Monday, October 10, 2011

Slow down and get 40% more done!

"A man's gotta know his limitations"

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan

I have some news you’re not going to like, but don’t dismiss it just because you’d prefer not to believe it. It’s true.

-- Do you talk on the phone while typing or reading emails?

-- Do you talk on the phone while driving?

-- Do you have numerous windows open on your computer at once, switching rapidly from one task to the next?

-- Do you stop what you are doing to jump on emails as they arrive in your inbasket?

These habits are reducing your productivity by up to 40 percent. But here is the good news; that means that if you are a heavy multitasker, you can increase your productivity up to 40 percent if you can wean yourself from some counterproductive multitasking behaviors.

Most of us engage in some of these forms of multitasking. It seems more stimulating to juggle several topics than to focus on one thing at a time. But guess what; it’s dragging our productivity down – way down – according to a growing body of scientific research.

While it is tantalizing to think we can do more than one thing at a time in order to get more done, more quickly, the fact is that such multitasking or task-switching can rob your work of its quality, reduce your overall output, increase stress, and inhibit your relationships with others. In fact, researchers say, the results can be catastrophic.

I've written extensively on this blog about multitasking and its implications for nonprofit communications professionals. It's a topic that interests me because I know multitasking is very counterproductive, but like you, I have to do it sometimes out of necessity. But many times I can control it and avoid it. It's a matter of disciplining myself to do so, and that is not easy.

Our productivity is the result of how effectively we apply our attention to our goals. Anything that interferes with the ability to focus your attention on your chosen goals will drain productivity.

Multitasking is especially harmful. Here is a good New York Times article summarizing some of the research on the ways that multitasking robs your productivity. A more recent but shorter article appeared in The USA Today Weekend by Laura Hoxworth, citing statistics that multitasking slows you down by up to 40 percent.

And while things like talking on a cellphone while driving may seem efficient, in fact, commuters who talk on their cellphones lose an average of 25 hours a year because they tend to drive more slowly. Twenty-five hours! That's more than half a week of vacation down the drain! Not to mention that cell-phone driving is as dangerous as driving drunk, according to the CDC.

Here's a quote from the New York Times article: “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

Sometimes multitasking is unavoidable. But more often, many people (me) embrace multitasking either to avoid boredom, or to avoid focusing on their real problems and priorities, or because they feel they are somehow capable of more than is humanly possible. I am guilty of all of those! That's why this topic interests me -- because I find it difficult to practice what I preach. The result is a loss of productivity -- up to 4o percent!

Dirty Harry was right: A man's gotta know his limitations. Multitasking is simply wishful thinking. I wish I could do 5 things at once. I can't; nobody can. Not even you. According to scientists, humans get more done when they do tasks one at a time, consecutively, rather than at the same time.

Don't take my word for it: Here are about 20 research articles that validate what I'm saying.

Click here for links to about 20 research articles on the topic.

Have a productive day!

Steve Cebalt, Author,
The Communications Handbook for nonprofits and Foundations


Saturday, September 10, 2011

A brilliant look at communications today

A client from a local foundation was kind enough to share this video with me. It is a fascinating perspective on the media landscape -- old media, and new. Well worth 4 minutes of your time if you have any role in nonprofit or foundation communications!

Steve Cebalt, Author

The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Do Questions Make Good Headlines for Brochures, Web Pages, Newsletters, and Direct Mail Fundraising?

Do question headlines work?

If you are reading this article, then the answer is a definite “yes.”

I spent several happy years as a copy editor and headline writer at The Journal Gazette. Some people argue vigorously against the use of questions in headlines. But I disagree. I believe that asking a question is one of the most potent attention-getting openers for public relations writers who produce Web sites, fundraising appeals, direct mail, brochures and newsletters. To be effective, the question headline must ask a question that the reader can empathize with or would like to see answered.

Some examples:
-- "Do you make these mistakes in English?"
-- "What do Japanese managers know that American managers sometimes lack?"
-- "Is THIS what your teen will be doing tonight?"
-- "Do you have you any of these decorating problems?"
-- "Do you close the bathroom door even when you're the only one home?" (Psychology Today)

Don't let anyone tell you that questions in headlines are a bad idea.

Shifting gears but still speaking of headlines....

Just for fun, here are some real-world headlines that may have missed the mark.

-- Juvenile court to try shooting defendant
-- Plane too close to ground, crash probe told
-- Miners refuse to work after death
-- Stolen painting found by tree
-- If strike isn't settled quickly, it may last a while
-- Cold wave linked to temperatures
-- Red tape holds up new bridge
-- Typhoon rips through cemetery; hundreds dead
-- New study of obesity looks for larger test group
-- Astronaut takes blame for gas in spacecraft
-- Kids make nutritious snacks.

Enjoy your day!

Steve Cebalt, Author,


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Every picture tells a story

Seeking a Better Life for her Baby

A migrant woman feeds her baby in a concrete tunnel near a railroad during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexican border in this AP photo taken Thursday.

Today's post is off topic, but not really. Many of my readers from nonprofit organizations work in the human services sector, and presumably we all share an interest in "the human condition."

This photo stopped me in my tracks. Every political year, illegal immigration becomes a pitched battle, even though, frankly, we have far more pressing concerns in our country. Maybe that's why politicians like this issue; it sounds important but it means they don't have to grapple with the real issues that affect most of us more deeply every day.

The photo is a reminder that when we discuss illegal immigration, we are not talking about statistics or "aliens." We are talking about people -- mothers and babies -- people who are just like you and me. Unlike most of us, however, they were not lucky enough to be born in a relatively prosperous country. The lottery of life cast them in dire circumstances, in a country with a wretched economy and fraught with increasingly violent and widespread wars over control of the illegal drug market.

Can you blame this mother for wanting something better than that for her baby? Wouldn't you?

People travel incredible, risky journeys to get to the U.S. from Mexico and Latin American countries, often riding on the tops of trains, holding on to racks on top of the train for dear life, crossing treacherous rivers, and more. All for the hopes of having a small slice of what you and I take for granted every day. Today, 29,000 immigrants who are not U.S. citizens are serving in our military, doing our fighting for us. Taking the military oath to protect and defend our nation does not bestow citizenship on an immigrant. It should.

Immigrants are vital to our economy as well. Here in Indiana, migrants work the farms this time of year, putting food on your table. Across the country, factories, farms and some entire industries depend on immigrant labor.

Most of us are descendants of immigrants. Our ancestors came from all over the world. Some were shackled and shipped here as slaves; others came freely but penniless to build a new life, digging ditches, building subways and city infrastructures, and doing work that no one else wanted to do. My ancestors came from Germany (probably to escape the gallows, given my family's spotty history). No, they came here to fulfill their dreams, so they, and their children, and their grandchildren, and eventually Steve Cebalt, could live in a land of freedom and opportunity.

Now that we are here, essentially immigrants ourselves if you take the long view, many want to close the doors and make The Land of the Free a private club, for current members only.

Politics aside, this photo reminds us that the "immigration issue" is about people just like us, including a young mom seeking a better life for her baby.

Steve Cebalt, Author
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pack a punch, without all the words

The long way to say, "Paid members only."

The radiant sun cracks into the amber sky and sheds a fresh glow over the dewy grass. The rays dance through your window and glide onto your bed, waking you for a new day of adventure ahead. You breathe deep the crisp morning air and begin your day refreshed and renewed.

How many of you actually read that whole paragraph? How many of you scrolled on down to here? Don’t be shy, you’re not alone. First off, no one’s morning begins like that. Morning always comes too early and we’re more likely to shove a pillow over our heads to block the sun than to feel refreshed by the rays. Second off, none of us has the time to read fluff, no matter how well-written it is.

