Communicating Complex Information

My colleague Sunni Brown recently spoke on the topic of communicating complex information. She would know because her beat includes most of the STEM-related majors at a university. STEM, if you aren’t familiar, is science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

That’s actually one of the tips. She has several more for turning complex information into readable material.

Avoid acronyms. Yes, acronyms make it easier on the writer, but definitely not easier for the reader. Too many acronyms read like alphabet soup, which is always murky, and, therefore complex.

Ask lots of questions. Asking “how” and “why” questions will help you understand complex topics. Dig beneath the surface of what is being told to you. If you don’t understand, you need to keep asking questions. As a spokesperson, I need to know enough about the subject to be able to answer a reporter’s questions. As the person writing about a subject, I need to understand the topic to convey it simply to my readers.

Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t understand. It can be intimidating to meet with an academic who lives and breathes their area of expertise and then have to admit that you don’t understand it. Sunni has a sure-fire way to not be intimidated. “I ask the professor to explain the topic to me as if I were my 5-year-old son,” she says. “I’ve found that to be a laughable ice breaker, and the professor rarely seems put out that I need a lot of help understanding their project.”

Read your release or pitch out loud. When you read copy out loud you often stumble upon areas that need improvement. If you pause or trip over a word or phrase, Sunni says that’s a sure sign that you need to revisit that spot.

“I feel the most proud when I get media interest on a complicated topic that I’ve worked to uncomplicate.”

Sunni Brown

Ask others to read your copy. Another set of eyes is key. Says Sunni, “I’ve had someone write back highlighting a word and asking, ‘What the heck is this?’ That’s exactly why I wanted them to read it.”

When you succeed at making your content understandable – whether it’s pitching the media or writing an article – you’ll have a great win. “I feel the most proud when I get media interest on a complicated topic that I’ve worked to uncomplicate,” says Sunni. “That means I’ve done my job well.”


Personal, Professional Growth Provide Reasons to Join a Group

I think I have finally finished paying my yearly dues for the various groups to which I belong.

I’m not complaining. The dues are worth it because of the various experiences and skills I gain through my memberships.

I’m also currently serving as membership director for Virginia Professional Communicators. A new member said it best,

“Treating myself to the gift of personal and professional growth this year is a wonderful thing.”

What can you gain from joining a group?

Encouragement and confidence My mystery writers group (Sisters in Crime Central Virginia) provides me with encouragement and confidence. Many of the members are published authors, some of whom have made the best-seller list. All of them have offered tips and advice as I work on my manuscript at my pace. Because of them, I am confident that one day my book will appear in print and reside on a shelf or an electronic device.

Writing skills I’m also working on my writing skills thanks to James River Writers. In the coming months I’ll learn how to organize my writing life and how to build a publishing resume. I’ll have opportunities to learn about the power of word choice and how traditional and indie publishing can work together.

New skills My involvement with VPC and NFPW enables me to hone skills in areas that I don’t work in every day. This year, for example, I’m co-director of the national communications conference for NFPW. Not only will I be doing some serious networking as I work to identify speakers and sponsors, but I also have to focus on collaboration and organization.

Leadership opportunities I began to develop my leadership skills serving on committees. Eventually I served as president of both my state affiliate and the national organization. I also led a strategic planning workshop for NFPW with another member.

Friendship As an added benefit, I have found that in all of these groups I have made some lifelong friends. Almost anywhere I go, there is someone I know. That’s a nice bonus.

Jump Start Your Career in 2018

I spent part of my winter break thinking about all aspects of my career. Although I’ve worked in communications for many years, the landscape continues to change. I want to stay current. I also aspire to be a published author and career coach.

chess pieces

What  moves are you making to ensure career success? (Photo by Cynthia Price)

Here are 5 things I did to set my priorities and make changes to my career journey:

Paid my membership dues. Before I paid the dues, I considered each organization and whether I was benefiting. I elected not to renew one of my memberships because while the programming was strong it was geared toward individuals at a different place in their careers. Another group has been super encouraging, and I even received a handwritten note from one of the members encouraging me to stretch even further. I renewed that one.

