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Opinion | Trina Wallace


Five unnecessary communications meetings

You have 10 projects on the go and deadlines coming out of your ears when your colleague utters those much-feared words. “I think it’s best we all meet to discuss it,” they say. “We’ll only need half an hour.”

But you know. You know that half an hour meeting will turn into a couple of hours. And that your boss will still expect you to deliver the report you’re working on by the end of the day, even if you’re meeting to discuss it.

Unnecessary meetings suck the hours out of your busy days, wasting your time and that of colleagues. Charity communicators are involved in far too many of them because we work across departments. I have found myself in a meeting with people from finance arguing about the merits of moving a comma. And a lengthy web analytics meeting with a digital team who presented no statistics at all.

I think it’s time charity communicators took a stand. At a time when our teams are being cut and workload increased, I think we should push back on unnecessary meetings.

I’m not advocating a “No meeting” policy. Good meetings ensure everyone is on board with your project, knows when and what input is expected of them and lead to concrete actions. They’re completely necessary and make good use of donors’ money. Unnecessary meetings waste it.

So, here are five meetings I think we shouldn’t be having and ideas for what might work instead.

1. A brainstorm that lasts longer than 20 minutes.

I was once in a three-hour brainstorm meeting. By the end, I think ideas that were rejected to begin with were welcomed with open arms. Really, meetings to brainstorm ideas should not last longer than 20 minutes because attendees will lose focus and inspiration. To avoid this, circulate proposed questions/topics ahead and ask attendees to bring three ideas with them.

2. Meetings about second drafts – when no one has read the first.

Always ensure that you give people enough time to read the first draft of anything you produce. Don’t meet if you haven’t received people’s comments in writing first. Discussion will be more helpful when you’ve had time to digest feedback and decide what you would like to clarify. If people haven’t read your first draft, delay the meeting. If you go ahead, they’ll only feedback later and it could create problems, wasting resources.

3. Meetings with external agencies that could be done on the phone.

Most agencies will charge for meetings, even if they don’t make it clear that they do. Check this by clarifying with suppliers if they’ll charge for a meeting you invite them to. Consider setting up a conference call or using Skype instead. Try using Google documents to share spreadsheets and presentations – you can update them as you’re on the call.

4. Agenda-less meetings.

No agenda means no focus. The meeting without an agenda is likely to meander from topic to topic. Attendees won’t have time to prepare and gather their thoughts because the aim of the meeting isn’t clear. People are more likely to resent being at these kinds of meetings and are therefore less likely to contribute to discussion.

5. Meetings about projects that won’t be happening for a few months.

It’s not a good idea to gather people together before you, or the person calling the meeting, has anything concrete to ask or delegate. An email, phone call or chat at a colleague’s desk could work instead. Often, this will end up being a meeting about a future meeting. Of course, it’s brilliant to plan far ahead and to get time in people’s diaries but you don’t need to meet until you know what you need from others.

Want to meet to chat about a charity communications project? I promise it will be a worthwhile meeting. Do contact me to talk your project through.

Five things charity communicators can learn from Mad Men

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

Those are the words of Don Draper, top creative in the US drama Mad Men, set in a 1960s New York advertising agency.

I came to Mad Men, which first aired in 2007, quite late and I’m busy working my way through four seasons’ worth of box sets to catch up. I don’t feel entirely guilty for giving the show so much of my time. It seems to me that there are so many parallels between what we do as charity communicators and what the ad men and women at Sterling Cooper do in the show.

I’m a firm believer in learning lessons from popular culture and Mad Men is full of them.

Here are five things I think we can learn from the US show:

1. Tell a story.

Mad Men’s top ad man Don Draper knows how to tell a story. When his colleagues flail in meetings, he’ll stand up and make their ideas come to life by telling the story of the campaign they’ve come up with. Good charity writing should do the same, whether it’s a grant application or direct mail. Say you have to sell a campaign to a donor. Starting by telling them about what you want the campaign to achieve and going on to talk about the logistics of it won’t tell your story as well as it would if you began by saying why it is needed. That’s because you need to first show the change you want to achieve and gain your readers’ empathy.

So, instead of:

Our pancreatic cancer research centre will be the biggest in the world with 100 scientists and high tech laboratories that will help develop better treatments for the devastating disease.