So what does this have to do with you and your nonprofit? That wasn’t just the ramblings of a frustrated cubicle dweller; it was an attempt to show you just how short your audience’s attention span is. You’re not in the Victorian era with Charles Dickens where you get paid per word; verbosity is gone and she ain’t coming back. Today’s audience needs news short and sweet, something they can skim on their Blackberries on the elevator.

When you’re working on your next project, keep all that in mind. How can you get your message across completely and yet keep it brief? Here are some great ideas that I have seen work quite well.

Never Doubt the Power of a Picture
It’s an old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s still true today. Imagine being stuck in morning traffic and you see a billboard above you advertising a Tahitian vacation. It shows nothing more than a picture of white sand, clear blue water, and a laptop left behind in the sand with the word “Escape” in bright colors in the sky. You can feel yourself on that beach just as well with one picture and one word as you could with a full page text heavy ad in the newspaper.

Just Ride the Wave
This wave of new technology can be frustrating to deal with. Not many people actually sit down with a fresh newspaper in the morning to cap off their cup of joe anymore. Most would rather scroll the Internet before work or hop on their Blackberries. Embrace this new technology and investigate MP3 ads or audio newsletters; don’t see that as an obstacle though, but rather an opportunity. In the nonprofit sector, ample funds aren’t exactly knocking at your door, so you have to find low cost alternatives and this new technology might be just what you need. It saves on the printing cost, it could reach a wider audience, and they’re getting cheaper and cheaper to produce. Ride the wave, don’t swim against the current.

There are countless more ways to pack a punch without all the words, but I’ll leave that up to you to figure out. Plus, you’re probably too busy to read any more of this anyway.

“If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought.” ~Dennis Roth

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I hit a raw nerve with my views on brainstorming. What do you think?

Want to make some people mad? Tell them that brainstorming is a lousy way to generate ideas. That's what I did, and boy, did I hit a nerve!

I conducted a workshop for nonprofit communicators on how to generate and harness the power of their ideas. The 15 main points of my workshop appear below. There was a surprising amount of vocal dissent and resistance to two of my points, numbered 8 and 9 below. These two pertain to my notion that brainstorming is ineffective, and that most good ideas come from one or two people instead of a large group.

Evidently my lone-wolf approach to idea-generation is not universal, and my criticism of the brainstorming process really touched a raw nerve with some attendees, who were not shy about telling me how wrong I was. The ensuing discussion was insightful, though. The consensus view of the discussion is that brainstorming is not a bad thing in and of itself, but that most teams don't implement it well.

One nonprofit CEO in the session said he does use groups and teams for idea generation, but with a twist that I liked very much. Instead of brainstorming, where the premise is that "we won't judge the ideas, there are no bad ideas, etc.," he creates an agenda and tells people to come to the meeting with one or two specific ideas that will solve the problem or address the issue at hand. That seems like an excellent way to use team resources. People actually have to think deliberately about the situation, and come to the meeting to present a legitimate idea. Because they "own" the idea (unlike in a traditional brainstorming process), they are more likely to come up with good ones.

Another participant shared a good approach as well. Like me, he tends to generate ideas solo, but then he shares it with someone who does not think like he does -- someone likely to have an opposing viewpoint or a "Devil's Advocate" response. I like that. I tend to test my ideas on my colleagues, who are willing to disagree, but who view the world largely the same way I do. In the future, I will seek out people whose opinions I respect, but who do not think the same way I do.

What do you think about brainstorming? Send me an e-mail and I'll share your ideas with others:

The 15 points from my workshop appear below my signature block.


Steve Cebalt, Author

The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations

Here are the 15 idea-generating points that I included in the workshop:

1. Idea generation is a process – more like science or engineering than many people might think. It is not an innate skill or an inherent “creativity gene.” Idea generation is a skill like any other; it can be taught, and learned. But many people dismiss their own creative powers. “I’m just not creative.” Bull. Everyone can learn to be more creative. But it takes work. Not much, but some. But once you label yourself as “not creative,” guess what – you’ll never be creative. You’ll have to stoop to calling your intellectually inferior Dad for ideas, and none of us wants that. …

2. The most important part of the process is to capture and save every idea you have. That’s where my daughter and others like her go awry. We all get dozens of ideas every day. But some people don’t recognize them as valuable assets and capture them. I maintain an extensive archive of ideas in a simple word document. If I see something in the paper that might make a good science project for one of my kids, I log it on my idea bank in my computer, even if the science fair is a year away. When one of the kids starts scrambling for an idea, I’ve got one (usually several) captured in my idea bank that I snagged just from reading the paper, watching TV, etc. If I get a great direct-mail piece in the mail with a clever headline, I save in an “inspiration” folder.

3. Keep a notepad and pen with you always. If you have an idea, you have to capture it, because you may not get it back! So whether you are out mowing the lawn, watching a kid’s soccer game, or shopping at the grocery, be sure you have a notepad and pen handy. Keep notepads by your bed, in your car, in your pockets/purse, and all over the house. Collect those ideas on some sort of list, and throw the papers away.

4. Let it go. Don’t struggle for ideas. Ideas that you struggle for are usually bad. I read that Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday” without any effort; he had the tune in his head, and in fact he thought he’d heard it on the radio. He played it on the piano and John Lennon said “What was THAT!” The best ideas just come naturally. That’s why we often get great ideas in the shower – because we are not TRYING – our mind is free to roam, and that opens up space for ideas to pop in. So don’t force it; if you can’t come up with the idea right now, let it simmer until inspiration strikes. It will! That’s why the notepad habit is so crucial. Now, if you can figure out how to keep a notepad in the shower, please e-mail me! That would be a breakthrough.

5. I keep a hand-held recorder in my car. When I hit the road for an out of-town meeting, my mind tends to really run with ideas – again, because I am not trying to force it; they just come. So I record them and capture them that way, safely, while driving. This is especially effective on your way home from a meeting, when you want to capture all the things you discussed that may need follow-ups.

6. Use quotes. Read quote books. This may seem like a lazy approach or “cheating” to rely on a famous quotation, but it almost never fails. For example:

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple, learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen. " -- John Steinbeck.

7. You don’t have to have a great idea. A mediocre one will do, to get you started. As you progress with your project, more ideas will emerge. Don’t wait for the perfect idea – start with ANY decent idea and get going.

8. Brainstorming is a ridiculous practice. I’ve never seen a good idea emerge from a brainstorming session, because the process is not intentional; the basic premise is that “there are no bad ideas.” The fact is that MOST ideas are bad, and that’s what you get from freewheeling brainstorming sessions. Bad ideas. Can you imagine Picasso or Mozart in a brainstorming session? Me neither.

9. Most great ideas will come from just one person working alone. At some point, it can be helpful to air your thoughts with a colleague, to formulate abstract concepts into concrete ideas.

10. Recycle your ideas. A great idea that worked once will work again. No need to reinvent the wheel!

11. Copy ideas from others and add your own twist.

12. Write an ad. Often, when I am working on a new project, the first thing I do is create an ad for the program, service or project. This forces me to think logically, i.e. “Who is that target audience? What do I want them to do? What do they need to know in order to do that? How can I express that most effectively?” These ads are just exercises, not for publication; but they allow me to organize my thinking and produce good ideas.

13. This one’s important. After you have a killer idea, set it aside. Force yourself to come up with two more – two completely different approaches. While our impulse is to believe that our first idea is the best, in fact your second or third effort is often superior.