Take a course (or two). I suspect I will always be a lifelong learner. Learning about new platforms, the latest apps and different management styles is important. I’m always looking for webinars, seminars, conferences and classes. I’ve signed up for a WordPress certificate course. I know the basics for my blog, but I’d like to improve my website and find out what I don’t know. For fun – and maybe to help with my mystery writing – I decided to take a course on the “FBI in Movies.” If nothing else, I think I will get to watch some good movies. Anyone for “The Untouchables?”

Network. We all know the value of networking but too often we think of it only in the context of a group setting. I try to have at least two networking lunches a month. One is with a colleague within my organization. I like learning about someone else’s position. An added bonus is that because I work in communications, I almost always also get a nugget for a story. I also network with someone monthly outside of my organization. It allows me to see how other companies and sectors operate.

Entered an awards competition. Each year I look to see if I have anything to enter in a communications contest. My colleague and I review our body of work. I’m reminded of some good work. I’m also reminded of some work I could have done better. And I get ideas for other projects. It’s a great process to prepare myself for the coming year.

Updated my resume and LinkedIn profile. It’s important to do this yearly to ensure everything is up-to-date. I note key projects I worked on in the past year and double check keywords. I also reached out to my references, updating them on my career and to find out what they had been focused on.

Are you ready to jump start your career?

Communications Contests Add Value to Your Work

AFI002-award-awards -trophy-trophies-statue-beelden-motivatie-motivation-teamwork-oscar-oscarsAward season has kicked off for Hollywood. The same is true in the communications world. I have several opportunities to enter my work in communications contests and learn how I stack up.

Communications awards can provide validation. They may improve your work as you consider what to enter, and whether it is your best work. Judges’ feedback also is helpful. And, the recognition should make you feel good about the work you do.

What do I mean by validation? If you’ve worked hard on an article, a campaign or a project, when it’s finished you, your team and your boss may acknowledge for a moment, but you are usually already hard at work on the next thing. An award for the article, campaign or project validates that you did great work and that others recognize that effort.

When my colleague and I reviewed our work, we made a list of possible entries. A few days later, we reexamined the list. In one or two instances, we deleted the work from the list because while it was good, it wasn’t great. If we are going to enter a contest, we want to enter our best work. We discussed how we could have made the projects stronger and have noted it for future efforts.

I always appreciate the judges’ comments. I take the time to read them. Most often they offer suggestions that would have made the work I submitted even stronger if I had had their tips or advice in advance. I find that useful as I embark on the next project.

Winning an award and being recognized by one’s peers is always nice. Who doesn’t like to hear, “Job well done”?

I have a few more days to finish my entries. I’m already thinking ahead to next year and determining how I can do my best work this year.

Note: For tips on how to enter a contest, check out this post.


Unplugging and Doing Nothing

Capture_UnplugWe’re solidly into the new year, and I’ve yet to write about resolutions or what I plan to accomplish.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s nothing alarming.

I needed to unplug.

The quote from Annie Lamont really resonated with me. I’d been feeling overwhelmed and unsettled. I won’t bore you with the specifics because we’ve all felt that way for varying reasons. It’s what you do about it, though, that matters.

For me it was truly about unplugging and not doing anything. Another one of my epiphany quotes is from Lillian Hellman, who said,

“You do too much. Go and do nothing for a while. Nothing.”

— Lillian Hellman

I had about a 10-day winter break where I implemented the sage advice contained in both quotes. Much like a bear, I hibernated. I emerged occasionally to visit with friends, see a movie or enjoy a meal. But overall, I was hibernating at home in yoga pants, oversized comfy tops and thick socks. I was seldom on social media. I was slow to respond to emails. I didn’t even make a “To Do” list.

What I did was nap, watch the birds at the feeders, read a zillion (okay, ten) books and recharge.

