your nonprofit is the storyteller - try to make someone else the hero and give the hero plenty of support.

Details Are Supporting Characters

Some supporting characters are obvious - facts and figures, data. But others don't ask to be included; you have to look for them. Who will be affected by the story you're telling and how? Find a hero. Maybe it's that volunteer who came early and left late to help with staging an event. Maybe it's the child who started her own business to support her school with a program your nonprofit could help with. Maybe it's the postal worker who saved half her monthly income and put it in an endowment for one of your programs. Find your hero and you'll know who the supporting characters need to be.

Make Sure The Ending Satisfies the Beginning

You started a story, and it needs a satisfying conclusion. It should link back to where you set out the theme or premise at the start:
The ending of the story of...
           ...what happened to the money donated - we used the money well for...
           ...what the grant money will be used for - we will use the money well for...
           ...how the year shaped up for us - it was a good/bad year and we learned...

The End of This Tale

If you know the story you're telling, you have a hero to write the story around, and the end of the story tells how things concluded, you have the base of a good tale. Just the base, though. A story is more than its elements; how the story is told can be just as important as what happened. But that is a tale for next time.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Flavor of Your Social Communications

Tongue flavorImage via Wikipedia
Maybe it's because I like cooking that I can think of social communications for small nonprofits as creating a recipe. You take a little of this and a little of that, forming a taste and a texture in your mind and working to bring that vision into reality. Many times, like on Top Chef or Iron Chef, the tools and ingredients are not determined by you - you just have to do the best you can with what you have and hope that when you serve it up, it's pleasing to the palate.

What often makes the difference is knowing the flavors of the foods you work with and how to combine them to get the best result.


Apparently, I'm not the only person who thinks this way, since A Small Change recently ran a post about the "flavors" a donor comes in: 
  • Story donors - people who like to hear a story that shows how their donations can or have helped
  • Fact donors - people who like facts and figures to show how their donations are making an impact
  • Recognition donors - people who like to be recognized for their donations

Maybe cooking isn't your thing. But, like a freshman who's spent all his pizza money, it's cook or starve, so you learn the flavors of your donors and you start collecting recipes. Or maybe you've recognized these patterns and mixed up your communications - your newsletter for example, might have an article with statistics and another one with a great story and there might be a whole page devoted to recognizing your donors. Something on the menu for everyone.

What Cookbook Are You Using?

Some types of social networks are better for one recipe than another. For example, you can tell a story on Twitter, but it will take longer and you run the risk of losing your audience, especially if the  tweet stream is moving especially fast or the World Cup is on again. Your blog or Facebook is probably better for storytelling, whereas Twitter might be a good way to share interesting statistics like "Facebook goes over 500 million" or "two out of three pets never make it out of a shelter." It could also be a good way to recognize those who've helped your cause, especially if they're on Twitter. Facebook could be used to recognize donors as well.

You could use YouTube to tell a story and SlideShare to present facts like graphics on how the current campaign is doing. Twitter could do that for you as well and you could include links to the blog or Slideshare for the story or the data. Use UserVoice to get feedback on current projects.

And in all cases, don't forget to put The Ask front and center on the table.

BTW - How's Your Presentation?

The late folk singer/storyteller Utah Phillips used to tell an amusing tale about his early days as a gandy dancer on the railroad and how it once fell to him as the newcomer to be the crew cook - considered the worst duty. The tradition was, that if anyone complained about his cooking, they got to be the cook in his place. Naturally he set about making his cooking complaint-worthy.* His ingredients were the best he could get and his presentation was flawless. He didn't quite get the result he wanted, but he came damn close.

It's not just the recipe, but the ingredients and the way you choose to present it:

  • Video can be Old Spice Guy or No Spice Guy
  • Writing the Story Vividly
  • Making Facts Graphic (this includes donor recognition)

Video - Using video is for everyone, although being a video star like Gary Vaynerchuk may not be. I am more comfortable singing onstage in front of 10,000 people than I am getting my picture taken. I probably won't be making of video of myself anytime soon. But that doesn't mean I can't or won't use video - just not of me. No big loss. I can present a story using someone else, or - as I've frequently seen - a video made by someone else for a different purpose, but which has relevance to the idea I'm presenting.

