Ending this blog

January 20, 2012

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I haven’t posted anything new in some months. As my communications practice continues to grow and become more demanding, finding the time to post has become a challenge. So, I’ve decided to step away from the responsibilities of blogging for now.

Thank you for reading and for all the great comments over the years.

Please stay connected by following me on Twitter at TagAlongDeb.


Don’t make these presentation mistakes

October 20, 2011

One of my clients routinely gives public education presentations on the organization’s role and responsibilities. Recently, I was asked to assist with creating new presentations for its various audiences. The client sent me a few PowerPoint slide decks as background info. He prefaced the email attachment with the line, “These presentations are really bad.” Well, yes, the slide decks were pretty bad, but what I found interesting was that this client seemed to regard the slide deck as the presentation itself. I think this is pretty common and it’s mistake number one.

Your slide deck is NOT your presentation

Microsoft’s PowerPoint came on the business scene in the 1990s and people were blown away with this technology. It wasn’t long before giving a presentation without using PowerPoint seemed somehow less than professional. It was the start of a journey that led to endless slides filled with bullet points. Sometimes these bullet points zipped across the screen and included sound effects. Why? Well, because the software allowed the presenter to do this, that’s why.

What got lost in all the bells and whistles is that PowerPoint was created to be an aid to presenters, not to replace them. PowerPoint quickly became a crutch. It became the presenter’s notes displayed up on the screen and it made for excruciatingly tedious presentations.

Tip: If you gave your PowerPoint slides to someone who hasn’t seen your presentation and they can figure out exactly what it’s about, start again. Your slides are not an aid, they are a distraction.

Having visuals does not replace good structure

When you embark on creating a presentation, do not even open PowerPoint on your computer. Any visuals you apply to your presentation should come last. Start with answering these questions instead:

  1. Who is your audience?
  2. Why should your audience care about your topic?
  3. What are the three or four key messages you need to deliver?
From here you can begin to piece together the content of your presentation. It should have a clear beginning (intro of yourself and what you will be speaking about) middle (key messages explained and illustrated with examples and stories) and an end (a summary of the content to tie things up for the audience possibly along with a call to action).

Slides are for reinforcing your comments only

Slides can be enormously helpful, but they should not be necessary for giving your presentation. If your technology fails (it happens), you should still be able to deliver an effective presentation. You, the presenter, are the crucial element of the presentation, not your slides.

Slides should be visual, not words on a screen. Some presenters completely swear off the presence of any words on a presentation slide. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do feel strongly about the absence of bullet points. Just don’t do it. Instead, choose images to reinforce what you are saying. If you’re talking about a location for example, use a map to illustrate where it is. Use images as a metaphor to drive a point home. For example, in a past blog post about crisis communications I used the image of a cat’s paw hovering over a garter snake. That’s a powerful image to reinforce the idea of a crisis in the audience member’s mind.

Graphs and charts are fine but they are not the only way to convey numbers. Don’t use too many and make sure they are easy to understand at a glance.

Watch presentations by the late Steve Jobs to get an idea of how expert presenters use images to reinforce a message. Carmine Gallo has a nice way of summing up Jobs’ skills in this video.  In a vintage post, I also made reference to a still brilliant presentation by Dick Hardt. It’s a great example of how slides can keep a presentation moving and the audience visually engaged.

Don’t just wing it

It’s very important to rehearse your presentation. Repeatedly. Even the most confident presenter needs to practice and make sure things run smoothly. Grab a co-worker, roommate and/or significant other and have them watch you run through it to make sure you’re getting your key messages across. Have them be brutally honest and adjust accordingly.

Your turn – What presentation mistakes do you see people make and what’s your solution for avoiding them?

*photo courtesy of Fixedgear on Flickr

Avoiding the perils of firsthand victim stories

September 12, 2011

This fall, I’ll be part of a workshop for advocacy and service groups at ECPAT International’s general assembly in Paris. ECPAT is a global network of more than 81 groups in 75 countries that work on the issue of child sexual exploitation. I’ve been asked to offer suggestions about how to engage adults to tell their stories about sexual exploitation in their childhood or youth. Getting former victims to share their stories publicly can be hugely effective in terms of generating media attention, public awareness and action. It’s not risk-free though, for the organization or the former victims.

As a child welfare social worker turned PR professional, I have approached the prospect of using firsthand stories from two perspectives. My public relations work involves helping organizations get their stories told in a way that is compelling. I know the best way to do this is through firsthand stories.

As a social worker who has worked with children and families who have lived through sexual abuse, I realize that going public with this kind of victimization is a huge step and one that needs to be considered very carefully.

There are a number of potential pitfalls for both sides—the former victim and the advocacy or direct service organization. There are some measures organizations should take to increase the likelihood of a successful collaboration with former victims.