I emerged from hibernation ready to embrace 2018. I look forward to continuing my blog this year and hearing what you have to say.

Cheers to 2018!


Seeing the Future of Visual Communications

My eyes were wide open following a presentation by Mike McDougall on shaping the future of visual communications.

He shared his thoughts with PRSA Richmond, noting that the mass migration to digital media and the subsequent shift to visually dominant platforms has transformed the communications mix.


Photo from Mike McDougall presentation.

I was overwhelmed by the idea of being able to visually see multiple screens through a contact lens. I confess, the introvert in me wanted to run and hide. But I was intrigued when I discovered I need to consider when my audience is viewing the content I produce and on what type of screen. That knowledge would help me consider the lighting within my videos.

He had us all thinking about visual trends.

For example, we all know that consumption habits are evolving. McDougall noted, “The whole ‘put your phone down’ mentality doesn’t fly.” Because people are consuming information in bits and bytes, he said we need to communicate more frequently. A study showed that by 2015, our attention span had decreased to 8-seconds, which is 1 second shorter than the attention span of a goldfish!

The adage Seeing is believing is true. People tend to believe something they have seen. McDougall shared an example of news outlets reporting canceled flights by British Airways. The airline immediately shared photos on social media of the flight boards showing departure times and people standing in line to board. Those images allowed BA to combat the fake news.

Another trend is the dominance of micro storylines. The right photo, McDougall said, can tell a story in a second. One way to succinctly tell a story is to use infographics. When it comes to video, a Visible Measures report found that 20 percent of viewers stopped watching a video after 10 seconds and 45 percent of the audience is lost after one minute.

As you might suspect, with the focus on visual, it’s all about the eyes, which are becoming input devices. Another consideration is the amount of time spent on devices. McDougall noted that people’s comfort with viewing will change throughout the day. By evening, most people’s eyes are tired.  One suggestion is to use Night Shift, which shifts the temperature of your screen.

7 Directions to Navigate the Travel Writing Path

I’ve been traveling my entire life, but I’ve never thought about travel writing as a career.

Good thing because as veteran travel writer Annette Thompson told an NFPW workshop, “You can’t always pay the mortgage as a travel writer.”

Thompson, who is a past president of the Society of American Travel Writers and a former longtime journalist with Southern Living magazine, has written numerous freelance stories and operates an online magazine called Second Chance Travels.

20160424_154546 (1)Travel writing today is a challenge because of dwindling markets and tighter publication budgets. She noted that she does not accept assignments that only pay her by providing her with exposure – meaning, the magazine publishes her piece with a byline, but she receives no payment.

Many would-be travel writers mistakenly think that writing about a destination makes for a strong travel piece. Thompson explained that good travel writing includes stories about people. For example, don’t say you are writing about Birmingham. Instead, identify an angle about a unique aspect to that place, such as the clay artists who make plates for the city’s restaurants. She also noted that expenses usually are not covered.

To succeed at travel writing, Thompson said writers should do the following:

  1. Network. You need to know other writers and editors, and the people who represent the destinations, she said.
  2. Join a travel association. Membership provides networking, conference and travel opportunities. While SATW is difficult to gain membership to, Thompson recommends North American Travel Journalists Association; International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association; and Travel Blog Exchange.
  3. Know your DMOs and CVBs. A DMO is a destination marketing organization. A CVB is the convention and visitors bureau.
  4. Find a target. “Identify where you want your story to go,” Thompson said. Most publications have stories that are 30 words to 50 words, in addition to longer forms. She encouraged her audience to start with the shorter pieces as a way to get their foot in the door.
  5. Hone your pitch. The blurb that you send to an editor should have a one-sentence opening, a concise nut graph – which is what the piece is about – and a brief mention of your prior experience. She also suggested pitching well in advance, perhaps as much as 18 months before publication.
  6. Have an online presence. Having one-page online devoted to your career provides a place to post your previous stories that have published and will give others confidence in your work.
  7. Have a writing partner. This is someone who can act as your audience and read your material before you pitch it.