14. If you can’t come up with an idea right now, write down on your to-do-list, “Revisit the XYZ problem and generate ideas.” This establishes the task so you don’t forget that you need to generate the idea. Often, as you go about your business in the coming days, you’ll stumble across something in a magazine article or on TV that will inspire you, but the seed has to be planted!

15. Never conclude a professional discussion without asking, “What have we produced a result of this discussion?” Many times we have informal or formal meetings that are inconclusive. The point is to identify what WAS accomplished and the next step, every time. If you have not accomplished ANYTHING, then you just wasted valuable time and energy. Usually, the discussion has accomplished SOMETHING, though -- so take a moment to determine what the product of your conversation was. This is the difference between idle chit-chat and capturing great ideas. Example: “Discussed website overhaul; considered offering credit card payment option and redesigning the home page. Revisit next week and decide action steps.”

I’ll wrap up with another quote, from Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes”:

“If I have an idea, I sit down and start typing. If I don’t have an idea, I sit down and decide to have one.”

That’s more profound that it sounds. ….Deciding to have an idea is the essence of the entire process. Deciding to have an idea means committing to coming up with something. It means recognizing your own innate creative potential, with confidence. Columnists on deadlines know all about this. "I have decided to have and idea" is an affirmative statement that removes all excuses and it eliminates writer’s block. Once you make that commitment to yourself, the 15 steps above should help you achieve your goal, without calling your Dad for help.


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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Please tell me why I should open this?

I got this envelope in the mail today from a very worthy nonprofit agency, along with an Office Depot sales flier, an expensive booklet from Verizon trying to persuade me to switch to Verizon (I already use Verizon, now called Frontier), a check from a client, and two utility bills.

Surveys of my nonprofit clients consistently show that direct mail is ranked very highly in their communications toolkit, for donor development, solicitation, donor acknowledgement, annual appeals, and promotion of programs and services.

It is a very flexible medium that can be targeted with pinpoint accuracy to reach just the people you want to reach -- no waste. (Unless, like Verizon, you send a "Switch to Us" booklet to your existing customer; the list has to be accurate!)

This is the time of year when my mailbox will fill up with what used to be called "annual appeals." (Most savvy nonprofits are now making their appeals much more frequently than "annually.")

So here's my point. Would you open the envelope above? Why?

It came in a #10 business envelope with the nonprofit's logo and return address and that sterile, very impersonal bar-code address that screams, "junk -- throw me away." That was all there was!

At least the Verizon booklet was visually appealing with a special offer on the front cover, and if they mail it to the right people they might get some new customers! Same with the Office Depot sales flier -- the cover had lots of the most commonly needed office supplies advertised at sale prices.

The only reason I opened the piece you see above was to use it as an illustration for this blog.

And it got worse once I got inside. A letter telling all about their mission and a sort of ramble, with a generalized request for a donation. I already know their mission, it is self-evident from the name of the organization! What's in it for me? In other words, why is a gift to you at this moment in time relevant to my life and my interests, and what would make me put your reply in my "bills to pay" folder along with the two utility bills so that I'll write you a check? How will my donation make a difference? And why now, rather than later?

But it doesn't matter what's IN the envelope if there is nothing to make me OPEN it. So, back to the envelope.

The plain envelope could be improved very easily in a couple ways.

THE BEST WAY: If they had merely called on their large cadre of dedicated volunteers, they could have addressed the envelopes by hand, in pen. I always open those, because I know it came from a human and was meant for me personally. I assume it is personal correspondence -- which it is! They are asking for my money; I take that personally! I would hope the nonprofit would, too! Even if it is a very large mailing list, many nonprofits (not all) can garner volunteers or a local high school Key Club for this type of work. Giving money is an important decision; make the effort to show that you are directing your communication directly to me! With the bar code, I figure, "10,000 other people with more money me will get this, let them donate, I've got two utility bills bills to pay." Remember when you send your direct mail that you are competing with my utility bills!!

BONUS, but not essential: A real postage stamp would make me likelier to open it. This is only for smaller mailings to larger donors, as at a certain point the cost differential vs. bulk mail is hard to justify.

So it doesn't have to be fancy. A plain envelope addressed to me in a personal way would make a huge difference.
Other ideas:

Some sort of text on the outside of the envelope. Now, if they had done step number 1, there would be no need for this. But if I get a bar-code addressed, bulk mail envelope from a nonprofit, I know it is a fundraiser. What else could it be? So give me a reason to open it and see what you're after! I might be interested! Otherwise, you are asking an awful lot of me to open an obvious fundraising appeal with no reason to do so, when I have two utility bills to pay!

The text could be a million different things, and it need not be creative. "A note from Linda Jones. ..." That would tell me it's a personal message from Linda (fictional name), who presumably is well known and respected around here.

One that never fails is, "You're Invited." Because I want to see what I'm invited to! Inside, it might explain, "You are invited to help stamp out child abuse!" OK, count me in! That's better than most of the chicken-lunch functions I get invited to this time of year!

If you use anything in the nature of a "teaser" line, think twice. Instead of this:

Your gift today will help us stop gun violence.

Try this:

How do you keep a pistol out of the hands of a 12-year-old?

Here's one I saw years ago from a library:

"Why don't woodpeckers get headaches?"

And a classic:

"Do you close the bathroom door even when you're the only one home?"

OK that last one wasn't a nonprofit solicitation, it was a magazine solicitation, from Psychology Today. But the principle is the same!

One more idea: Don't put your organization name or logo on the piece at all; just a P.O. box or street address, in plain text. Then I have no idea WHAT it is, and I am forced to open it!

So a plain #10 envelope is fine, you don't need a fancy-pants direct mail package, but you do need to get me to open it!

So as you think about your next fundraising letter, think about what you are doing; you are asking someone to give you their money for nothing tangible in return. Office Depot will give me manila folders; Verizon will give me faster DSL. You want me to give you money and get nothing. So your sales job is much harder!!!

Make it personal; giving money is a personal thing to do. And make it compelling enough that I will send you a check, despite the fact that the client payment I got in today's mail is less than the two utility bills!!

Have a great day,

Steve Cebalt, Author
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Your personal brand and the "JD Effect"

The other day I wrote an article on this blog about the importance of your nonprofit having a "friendly" brand; just scroll down a bit to find it.

Today I had a few encounters that hammered this point home.

There is a fellow who works the front counter at the gym where I exercise who is always extraordinarily friendly -- even at 5 a.m. when I get there!! In fact all the people there are like that; one of these days I am going to contact the owner and tell him or her how important these people are to his brand; in fact, they ARE his brand; I could work up a sweat anywhere; I don't need to choose this facility. But having hired these perky people, he must already know this!!!!

So today a young fellow named JD was working the front counter. JD has a million ways of greeting you, always by name; and he always takes time to look you in the eye as he does, smiling. When I see JD I always step up my own friendliness a bit, knowing how he is. Today as I left, I said "You have a great day JD." He said, "I can't do anything BUT have a great day Steve," as he stood folding a stack of what looked like 10,000 towels. I stopped. I said, "You have the best attitude I have ever seen. I always feel good when I leave here." He seemed pleased and said, "Well, I DO try to spread the joy."

Well, the JD effect continued as I went through a very ordinary day. I found myself being extra friendly in my meetings, and my efforts were met in kind, and my meetings were spirited, lighthearted, fun, and very productive. Thanks, in no small part, to JD, the friendly staffer at the gym! Think about that!!

OK, now here's the dark side. I stopped between meetings at the supply store for a few office supplies. I said to the cashier,"How YOU doin' !"

In a low monotone and without looking my way, she muttered, "I'm getting by, I guess." Ugh.
I gave it another shot. "It is a BEAUTIFUL day outside!!!" Nothing. Not a peep. Like I wasn't there at all. So I gave up and let her transact my checkout with nothing else said.