Writing the Story Vividly - This seems to be the hardest for a lot of people, so I'll probably devote one or more posts to it. In the meantime, remember when telling a story to tell it cleanly and make it relevant. No one likes a story that wanders all over the place without purpose or seems barely related to the subject. Oh - and fairly short. Although it may not be a personal story, think anecdote, not book.

Making Facts Graphic - It's never been acceptable to me to just throw up a pie chart and call it a graphic. There are ways to make data visually appealing and easier to understand and relate to. Geeks in particular tend to like data visualization, so there's a lot of information out there and examples. Regardless of whether you're showing how your nonprofit beat the odds or figuring out how to present donor recognition in some way other than a million name march across a webpage, there are both low cost and no cost ways to do it.

As a last savory note, remember that social communications are not required to target one flavor segment - you could put together a smörgåsbord of video, data and storytelling in the same meal. Leaving the guests satisfied but wanting more is the way to keep them coming back to your table.

Recommended Reading:
See3 - How Nonprofits Can Use Video to Fundraise
Seth Godin - Ode: How to Tell a Great Story
Information Aesthetics (data visualization)


* Utah Phillips - Moose Turd Pie. You can read the story here, but it's so much better listening to it than reading about it.
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not Just a Pretty (Type) Face: What Your Type Choices Say About Your Nonprofit

The Characteristics of a Typeface (for widescr...Image by arnoKath via Flickr
Wimpy. Wimpy. Wimpy. Or Traditional with a Capital "T'. Your typeset communications are talking about your small nonprofit and you may not even know it.

In the olden days, BJB (before Justin Bieber), typeset specifically meant metal type being set into place in rows in order to be inked to make an impression on paper. In those days, A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker had a point when he said, "Freedom of the Press belongs to those who own one." But in these modern times, anyone who has access to a computer owns a press, which means you cut out the expense of the typesetters, but you also cut out their expertise.  In those days, I used to be fond of saying that page layout programs had now made it possible for the design uneducated to put out ugly things faster. Oh, you know the stuff I mean - those little newsletters with breezy prose, columns set too close together, and little clip art pics of dogs and cats and hearts and flowers with at least 10 different type families on one page.

But even if your e-newsletter or PDF or Donor Plea/Thanks documents now look more professional, you could still be undermining your message by using the wrong typeface for the job as well as the wrong font.

Say What, Now? Aren't Fonts and Typefaces The Same Thing?

Well, those terms are being used pretty interchangeably, but for the purpose of this post, this is how I define them:
Typeface - a family of fonts. For example, Times Roman
Font - a member of a type family. For example, Times Roman Italic or Times Roman Condensed
Take a good look at this picture of two typefaces by designer Neville Brody:
Would you say they were interchangeable? Would it make a difference in the "feel" of a published piece to use one or the other? What do you think Brody meant by naming one "Industria" and one "Arcadia"? Now cover Arcadia with your finger or a piece of paper. Industria is a no-frills kind of typeface, very spare with not even a full crossbar on the "t". Now cover up Industria and look at Arcadia. Doesn't it somehow seem more light-hearted and less workmanlike? Both typefaces are sans serif and both have somewhat rounded edges, but even so "Industria" seems more modern and harder, while "Arcadia" seems softer and more antique.

Type is Art And So Are Words

Before you begin to choose the typeface to use for your communication, ask yourself:
What impression am I trying to make? Traditional (old banks liked this look), modern, breezy, caring?
Choose your typeface based on the underlying feel you want the written piece to have. Other things to consider:
  • Can it be embedded so that if my piece is a Word doc or a PDF and the persons receiving it don't have that typeface, the document will still look the way I designed it?
  • How well does it work with my logo or other graphic items that have to be included in the piece?
  • How much real estate will it use up? If the typeface takes up a lot of space, you may find yourself spending time playing with condensed sizes or leading or kerning to get more words on the page, which may make things look squashed or overcrowded.
 Uh, Maybe I'll Just Stick to Helvetica or Arial

You may have to, if you're working with html and don't know anything about CSS and how to put in code for typefaces other than what are available to you via say, Blogger. But when working with a page layout or word processing application, why not take advantage of the multitude of typefaces available to you? Sure, Helvetica and Times Roman are safe, but because they're safe they may not have the impact that you're looking for.