  1. Find stable participants – Those willing to come forward don’t always have the necessary emotional stability and grounded perspective on their past experience. That can cause problems for both the participant and the organization. Connect with a support group facilitator or therapeutic helper to find participants who have achieved the stability necessary to go public.
  2. Screen for ability – Not everyone is suited to tell his/her story in public, whether that be through a media interview, speaking at a conference or in a video. The participant needs to have the confidence to take center stage, to speak clearly and tell his/her story in a way that is compelling. Once you have a roster of potential participants, interview them yourself and determine if they have what it takes. Some coaching may be required.
  3. Do perspectives align? – Organizations working with abuse victims or advocating on their behalf usually have a specific position on the causes of the problem and how, as a society, we should deal with it. Be prepared that the participant you are considering may not share those views. Even if you’re not asking them to comment in public on their views, the topic could come up, especially during media interviews.  Ask the potential participant about your organization’s perspective, ask them for their thoughts. Determine if there is a match or in the case of differences, whether you can live with them.
  4. Be transparent – The potential participant must be fully aware of the expectations and purpose of his/her participation. This is important not only from an ethical point of view but also to avoid having the participants back out when they discover they are not comfortable with what’s being asked of them. A contract is a good idea because it forces you to spell out exactly what’s involved and protects both your organization and the participant.
  5. Be realistic – If you’re asking the former victim to tell his/her story to the media, know that ultimately you have no control over how that story is going to be told. The participant needs to be aware of this. You can try to guide the journalist involved in terms of preferred language to use (e.g. “child sexual exploitation” rather than “child prostitute”) but there are no guarantees.
  6. Be prepared if things go wrong – Think of the risks involved ahead of time. What will you do if the media coverage is not what you or the participant expected? What if upon telling or viewing the story, the participant experiences post-trauma? Think it through and have a plan.
  7. Don’t forget legal considerations – In addition to having a contract, consider having a legal representative review the firsthand stories before you use them. If the participant is identifying his/her abuser, even in an indirect way, make sure there won’t be any legal repercussions. Fact check convictions, sentencing or court procedures the participant refers to for accuracy.

Has your organization used the stories of former victims in its advocacy work? Please share what steps you’ve taken to ensure success by leaving a comment.

Related post: Media promotion for non-profits doing sensitive work

Do you use email responsibly?

August 2, 2011

Email recently turned 40 years old. Hard to believe it’s been that long and even harder to believe that given its longevity, it’s one of the communication tools that is so often misused. Many of us feel so overwhelmed by our email in-boxes that we incessantly check our computers and mobile devices day and night trying to keep up.

A number of blogs and books have sprung up to help people manage email and to use it effectively. The blog, NetMatters, offers numerous tips and missives on the proper use of email and even urges people to take an “email etiquette pledge.” Danah Boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft, has gained attention for her promotion of the email sabbatical and provides details on how to take one when you go on vacation.

Even though I’ve noticed that teens and young adults appear to dismiss email as a form of communication in favour of SMS and chat, in the workplace, email still rules. Now that this communication tool has firmly reached middle age, maybe we can finally learn to manage it.

When I look at my own in-box and how I use email, I recognize areas that need reform. Here’s my personal list of resolutions and tips:

1. Not always responding – I try to be good about this, but sometimes I catch myself responding to an email even if I’ve just been copied on it and it’s a matter that does not require my input. There’s no need to contribute to the sender’s overloaded in-box with a response that simply says, “Thanks for the info.”

2. Clear subject lines – It makes me crazy when I’m searching for an old email using every keyword I can think of only to find that the original subject line from the sender was “Re”. That is not a subject line. I’ve resolved that when I get an email with an unclear subject line, I respond and insert a proper one. This makes it easier for me to search in future if required and, I hope, sends a subtle message to the sender that a clear subject line is required. Somewhat related is when someone uses an old email message in order to hit “reply” to send an unrelated new message. The person should start a new email thread to make searching for it later easier and to avoid confusion.

3. Vacations – I  need to improve here. When someone is on vacation, I need to stop sending him/her email. This is a tough one because if the person is gone for awhile, I’m afraid that I’ll forget that I need to inform him/her about something upon the person’s return. I think I can solve this by creating a draft email and waiting until the person returns to send it. That way, it’s written and just sitting there waiting for me to click send. I hate it when I return from vacation and have too many emails to deal with, so I need to set the example. Danah Boyd’s solution is a bit drastic but I can see its merits.

4. Visible email addresses on mass emails – I never do this on purpose but it annoys me when others do it. If you’re sending a mass email to multiple addresses, do a blind copy to all the recipients rather than making the addresses visible to everyone. My business email address is public knowledge but the Gmail address I use for personal correspondence is something I want to give out at my discretion. This public group email practice can also lead to the dreaded “reply all” thread that results in email conversations I don’t really need to be part of, which leads me to #5.

5. Reply all – Don’t do it unless everyone in that email address box really needs to be part of the conversation.

How about you? How have you tried to tame your email box? Share your success.