To JD, as he fold towels, manages the counter, and tends to his other duties, the world must seem like a very pleasant place, full of people going out of their way to be nice to each other. Because that's what he serves up, that's what he gets in return, in a virtuous cycle.

To the cashier, the world must seem weary and gray, full of uninteresting, unfriendly people who just want their sticky notes and manila folders rung up so they can go on with their day.

I think I may find a different place to buy office supplies, or at least try my luck in a different lane. She was a buzzkill. But I'll recover in about a half hour. I have a tech support guy coming to fix one of our computers. I'll get back on board with the "JD Effect and see if I can spread the joy.

Have a great day, and spread it around!!

Steve Cebalt, Author,
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Monday, August 30, 2010

Get comfortable with that overwhelming feeling!

Race car

legend Mario Andretti once said, "If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough." Here is a great little motivational anecdote that is perfect for this time of year, when folks are often looking for the inspiration to take on new challenges as summer fades into fall and our schedules become more hectic.

I was impressed by a story about how the US Women's Olympic Softball team practices: balls are painted with a number inside a colored spot and they are fired at the women from a machine at an ungodly speed. First they train their eyes to see the color of the spot; and eventually they can call out "green six" as the balls go whizzing by.

Some of the pro teams have used similar training techniques.

The story made an impression on me because I've been studying Spanish; I am quite the beginner. When I encounter a new module, the foreign sounds whizz by just like the 150-mph practice balls. But with a little effort and some practice, I begin to recognize the material and eventually become comfortable with it; the foreign sounds slow down until I have a sense of comprehension. But I repeatedly have to get confront that "foreign" feeling at the start of the next module. Hearing how the athletes can train their eyes to identify numbers and colors on balls at 150 mph was just the inspiration I needed. In order to get better at anything, we have to get comfortable with exceeding our abilities -- until our abilities adapt.

Here's the story about the Women's Softball practice technique

Have a great day!!!

Steve Cebalt, Author
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofit Professionals


Monday, August 16, 2010

Is it time to banish the term "nonprofit"?

"It's not just about being able to write a check.
It's being able to touch somebody's life."

Oprah Winfrey

An article by Claire Gaudiani in the Chronicle of Philanthropy suggests we abandon the term "nonprofit." In a persuasive article, Gaudiani advocates for the term "social profit." It's an important idea.

I've long felt that the term nonprofit does a disservice. For example, Parkview Health is one of the largest employers in the region, and has one of the largest budgets. The health system also generates a vast surplus of cash to reinvest in its own growth. The term nonprofit is relevant in a discussion of the organization's tax status but seems like an otherwise impotent term.

Gaudiani writes that migrating to the term "social profit" is "an opportunity to recognize our great national tradition of philanthropy for what it is and has always been: investment in human, physical, and intellectual capital. All investors rightly expect a return on their investment. Otherwise the very ideas of change, growth, optimism, and progress are meaningless. Social investors are no different. They are profit seekers of the very best kind, those who believe in a better future for the arts, medical research, the environment, and countless other areas of social-profit focus. Like companies, social-profit groups raise and invest money, hire and direct staffs, and achieve specific goals. Their presidents report to boards. Profit flows, not in cash to employees and investors, but to society, which benefits from the work of these organizations. In fact, this kind of profit is so prized that government encourages citizens to invest in social-profit-creating institutions by offering taxpayers a deduction for their investments."

Does it matter what we call the nonprofit sector? Of course it does. Companies spend billions on naming and branding their products, services and companies because the name used to refer to a thing adds or detracts from the value of that thing. Shakespeare had it only partly right when he said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It might technically smell as good, but if we called it a fartweed, its appeal would be diminshed.

The term "nonprofit" is simply not accurate. Arts, health and human services organizations generate enourmous profits measured in concrete quality-of-life enhancements that are vital to economic development and the proft-making environment of a community. They turn dollars into profits of the highest order.

Adopting a new term is a branding issue that could benefit the entire sector. But as a practical consideration, I cannot see how such a change would happen. The term nonprofit is very entrenched. Also, there is not a consensus on what the "right" name should be. But a new, more effective positioning term for the nonprofit sector could happen, and if it did, it would be a good thing.
Have a great day.
Steve Cebalt, Author
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Do you make this mistake in your PR materials?

As a writer, one of the most common questions I get from clients when I create a direct-mail campaign, PR press release, a brochure, a web page or a print ad is, "Will people read all that text? Shouldn't it be shorter?"


Writing is like a bridge over a river — it should be as long as it needs to be. If it is too short by even the smallest margin, it's no good at all. It goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. A letter or ad that leaves out any important details in the interest of brevity leaves the reader short of his purchasing decision, stranded at the end of a too-short bridge to nowhere.

And yet many times clients will glance at a proof of an ad or a fundraising letter and reflexively say, "That's too long."

Too long for what? Mere brevity does not make an advertisement interesting — any more than mere length makes an advertisement dull.

-- On a Web page, for example, visitors find the page by searching. They go to some trouble to seek out the very information on that page. These visitors are keenly interested in the topic. Of all the vast information on the Internet, they've selected this single page because of its apparent relevance to them. The Web site owner (that's you) has gone through a lot of trouble to build and host the site for this very moment. Why shortchange the visitor in an arbitrary desire to be brief? Why not give the visitor all the information you can? Isn't that in the visitor's best interest — and yours?

-- Similarly, in a print ad, people need enough information to decide whether to take action. Why would you leave out important features or benefits that might persuade a buyer? Let's say you are trying to sell a home pregnancy test kit. Post-menopausal women may not read the ad; but young women in the target market — women who are trying to get pregnant (or those trying not to!) may read every word; they want to know how accurate the test is, how reliable, how fast it provides results, how soon it can be used after pregnancy occurs, how easy it is to use, how much it costs, etc. To them, at this time, this is the most interesting topic in the world. Will the rest of us read all that detail? No, but who cares! We're not in the market. Research and testing has shown that ads with longer copy sell more effectively.

-- Direct-mail solicitations generally are three or more pages, plus a brochure, and often a "lift letter" or other device, as well as a reply card and envelope. Lots of stuff! Why is this format preferred over a short, concise letter? Because it has been tested countless times in real-world campaigns, and longer-text letters sell more effectively. The same is true for fundraising letters - just take a look at some of the solicitations you receive. Sometimes clients will say to me, "I would never read all that stuff — I just throw it away." Perhaps the client is not in the market for the product. Everybody will not read it. But the fact is that the very people you are most interested in will read your ad. These are the prospects who will buy your product or service if you tell them sufficient reasons for doing so.

Let's say you love golf. You play golf every chance you get. You can never get in enough time on the golf course. You think about golf at work, and your screen-saver on your computer has a golf photo. You arrive home one night and start sorting through your mail. Bills. A sweepstakes. More bills. And a letter that has a golf ball on the envelope and the words "Just for Golfers." I bet you'll open it and read it, and if it's well-written, you'll read all of it, because you love golf. This illustration means your marketing material must be well-written and strategically targeted. These two criteria — the quality of the writing and the quality of your strategic targeting — are far more important than brevity for its own sake.

Would you send a sales rep out on an important sales call and say, "When you get there, talk fast and keep it under 30 seconds, then shut up so they don't get impatient." That wouldn't work. So why send a letter that is trivial in its brevity? Why write an ad that leaves key questions unanswered? Don't make that mistake. For most products and services, a picture and a few words are highly unlikely to attain the desired response. Your ad needs to do what a salesman would do when face to face with a prospect and provide a complete presentation of the product or service benefits.