You could have:

Sam Jones never touched cigarettes, ate his five a day – every day – and went to the gym before work. “I’ve always been health conscious,” says the 55 year old dad of two. “I never dreamed I’d get cancer – and I’d never heard of pancreatic cancer.”

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months ago, doctors can’t tell Sam why he developed the disease because they don’t know exactly why people get it. We are launching a pancreatic cancer research centre to help change this – to save the lives of people like Sam.

2. Think outside your office.

Creative staff at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper, especially main character Don Draper, are always scribbling on bits of paper, napkins and notebooks when they think of an idea. In the same way, let ideas for your charity’s communications digest, develop and come to mind when you’re away from your desk and the meeting room. An idea for a great slogan is likely to pop into your head when you allow yourself to stop thinking about it for a bit and, in my experience, the best headlines or introductions are rarely formed when you stare at a blank screen.

3. Beware of stereotypes.

Many episodes of Mad Men show us that when advertising campaigns are based on stereotypes, such as gender or race, they fail. Of course, Mad Men shows developing 1960s North American society and we’ve moved on a long way since then – thankfully. Though many charity causes battle against common stereotypes, often their communications can help perpetuate them. Are you still referring to a “chairman” rather than a “chair” or a “spokesman” rather than a “spokesperson”? Or, if you work for a children’s charity and are writing about a mentoring project, does your reader need to know that the mentee used to be in a “girl gang” rather than a “gang”? Does it matter if you say whether someone is married or single? Only include information like this if it is essential to your point, otherwise it’s a value judgement.

4. Discuss your ideas – and listen to everyone else’s.

There are a lot of meetings in Mad Men – from discussing ideas for campaigns to who’s going to work on them. And while sometimes organisations are guilty of having too many meetings about meetings, it can also be easy not to have them at all. I’m sure we’ve all sent an email to someone who we really should have phoned. It’s a good idea to organise regular meetings with departments you’d like to contribute to your communications to get more buy in from them. So, you could organise a meeting with your fundraising team to find out what support you could offer each other in the next month or with policy to get them to explain issues they want you to communicate to the wider world in plain English.

5. Challenge the status quo.

Mad Men shows how society has become less sexist, racist and elitist. By highlighting the fact that not everything has changed since the 1960s, though, it also shows how far we still have to go before everyone is equal. In every communication your charity produces you should show how far society has come in solving the problem you want to solve, and what else needs to be done. People need to know why you exist (what you do) and what concrete things you want to see happen in the future (why you do it). This might sound like an obvious thing to say but there are far too many charity websites, annual reviews and strategy documents which don’t explain either.

If you need help with a charity copywriting project, big or small, do contact me on trina@trinawllace.com or 07974 185 541.

Choosing the right words

From “feral rats” to “protestors”, and “scum” to “opportunists”, language used to describe the UK rioters over the last few days has varied greatly.

“Everything depends on your point of view,” as the Guardian’s Jon Healey points out in his article about this issue.

Indeed, the words used in the media’s coverage of the riots have been shocking, fascinating and insightful. Journalists have lost all their objectivity. And, others argue, politicians’ language has been damaging.

“It is not helpful to stigmatise some parts of society as ‘sick’, like some sort of cancer,” said Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott on Wednesday’s Newsnight. She was talking about prime minister David Cameron’s rhetoric.

Some language is certainly “unhelpful”, at the very least. I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this about the way we use words, and the way we employ language in our charity communications. So here are my five tips for using language positively in your charity comms.

1. Don’t let value judgements seep into your comms.

So, you’ve got a list of values that represent your organisation. Fantastic. But do your communications communicate those values? Are you still referring to a “chairman” rather than a “chair” or a “spokesman” rather than a “spokesperson”? Or, say you work for a children’s charity and are writing about a mentoring project, does your reader need to know that the mentee used to be in a girl gang rather than a “gang”? Does it matter if you say whether someone is married or single? Only include information like this if it is essential to your point, otherwise it’s a value judgement.

2. Create a style guide.

As a charity communicator, you will know the words to avoid when writing about your cause, but your colleagues in other departments might not. Having a style guide is not a sign that your charity has gone corporate; it’s simply an essential charity communications tool. Even better, create a one-page summary of language to use and avoid, which spokespeople can quickly read before they give interviews, or colleagues can scan before they write a blog post.