This post hasn't even scratched the surface of using typefaces and you're probably already holding your head and wishing you'd skipped this post. If so, the simplest advice I can give you is, whatever typeface you choose, just be sure:
  • it's as easy to read at 8 points as it is at 72pts
  • that your text isn't crammed into the space
  • that if it doesn't add to your document, it at least doesn't detract from it
Do those three things and you'll never have to apologize for having been fooled by a pretty face.
* * *
This Week's Recommended Reading
You might want to consider a mobile website - Five Reasons Why Nonprofit Communicators Need Smartphones

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    Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    Location, Location, Location - Should Your Small NP Play Ball with Foursquare?

    What's on your iPhone?Image by stevegarfield via Flickr
    Foursquare and Gowalla are the LBS talk of the social media global village. On Twitter, at least 1 in 20 posts that fly by me may be a check-in. Okay, you may be wondering what the heck an LBS is. Location Based Service. Some, like Yelp, are related to providing reviews on local businesses so you can  find places where you are or where you're going to be to visit, the reviews giving you some reasonable certainty that after a meal, you won't end up on your knees before the porcelain throne. Others, like Foursquare, use location like a game. You "check into" places using your smart phone and acquire points which are then redeemable for goods and services. So, at first site (pun), it could be intriguing to think about having your small nonprofit show up as a place to go in these location-based social media communities.

    The Short Answer is "No."

    The question is: So - Should I Engage My NP in LBS?

    Full Disclosure: I don't like phones. I didn't get one until I was required to for a job I held, and even though I have a cell now, I seldom use it. So when the excitement started about smart phones and then LBS, I stuck my nose in the air and turned my head. And I've got tendinitis in all ten fingers, so texting is an idea whose time will never come for me. But, back to your small NP.

    Say your NP advises small farms on organic growing practices. What benefit would an LBS give you or your stakeholders?

    Post:Checking in at XYZ Organics. I got a pencil made from recycled dollar bills! FTW!

    The Longer Answer is "Maybe."

    You might effectively use Locations if your NP produced an art tour or poetry crawl were participants check in and exchange viewpoints on what they've seen or heard. Maybe they get awarded points over a series of tours and the "mayor of art town" gets a discount or free tickets to something.

    Many, many retailers and brands are using LBS to effectively get people into their stores. It might work for your NP if you have a set location (a gallery or museum, for example) you'd love to see packed or maybe a group of locations (local jazz venues). You might even be able to partner with local businesses to award points that can be redeemed by area nonprofits, including yours.

    I'm by no means an expert on this subject, since I'm clearly not a phone enthusiast (bad geek, no donut), so if you've been wondering about LBS, take your time and read up on how it's being used. (Posts like this one by Jason Falls have helped me.)

    Right now, I'm not sure how LBS can help a small nonprofit, but the potential is there, as it is with any kind of tool. And if you can think of a way to use it to serve your mission, then obviously, the answer to the question becomes "Definitely."

    If you've been successfully using LBS for your small nonprofit, then leave some breadcrumbs in the comments section for the rest of us to follow!
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    Thursday, July 1, 2010

    Do You GET the Flyswatter Community?

    When I was in high-tech I was a technical writer/editor, project manager and (often) software tester. Because of this background, I have a habit of thinking that the place to start with stakeholder engagement is with education. If I just do the right job of educating the stakeholders on the challenges,they'll be better prepared to support the team's efforts. When I started using social media on behalf of small nonprofits, I applied similar thinking. But I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd been trying to sell fly-flavored Popsicles to iguanas.

    What do you want from your stakeholders? Support.
    How Do You Get Support? By Giving It


    Your social media communication mission should always be to show that your nonprofit understands what the stakeholders came to you for. If they're looking for green-manufactured flyswatters, you give them information and more information and more information. You ask their opinion on the best flyswatters and you highlight the conversation and you give recognition to their feedback.

    When the flyswatter community feels that you get them, they'll work at getting you, too. They will listen to you and your story and want to support you the way that you are supporting them. You can start educating them in your answers and information: "one half of our internal flyswatter budget goes to free-trade flyswatter producers and our goal is to bring that up to 75% by the end of the calendar year."

    Support Builds Influence

    But it's a two-sided flyswatter. Your nonprofit is one side and your stakeholders - your community - is the other. Together you can do a lot for truth, justice and a fly-free Fourth of July picnic and you can use social media to build that better flyswatter. You may then attract flyswatter fans from around the world, and those of us with one eye on the potato salad will thank you.
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