Consider this: A phone book is a very long, large document. No one reads the entire thing. But when you want to look up a number, it is exceedingly useful. Is it too long?

And please observe that if you are still reading this article, then I've proved my point. I've kept your attention for more than 900 words now. And I'm sure you're a busy person! So quit fooling around and get back to work.
Steve Cebalt, Author,

Monday, July 26, 2010

To change people's behavior, first understand what drives them

Photo: John Brandenberger, MD, County Coroner
and head of the Allen County Drive Alive Campaign

One of the most difficult challenges for PR campaigns is identifying the factors that will really cause people to change their behaviors.

Much PR and advertising is focused on awareness -- making people aware of the dangers of a behavior, and/or aware of the benefits of changing.

But awareness falls far short of affecting people's behavior. Otherwise, no one would smoke, overeat, drink and drive, or drive while talking on a cell phone. We all know the dangers of these behaviors, yet they persist.

The answer to changing behavior lies in understanding the "drivers" of behavior. For example, when we first started working with the Drive Alive campaign, we researched teens and asked them, "When you drive safely, what motivates you to do so?"

Teens could say that they feared death in a crash; or feared hurting others. But overwhelmingly teens said "fear of a ticket" motivated them to drive safely.

That's great information to have; rather than trying to scare teen drivers with doom and death, focus on the more immediate consequences of getting a ticket. Older adults might be more motivated out of safety concerns, but for teens, who see themselves as immortal, safety messages fall on deaf ears. But many teens have gotten a ticket, or know someone who has, and that consequence is a more effective motivational driver. A little additional research showed that the financial consequences for one ticket can add up to $3,000 in fines and, more importantly, increased insurance premiums.

So the key to influencing people’s behavior with PR lies not so much in the creative execution of a campaign, but in the front-end research to identify the true drivers of behavioral change. Better research, better outcomes.

Have a great day,

Steve Cebalt, Author,
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Using fear in PR campaigns can be effective -- or it can backfire

To use a PR campaign to change people’s behavior requires a magic mixture of motivational messages. Right? Well, it’s not magic, exactly.

Research shows that what’s needed to change behavior is a message that makes people see the downside of their current behavior, balanced by an equal or greater measure of hope that they can change.

If you use hardcore fear-based messages, you may succeed in scaring people; but you also have to give them an equal or greater degree of hope that they can avoid the threat by taking the actions that you prescribe in your campaign.

Fear can either motivate or inhibit productive action, depending on the type of message given to audience members of a campaign.

For example: You might show what an obese person’s heart looks like with graphic images of layers of fat tissue and congested arteries. But then you must give a solution that is within reach. If your solution is to “eat salads and jog three miles a day and watch the fat melt away,” you’ve lost. In fact, you may do more harm than good. A person, rather than accepting the message, will begin to rationalize: “I’m not as fat as so-and-so; some people are just big-boned,” etc. In this case the threat is clear enough, but the counterbalancing message of hope is ineffective because it doesn’t seem attainable.

The "magic" formula for a social marketing PR Campaign:

  • People must perceive a severe threat with alarming consequences. A minor threat is easily dismissed.
  • People must believe they are personally susceptible to the threat. If they believe the threat to be remote or that they are somehow immune or inoculated from the threat, they will dismiss the message.
  • People must have realistic hope that they, personally, can avoid the threat by making changes indicated in the PR campaign, with an attainable action step. The changes must seem realistic and attainable, backed up by examples of other people like them who have succeeded.

    Example: Being overweight leads to diabetes, worsens arthritis, and contributes to heart disease (Severe Threat). If you are over the weight indicated on the chart, you are at risk (Clear Personal Susceptibility). The good news: Loosing just 5% of your bodyweight can enhance your health tremendously. You needn’t be a buff, trim swimwear model; the first few pounds you lose will have dramatic benefits on your health and help you avoid diseases and live longer. Taking a 20-minute walk in the evening after dinner is a great way to get healthier, with every step you take; start tonight and you’ll be healthier tomorrow. (Hope; Attainable Action Step).

    An example of a local campaign that uses this model is the Everybody Reads literacy campaign. When the campaign was launched, parents were given information on the dire consequences for children who can’t read well, coupled with a simple action step that parents can take: “Read to your child 20 minutes every day.” The campaign took steps to make sure all parents recognized that they were susceptible. For example, one-third of children who can’t read well have college educated parents, meaning the problem crosses social and educational boundaries. But the action step is easy to attain – it’s free, it doesn’t take long, and it’s actually a pleasure to do.

    Social scientists call the approach that I have described above the Extended Parallel Process Model. The EPPM specifies how to channel fear into productive, adaptive action.

    TIP: If you can’t offer a hopeful, attainable action step, don’t use a fear-based approach to your campaign; it will actually backfire. Use another strategy.

    TIP: If you use a fear-based message, make sure people see the threat as severe, and one that they personally are susceptible to. Then counterbalance the fear with a hopeful, motivational, attainable action step. The outcome will be an audience that embraces the message and channels their fear into the action you want them to take.

Have a great day,

Steve Cebalt, Author,
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Thursday, July 22, 2010

One of the most effective nonprofit PSAs I've ever seen

Here is perhaps the best example of a nonprofit TV ad/PSA designed to support giving that I have ever seen. I won't analyze it here -- I think it speaks for itself. I will just say that at the end, the payoff is that it reminds you of the impact you make when you donate your goods to Salvation Army. The essence of fundraising communications is just that -- to show people how they are part of the solution to a problem that matters to them.

In my Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations, you'll find a chapter called YouTube Your Site, with information on creating your own PSAs using a free program already on your computer!

You can produce PSAs for zero cost AND embed them directly onto your website, just as this PSA is embedded here on this blog page. You can even publish PSAs produced by others that suit your mission and purpose. We do this for clients all the time! For example, you'll find instructions on how to find great PSAs from the Ad Council for just about every nonprofit sector.

Have a great day!

Steve Cebalt, Author
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Most studies are wrong. Yikes!

Many nonprofits base their decisions on studies. And studies that are classified as scientific, peer-reviewed studies are considered the gold standard. Most of these, it turns out, are wrong, leading to false conclusions.

We all make mistakes and, if you believe medical scholar John Ioannidis, scientists make more than their fair share. By his calculations, most published research findings are wrong.
Dr. Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal by Robert Lee Hotz.

These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. "There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims," Dr. Ioannidis said. "A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true."

The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.

Take the discovery that the risk of disease may vary between men and women, depending on their genes. Studies have prominently reported such sex differences for hypertension, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis, as well as lung cancer and heart attacks. In research published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Ioannidis and his colleagues analyzed 432 published research claims concerning gender and genes.
Upon closer scrutiny, almost none of them held up. Only one was replicated.

Statistically speaking, science suffers from an excess of significance. Overeager researchers often tinker too much with the statistical variables of their analysis to coax any meaningful insight from their data sets. "People are messing around with the data to find anything that seems significant, to show they have found something that is new and unusual," Dr. Ioannidis said.

In the U. S., research is a $55-billion-a-year enterprise that stakes its credibility on the reliability of evidence, and the work of Dr. Ioannidis strikes a raw nerve.

For a limited time (until the Wall Street Journal puts it behind a password wall) you can access the full article here.

So don't believe everything you read, and be ready to challenge people who back up their case with studies -- because now you know, most studies are wrong!

Nonetheless, have a great day!

Steve Cebalt, Author,
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Get What You Want From The Media!

Are you getting what you want from the media?

Today I am offering a freebie. For the next three days, you can download a free copy of the Media Relations chapter of my publication, The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations.