3. Let your “service users” speak.

Often when I’ve interviewed charity service users, project workers have insisted on being in the room at the same time. Then they have tried to answer my questions on behalf of the service users. Successfully protecting your charity’s case studies doesn’t mean telling their story on their behalf. It’s more empowering to let your service users tell their story in their own way, using their own language. Use your own, and the inauthenticity will be obvious, turning off potential supporters.

4. Use the language of your supporters, donors and commissioners.

How would a supporter describe what your charity does? What about a commissioner? The two audiences will probably use different language to talk about what you do. In your communications, you should adapt your words for these audiences. So, if you’re writing a web page aimed at commissioners, make sure you use these key words in the first few paragraphs. But you would use different words on a web page a supporter could be searching. Even if you’re talking about the same thing, you would want your reader to take different actions (commission your services v donating).

5. Avoid jargon.

Language you use every day could be alien to your audience. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they’ll switch off, which means you won’t get that donation, volunteer or commission. Although words like “engagement” and “leverage” have become the norm in charity communications, often they are meaningless. For some potential alternative words, read this article I wrote for the Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network.

For more of my top tips on charity comms, sign up to my e-newsletter in the column opposite.

What charities can learn from Men’s Health magazine

“Strip away fat!” “100 simplest weight-loss cheats ever.” “Boost your brain power by watching the World Cup.”

Charity sector communicators can learn a lot from these headlines. They’re taken from the July issue of Men’s Health magazine.

Like any effective publication, pick up a copy of Men’s Health, read by a quarter of a million people every month, and you’ll know instantly what it’s all about.

You’ll get an idea of who the reader is, their hopes and desires and why they buy the magazine.

Now, I’m no Men’s Health reader myself, and this blog isn’t about critiquing its content. I take the magazine down from the newsagents’ shelves now and then and recall my old journalism tutor’s lesson about why their cover works so well: it sells the magazine’s content to its target audience so they buy it.

Here are five things to learn from a magazine cover, like Men’s Health, to help you improve your charity’s communications.

1. Know what your audience does in their free time.

Ask a Men’s Health journalist what their reader might do on the weekend and they’ll, sigh, and whittle off an answer: “Go for a half-hour jog they thought would be an hour’s run, plan their next week’s meals, watch the match at their mates BBQ, shop for the latest gadgets and have a few beers at the pub, but then feel guilty about them the next day.” Or something similar.

As a charity communicator, you need to be able to do the same thing for your target audiences. Know your audience well and you’ll be more easily able to persuade them to donate, or change their behaviour.

2. Use SMART to get your reader’s attention.

Men’s Health readers like SMART targets – as in, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. For example, “24-hour muscle: seven ways to pack on 5kg.” They know that their reader really wants to get fit but is so busy they want results fast. Your charity’s target audience, donors for example, are probably also looking for immediate results. So, to grab their attention, tell them how many lives their cash will save and in what timeframe – shopping lists are essential items for your communications so invest resources in getting them done properly.

3. Re-package what you do.

Every month, Men’s Health will have articles about losing weight, gaining weight, the right food to eat, how to improve intelligence without much effort etc. It’s just re-angled each time. You should apply the same creativity to your charity communications. It might be the third annual report you’ve written but you can approach it in a completely different way – use an unusual format, get your service users involved, or go for an online version. Some of the readers of the charity communication you are working on might not have heard your story before, so if it’s tired in your telling, they’ll notice and switch off.

4. Know how you want your audience to feel.

Men’s Health stories are generally about motivating readers to look after themselves, emotionally, physically and mentally. They are made to feel excited, enthusiastic and good about themselves. When you produce your communication, you need to think about how you want your audience to feel when they read it. It might be empathy for a case study, or shock at a hard-hitting campaign.

5. Hone and translate your key messages.

Like any good charity communication, a Men’s Health article is filled with key messages. “Keep fit, look good and you’ll achieve more,” is one. “Busy successful men like you can stay healthy with minimum effort,” is another. These key messages help shape the magazine’s content every month. If you tailor your key messages to your target audiences, your charity communications will be a whole lot easier to produce, not to mention more inspiring and effective.

For more charity communications news, views and advice, sign up to my e-newsletter using the box opposite.