I get a lot of questions from nonprofits wanting to get more attention in the traditional media. In fact it is very rare that a nonprofit is ever satisfied with the media attention it receives – the rare exception being a public attraction like our local Children’s Zoo, which has cute animals and draws thousands of visitors a day. But that’s the exception. What about the rest of us?

Let’s face it, Facebook and Twitter are fine, but very limited; they can’t do all our outreach for us, as much as people wish it were so!

The traditional media still have a power like no other. Over the course of a typical week, three out of four adults read their newspaper. The audience is strong across all age levels. Nearly two out of three of younger adults aged 18 through 34 read a daily or Sunday newspaper during the week, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Older age groups read in higher proportions, as has been true for years. Three-quarters of those aged 35 through 54 read their newspaper, as do 84 percent of those age 55 and older.

I am focusing on newspapers here for two reasons. In many (not all) markets, the daily newspaper is still the single most dominant audience-grabber, surpassing TV, radio, etc. which tend to compete for the same audience at the same time and thus fragment the market. Also, a newspaper article has a longer shelf life. It can be studied closely, posted on the fridge, passed along to others, etc. TV and radio news tends to be more superficial and fleeting – it’s just the nature of the different forms of media.

First, some perspective on media relations.

Now, having said all that, it's important to appreciate that media relations is an important asset for a small nonprofit organization, but some perspective is in order.

The news media can only cover your organization periodically and you don't control when the news gets published, or how it's edited. A story may run for a day and provide a boost, but the effect is short-lived. What do you do the next day, and the day after that? Today, more than ever, we have options such as targeted direct mail, newsletters, e-mail, event marketing, etc. People are often surprised to hear a PR person urging a reduced emphasis on the mainstream media. And that may seem a little strange. But in my experience, you can have a great deal of impact by taking control of the timing and content of your message, and targeting your audience yourself. Become your own "media.” Build your own media outlet.

The point: Don't be too dependent on media relations in your outreach strategy. Most organizations have a full toolkit of communications tools that can reach target audiences directly, on your terms, and on your timetable, with no media intermediary. So, as they say, don't put all your eggs in one basket.

Now as for media relations, there is much more to it than sending out press releases. The term "Media Relations" emphasizes relationships, and your relationships with media members are some of your most important assets.

In the free PDF download, you’ll find some useful tips and tricks for enhancing your relationships, with the media, getting better results from your press releases, getting results WITHOUT press releases, and much more.

So check out Chapter 7, “Getting What You Want From The Media: Essential Media Relations Skills for Nonprofits.” Click here to download it!

Be sure to check out:

-- The Power of Op-Ed Articles
-- Your Online Newsroom
-- Media Recycling

Those three topics are on Page 119.

You will also find:

-- “PSAs – and how to use them”
-- “News conferences – when and how”

And two of the most proven, successful tactics appear under Advanced Tips on Page 122: the “News Digest” and the “Media Memo.”

The Media Relations chapter ends on Page 127 with a handy checklist that can keep you on track and help you avoid forgetting small details that can make a big difference!

I hope you find something useful that enhances your media relations. But don’t forget my broader point – that depending too much on the media will be an exercise in futility and frustration! You have to consider ways to create your own “media channel,” using all the direct-marketing tools in your toolkit.

Media Relations is just one of the 11 chapters in the Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations. Here is the full table of contents:

CHAPTER 1: Breakthrough Branding
Managing nonprofit programs a full understanding of branding and the 15-minute Branding Plan template.

CHAPTER 2: The 1-Page Nonprofit Organization Marketing Plan
A planning template that you can use every day for your nonprofit marketing and communications

CHAPTER 3: Communications Research
Easy research and survey tools that work the do-it-yourself nonprofit communicators

CHAPTER 4: E-Newsletters I
How to determine whether e-newsletters are right for your nonprofit

CHAPTER 5: E-newsletters II
How to get people to open and read your nonprofit e-newsletter

CHAPTER 6: How to Create a Blog
A step-by-step tutorial on creating your blog in 20 minutes!

CHAPTER 7: Getting What You Want From the Media
Essential Media Relations Skills for Nonprofits

CHAPTER 8: Social Media: Facebook? MySpace? Twitter?
Sorting the good advice from the bad when it comes to online social media marketing

CHAPTER 9: Storytelling Shortcuts
Shortcuts to success for nonprofit communicators

CHAPTER 10: YouTube Your Website!
How to add multimedia to your nonprofit website for free using YouTube technology in 2 simple steps

BONUS CHAPTER: Double Duty E-mails
How to double your communication results with every e-mail you send

You can download the entire 196-page publication for $29.95 by clicking here.


Steve Cebalt
Highview LLC


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Can Single-Tasking improve your work?

I'll get to my topic in a minute, but first a comment. Are you weary, as I have become, of some of the nonprofit blogs and newsletters from experts telling you what to do? I have followed such blogs for quite a while, and I find the gruel becoming increasingly thin and unsatisfying. I'll continue to share good tips on specific tasks associated with nonprofit communications, but I have found that my readers, like my clients, are very smart, highly experienced professionals, and they don't need Steve Cebalt telling them what to do. So I've been trying to write about bigger, broader issues that can make us all THINK, and perhaps provide insights on the world of the work we do that you won't find elsewhere.

So, today's topic: a continuation of my recent series of articles on the problems we face as nonprofit communicators in dealing with distractions and multitasking. I have provided a body of scientific research reports that show how multitasking reduces both the quality of our work and our productivity -- to be precise, according to several of the studies you'll find in my previous reports, multitasking reduces productivity by about 40 percent!

Now, a confession: I have a bit of trouble practicing what I preach! I have been trying to avoid multitasking, with mixed results. I am a work in progress. But today I had an experience that illustrates the power of what I'll call "single-tasking." (Did I just coin a useful phrase? Maybe I should trademark that. I hereby trademark that term if no one else already owns the mark on it!)

This morning I was exercising at a local high school football stadium, running flights on the stadium steps. My best workout is 100 flights up and down. That's 8400 steps total (4200 up, 4200 down; going down is nearly as hard as going up!).

Well, today, halfway through, that negative voice in my head started barking at me. "There is no way you can do 100 today, and what's the point? 50 flights is good, just stop now and enjoy your coffee!"

You know how you talk yourself into compromising your standards when you get tired or lazy? Yeah, that guy, he was talking to me.

As luck would have it, though, a certain song popped up on my iPod that could not be ignored.

"Keep on Pushing," written by Curtis Mayfield and sung by Mavis Staples, a soul/gospel singer. This was no accident. I have this song in my workout rotation every 20 minutes or so!

Selected lyrics:

I've got to keep on pushing
I can't stop now
Move up a little higher
Some way, somehow

'Cause I've got my strength
And it don't make sense
Not to keep on pushin'

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Keep on pushin'

So how could I stop now??? Had to keep on pushing. But the negative voice said, "Yeah, nice try, but you still have 4200 steps to go, good luck with that!"

Now to my point: It occurred to me that I didn't need to complete 4200 steps in order to "keep on pushing." I only had to complete one. And then another one. And then keep on pushing. I started musing over this. One step at a time is all I can do, so why worry about 4200! Just focus: left foot. Fine. Right foot. Good. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.

A few good Johnny Cash songs later, I was done, having completed my 100 flights and sipping coffee while watching the football players arrive to begin their morning conditioning as the early sun beamed over the flag on the east side of the school. Life is good, very good, at such times.

And now at work, I am applying the same thinking. My voicemail is blinking for me. My e-mails need to be worked through. I have a research report on Corporate Philanthropy to edit before my designer arrives to lay it out. I have a proposal to deliver by 11 a.m. I have to run to the post office. And on and on. But I can only do one of these things at a time, so why fret about all of them? I'll just scan all that's on my list, pluck the most important task, and give it all my focus. Left foot. Then I'll grab the next task. Right foot. One step at a time. Left foot, right foot.

As I confessed, I have had trouble moving from counterproductive multitasking to highly productive single-tasking (TM), but today I feel inspired to stick to it. It's already provided dividends today, and it's only 8:15!

Have a highly focused day!

Steve Cebalt, Author,
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The lost art of paying attention

When I find my mind beginning to wander, this mesmerizing collaboration with U2 and Johnny Cash focuses me with its hypnotic pulsing rhythm and brilliant lyrics. It puts me right back on track. No other song has the same effect.

"I think the one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention."

~ Diane Sawyer

Lisa Hanger, who writes the excellent Indiana Nonprofit Resource Center, has a knack for coming up with relevant quotes that I haven't seen before, like the one above.

I used to be very very good at paying attention. In school, I never studied for tests, but I did listen and pay attention and internalize the material in class. I always found it annoying when kids would ask, "Is this going to be on the test" and similar questions. Who cares? Just pay attention in class and you'll do fine.

Whatever happened to that guy!!!!

I was just having a conversation the other day about how hard it is to focus in today's environment, with temptations poking at us from all directions, especially if we work with computers.

But you know what? At least half of the distractions we moan about are self-imposed. Lack of discipline, which becomes a habit.

OK, I really should only speak for myself here, and not make a broad statement. Maybe I am the only one with this trouble.

Somehow I doubt it.

But one day I had a project for a large nonprofit that I'd been dreading. It seemed so overwhelming. Well, just last Friday, the day before a holiday, it was unusually slow in my office. Many people had either actually or mentally signed out for the weekend already. I decided to tackle that job. I closed out all the windows on my computer and dug in and worked for three hours straight.

I haven't done that in years. Running a business means multitasking whether you like it or not. I used to hate that, and then I got used to it, and now I sort of like it, because multitasking is stimulating. More fun to do 5 things that just one! But a very bad habit indeed.

Devoting all my attention to that project felt good. Got in a zone. And enjoyed a sense of completion. All I had to do was pay attention.

At least 20 times during that three-hour span span I was tempted to check e-mail, take a break and look at the newspaper, shoot the breeze with the guys in the office adjacent to mine; but each time I re-dedicated myself to the task. The outcome was a better product, more cohesive, and produced with no stress whatsoever.

And so I've been thinking about it, and it occurs to me that the majority of the problems in my life are from not paying attention. Don't show enough attention to your kid, and he'll act out to GET attention. Neglect that tax form? Ouch. A 10% penalty that your taxman can't make disappear. Money down the drain. Leave the water running to fill the dish sink while you "multitask" for a moment in the other room -- and forget that the water is running? An
inch of water on the floor. (I would be ashamed to admit how many times I have done this. I am a slow learner at some things!!)

Sure, some interruptions are necessary, but these tend to be PRODUCTIVE ones. Your boss pops in an gives you feedback on a project. Great. A colleague wants to talk about a problem she's having at home. Great -- people pay good money for "team building" seminars, and here's a team building opportunity right in front of you. A sales vendor stops in and drops off a print sample. Interruption? Maybe. And maybe the sample is the perfect solution to a project on your plate right this minute! That happens when you embrace the "good" interruptions and pay attention.

So we all have loads of things that demand our attention, and many of these we do not control. That's why we should be kind to ourselves and take control of all the self-imposed distractions that we inflict on ourselves!

So, since we all have other things we should be paying attention to, I'll bring this article to an abrupt end right now!

Happy focusing, and thanks, Lisa, for your newsletter, which I always enjoy and pay attention to -- because it's worth it!

Steve Cebalt, Author
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofit Communicators



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Multitasking wastes your time and reduces the quality of your work, research says

I have some news you’re not going to like, but don’t dismiss it just because you’d prefer not to believe it. It’s true.

-- Do you talk on the phone while typing or reading emails?

-- Do you talk on the phone while driving?

-- Do you have numerous windows open on your computer at once, switching rapidly from one task to the next?

-- Do you stop what you are doing to jump on emails as they arrive in your inbasket?

These habits are reducing your productivity by up to 40 percent. But here is the good news; that means that if you are a heavy multitasker, you can increase your productivity up to 40 percent if you can wean yourself from some counterproductive multitasking behaviors.

Most of us engage in some of these forms of multitasking. It seems more stimulating to juggle several topics than to focus on one thing at a time. But guess what; it’s dragging our productivity down – way down – according to a growing body of scientific research.

While it is tantalizing to think we can do more than one thing at a time in order to get more done, more quickly, the fact is that such multitasking or task-switching can rob your work of its quality, reduce your overall output, increase stress, and inhibit your relationships with others. In fact, researchers say, the results can be catastrophic.

Technically, multitasking refers to performing two tasks simultaneously, but trouble can also arise when you rapidly switch from performing one task to performing another.

Please, don’t take my word for it. Researchers have shown that people lose time when they switch from one task to another. (One such study is "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.)

"People in a work setting," says one of the study’s authors, "who are banging away on word processors at the same time they have to answer phones and talk to their co-workers or bosses -- they're doing switches all the time. Not being able to concentrate for, say, tens of minutes at a time, may mean it's costing a company as much as 20 to 40 percent" in terms of potential efficiency lost.

The more productive approach, researchers say, is to focus on one thing at a time. For example, experts suggest that we set aside specific blocks of time to deal with emails rather than responding to them throughout the day. Do what you can to reduce interruptions in your office. Let co-workers know when you need uninterrupted time. Don’t badger each other with questions all day; take notes and follow-up with co-workers on several items at once rather than impulsively interrupting each other as every question arises. Stay off your cell phone while driving. Studies show that this is as risky as drunk driving and makes you four times as likely to cause an accident. Work your most important tasks in priority order one at a time rather than hopping from task to task. Productivity researchers also suggest that we shouldn't read or type emails while talking on the phone; the emails will show your lack of concentration, reflecting poorly on you, and the person you are talking with may resent your background typing and sense your inattention to them.

Multitasking is fool’s gold – it seems like a good way to keep abreast and get more done, while in fact the opposite is true. Would you trust a heart surgeon who checks his Blackberry during your operation, or who wears a telephone headset so he can talk with his stock broker while you’re under the knife? Can you imagine Beethoven, in the middle of composing a masterpiece, stopping to respond to the “ding” of an incoming instant message? Great work requires great focus. Maximum productivity requires maximum concentration.

I think the reason most of us multitask is because it is more stimulating. It seems more interesting to toggle between three or four tasks than to focus on one thing. But evidently it's a very counterproductive indulgence.

If you don’t believe me about the multitasking data, hop on your favorite search engine and key in “multitasking and productivity.”

Or click here for links to 20 articles on the topic.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Getting People To Do What You Want Them To Do

The most important skill any nonprofit communicator can possess has nothing to do with Social Media Marketing, fundraising, designing annual reports, producing PowerPoint presentations, updating Facebook pages, conducting research, strategic planning, branding, website design, or any of the other tasks that we may spend our days engaged in, depending on our role.

The most important skill is this: Getting Other People To Do What You Want Them To Do.

That’s it!

Everything else that you do depends on that core skill. None of us works in a vacuum. We all depend on others in order to do our own work. Depending on the type of work you do, you may be dependent on:

Your boss
Your staff
Your peers
Your tech support department
Your webmaster
Your Board of Directors for approval
Your accounting department
Your donors
The guy who plows the snow in your parking lot
Your vendors
Your waiter at your lunch meeting
A customer service representative
A knowledgeable interview subject for an article
Your mailhouse

You get the idea. It would be impossible to get through a single day without the support of others. The problem? For the most part, you have no authority over these people! And even if you do – even if you are the boss, for example -- you still need to get people to do what you want them to do, and over the long term, that requires more than the mere iron fist of authority.

So in this article, let’s set aside the day-to-day tactical discussions of media relations, grantwriting, marketing, Twitter, video production, and all the other specific topics that may relate to our work. Instead, let’s focus on How To Get Other People To Do What You Want Them To Do.

Of course, you can’t ALWAYS Get Other People To Do What You Want Them To Do. Trust me, I an authority on this, because I have four teenagers. So everything has its limitations, and You Can’t Always Get What You Want. (That’s my gratuitous tie-in from the subject matter of today’s article to a song that I enjoy, the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," performed here by the cast of Glee.)

The key to Getting Other People To Do What You Want Them To Do is very, very simple:

Be nice.

Let’s be more specific. By “nice,” I mean empathetic. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Before a discussion, consider how the other person may receive your request. Consider what’s in it for them.

Here’s an example. Compare these two e-mails:

“Steve. Could you send the ACME file by noon Monday? Sue.

“Hi Steve! Could you please send me the ACME file by noon Monday? I’d appreciate it! Thanks, Steve. Sue.”

There are only a few words added to the second e-mail. “Hi.” A simple salutation that acknowledges that the person is -- a person! The first is blunt and sounds more like a command. The second is cordial and sounds like a request. Subtle difference, yes, but now that I’ve pointed it out, see if you notice the difference yourself in e-mails that you receive. Also, “Please.” Even if you are the boss, it doesn’t hurt you any to say please, does it? And it turns your command into a request that expresses respect. “I’d appreciate it! Thanks, Steve.” Again, simple kind words that grease the wheels of human discourse. The second e-mail sets a tone of mutual respect and cooperation, and this, over time, helps fortify your relationships with the people you depend on for your own success.

But actually I’ve gotten ahead of myself by talking about e-mail. Because the better way to get someone to do what you want is to talk face to face or on the phone. A phone call has 10 times the impact of an e-mail; always use the phone if you can! Why? Because then you can gauge the person’s mood; maybe the person is having a horrible day because she has a sick child at home; if you were about to ask a big favor, you might defer until tomorrow, or at least be empathetic to the person’s plight! E-mail doesn’t give you that type of feedback. Dialogue builds effective working relationships, and the phone is a far more powerful tool than an e-mail.

Just one more point about e-mail. Most of us treat our e-mail in-basket as something to be “gotten through,” a necessary pile of requests and needs (and distractions) that need tending to. We approach it like pulling weeds from a garden – get through it as fast as you can so you can get back to your own agenda. So again, it’s not the best tool to use for getting what you want from people.

Another way to get what you want from people – again, back to the “being nice” theme -- is to be an Energy Giver. There are two types of people in the world; Energy Givers and Energy Vampires. We all have Energy Vampires in our lives, who suck the energy out of us with their downbeat demeanor, self-absorption, petty complaints, mindless gossip and other behaviors. So what do we do? We avoid the vampires! So Energy Vampires have a much harder time getting people to do what they want them to do. Energy Givers, on the other hand, are people you WANT to spend time with. They make you feel better than you did before you talked with them. Energy Givers have far less difficulty securing cooperation from others. Because they are a pleasant presence in your life, you are happy to meet their requests.

So being nice is Rule No. 1, and really the only rule, for Getting People To Do What You Want Them to Do. But what about those times when you get treated unfairly, or you received poor service, or you have some other problem, and you need to voice a complaint?

Start by being nice. Calmly and respectfully explain your complaint and the consequence it has on you. Be polite. AND THIS IS IMPORTANT: Before registering any complaint, have a specific remedy in mind. Don’t just say, “Your cable repair technician was supposed to show up at 10 a.m. and he didn’t arrive until 2 p.m. the next day!” All you’ll get is an apology. What good does that do you? Instead, state the situation and add, “So I’d like to request a month’s free credit, as this cost me a lot of my own valuable time, can you do that for me?” Often the answer is “Yes.” And even if they cannot give you what you ask for, it creates a dialogue where some recompense is in order, and then it’s just a matter of negotiating something mutually satisfactory.

One major problem today with Getting People To Do What You Want Them To Do is that often, you may be speaking with a customer service rep located in India or the Philippines in a massive call center. You have no relationship with this person and will never speak with him or her again. Better be REALLY nice! Here you have no leverage at all!

One tip on dealing with such service calls. I spend a lot of time on the phone with software technical support people. Getting a good tech service rep on the phone is a matter of luck; many are very, very good; others are rude, poorly trained Energy Vampires. Well, the only good thing here is that you can terminate the call and hit “redial,” and you’ll get a different rep (if not, call back at a different time of day). I remember one call where I was dealing with the phone company in a situation where I’d really gotten the shaft on my bill. The rep was like a rock; unsympathetic and unmoving and downright hostile toward my complaint. I don’t think she really heard my frustration, and regardless, she wasn’t going to adjust the bill as I was requesting. I spent 20 minutes trying to explain how clear it was that I had been billed for a service never provided, but no matter, she just didn’t care. So I said good-bye, hung up and hit redial. The next rep was a very pleasant woman; I explained my situation in less than 30 seconds, and without prompting, she said “I’m sorry, I can take care of that for you right now Steve… OK I just sent you an e-mail with a receipt showing the credit, and I do apologize for your trouble.”

Enjoy your day,

Steve Cebalt, Author,
Communications Handbook for Nonprofit Communicators

P.S. Would you please take a moment to click the link above and consider whether my Communications Handbook might be useful for you? I would appreciate it! -- Steve


The World's Must Useful Quotes for Nonprofit Communicators

A True Story

I once wrote a newspaper ad for a large client for Black History Month. One line of the text was particularly good, I thought. So did the client.

"That looks like a quote — I really like it. But if we're going to use it you need to attribute it to the author," the client said.

"Oh, I wrote that," I said proudly.

Awkward silence. "It looks like a quotation," the client said.

"Well, you own it, because I wrote it for you," I replied.

"No, we can't run it without attribution. It looks like plagiarism.
See if you can find someone famous who said something like that."


I could have attributed it randomly to Thomas Edison. That's what some writers do (it's true). Instead, I simply put quotation marks around the best text, and attributed it to "Anonymous."

The client was satisfied.

I love quotes. Even as a kid I would read books of quotes such as Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations.” (Yes, I was a nerd.) I still have that massive 1,500-page volume on my desk today. Of course if am looking for a quote on a particular topic, I use Google. But the pleasure of the book is browsing, not looking for anything in particular, and stumbling across a new jewel of wisdom unexpectedly.

Anyway, quotes are useful tool in nonprofit communications. Over the years I have collected particularly useful ones for nonprofit newsletters, PowerPoint presentations, Web pages, executive speeches and other communications. Every few years I print a slim volume of these quotes and share them with clients and others.

Here are just a couple that are particularly useful, as they are universal truths about life and business. Both are from Ben Franklin:

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

“Never confuse motion with action.”

If you would like a copy of my current volume, just send me an e-mail:, and I will PDF the booklet to you.

By the way, you'll see some quotes in this booklet with no attribution, such as these:

“Peace is an ideal worth not fighting for.”

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can blow off entirely.”

“Do you want to dream of a life that could be,
or live the life of your dreams?”

I wrote those. If you ever have an occasion to use any of those, just cite "Anonymous." Or Thomas Edison!

Have a great day,

Steve Cebalt, Author
The Communications Handbook for Nonprofits and Foundations