Four Practices Nonprofits Can Learn at an Airport

The humble, utilitarian airport gets little respect. But, airports offer a surprising number of lessons for nonprofit organizations trying to get audiences to understand and embrace their messages.

Here are four ideas I picked up on a recent trip.

1. Offer shortcuts

Picture of a moving walking

The people who read, view and listen to your messages are not unlike travelers.

In a big airport, if you are stuck needing to go from one terminal to another in short order, there is probably a tram. Persons with disabilities can ride on a golf cart. You might get a breather for a shorter distance via moving walkway. Or, if you are feeling more leisurely about your layover, you can walk.

Just like travelers, your audiences will appreciate options that suit their needs for the particular circumstances in which they find themselves.

For some people on some days, that’s a gorgeous print magazine with 3,000-word, in-depth articles. But, if you are not providing that content in an easier-to-grasp mobile app, those in a hurry—or those who just prefer mobile apps—will pass.

2. A little pragmatism can go a long way


How happy would you be with an airport where you couldn’t find the restrooms? Sometimes people already know what they are looking for. They just need you to show them the way.

Among the things I appreciate about airport signage, is that the signs are big, and include not just clear words but clear graphics.

No one tried to be overly creative with fonts and colors on these restroom signs but they are  spot on for what they need to do. Note the placement and the contrast. Also, there’s repetition from different angles.

Think about what your audience will be looking for. Then boldly put that message where they would expect to find it (you’ll need to do some testing).

This is particularly important for your call to action. If you’re doing your marketing right, than people will look for ways they can get involved and help. You want them to join your organization, make a gift, sign a petition, whatever it may be, make sure they won’t miss that when they seek it out.

3. Let them in on the fun


This interactive advertisement was getting lots of attention, and not just from kids. Whenever someone touched the big red umbrellas, they dispersed into hundreds of tiny umbrellas. It was unexpected, surprising and compelling—the digital equivalent of turning down a country road and slipping your arm out the window to ride the wind.

How often do your communications include a sense of wonder, whimsy or fun?

Do they make people smile, laugh, reach out to touch, or want to share it with someone?

Consider adding in a chance for audiences to interact with your brand story in a fun way. New medias are making that more and more possible every day. Think augmented reality, instagram photo contests, a twitter retweet challenge, text to vote, etc. Though the concept is the same even if you don’t go digital.

4. Offer refreshment


The best airports have lots of options for food and drink in lots of places. People have things to do and places to go. But they will always drift toward what gives them energy back.

For nonprofits, what you have to offer can be just as welcome as a refreshing drink or a bite to eat. Show how your organization makes a difference and offers ways for people to be a part of something larger then themselves.

Just like a whiff of freshly baked muffins reminds passersby that they are hungry, your messages need to communicate that your organization does good in the world and that being a part of it feels good.

A bar chart is too abstract, photos from your last gala could leave people feeling inadequate, and talking in aggregate about the people you serve can make their problems seem overwhelming. You need emotional content that shows the real impact of your organization’s work.

Just like a food court beckons to someone who hasn’t eaten all day, let your audience know that getting involved with your organization means they can help in a tangible way. And refresh their weary souls in the process.


Three things I learned about writing from reading Roger Ebert

Film critic Roger Ebert was famous for great insights. He was legendary for the way he expressed them.

Here are just three of the things I learned about writing from reading his magnetic reviews.


    1. Give something of value to your readers

If Roger Ebert had been assigned to write about sports, politics, or travel instead of movies, his readers would be more discerning about sports, politics or travel.

I always felt that Ebert had our best interests at heart. He didn’t come off as someone who was just a very clever writer and smart about things. His ego didn’t seem to get in the way. And it never seemed like he was just cranking out another column.

He consistently remembered that people read movie reviews in order to make decisions about how to devote two hours of their lives and a piece of their budget. He wanted us to get a return on our investment.

This is evident in so many of his memorable quotes, such as this one on the movie Do the Right Thing:

Of course it is confused. Of course it wavers between middle-class values and street values. Of course it is not sure whether it believes in liberal pieties or militancy. Of course some of the characters are sympathetic and others are hateful. And of course some of the likable characters do bad things. Isn’t that the way it is in America today? Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention. [Chicago Sun-Times]

Roger Ebert made being reader-focused look effortless. In reality it takes hard work and diligence to be so kind.

    1. 2. Stay on earth

    Among the things you could count on from a Roger Ebert movie review was that it would be sensible and not loaded down in intellectualism or grandiose language.

    Consider his 1998 review of a classic movie on the occasion of its 60th anniversary:

    Gone With the Wind presents a sentimental view of the Civil War, in which the “Old South” takes the place of Camelot and the war was fought not so much to defeat the Confederacy and free the slaves as to give Miss Scarlett O’Hara her comeuppance. But we’ve known that for years; the tainted nostalgia comes with the territory. Yet as “GWTW” approaches its 60th anniversary, it is still a towering landmark of film, quite simply because it tells a good story, and tells it wonderfully well.

    Sometimes he had absolutely nothing good to say, but that was often when he was the most fun to read. Such as in this review of Mad Dog Time:

    Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time…Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line.

      3. Be conversational

    Several years ago, I was in the market for a rice cooker as a gift for my husband (the true cook in our family). Feeling uncertain about the utilitarian nature of such a gift, I thought adding a rice cooker cookbook would make it more thoughtful. That’s how Roger Ebert’s blog promoting his The Pot and How to Use It cookbook ended up in my bookmark folder called “great writing examples.”

    His opening is smooth, funny and one of the best illustrations of effectively writing in first and second person around:

    First, get the Pot. You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook, and Warm. Not expensive. Now you’re all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, plus a chopping block. No, I am not putting you on the Rice Diet. Eat what you like. I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman. You, obsessed computer programmer or weary web-worker. You, lovers who like to cook together but don’t want to put anything in the oven. You, in the witness protection program. You, nutritional wingnut. You, in a wheelchair.

    And you, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You, person on a small budget who wants healthy food. You, shut-in. You, recovering campaign worker. You, movie critic at Sundance. You, sex worker waiting for the phone to ring. You, factory worker sick of frozen meals. You, people in Werner Herzog’s documentary about life at the South Pole. You, early riser skipping breakfast. You, teenager home alone. You, rabbi, pastor, priest, nun, waitress, community organizer, monk, nurse, starving actor, taxi driver, long-haul driver. Yes, you, reader of the second-best best-written blog on the internet.

    After that, I didn’t much care whether the cookbook was really going to change our lives, I just wanted to keep reading that dialogue.

    Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013, but his writing lives on to entertain, inform and inspire.

    Painstaking Craftsmanship

    “…always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second and hold him against the wall until the tag line.”
    — Paul O’Neil, former Time Inc. reporter

    George P. Hunt, managing editor of Life Magazine, once penned an Editor’s Note about staff writer Paul O’Neil in which he noted that O’Neil “liked to think of himself as, among other things, Attila the Hun”; that “the excellence of Paul’s stories is the result of painstaking craftsmanship, a fine ear for phrase and a lot of experience.” He called the quote above: O’Neil’s Law.

    That was in 1964, nearly fifty years ago. But it all has a lot of relevance today.


    People with a true passion for writing don’t write things and share them just because they are paid to do so. In 2013 you don’t have to be one of the chosen few writing for Life Magazine to start gaining that “lot of experience.”

    But with so much content out there, readers have become overwhelmed…and more discerning.

    While writers can publish more easily now than ever before, that also means you compete with CNN, youtube, your kid’s math teacher, illogical ranting political hacks, amateur movie reviewers, a guy who doesn’t like the toaster he bought last month, and someone with 9537 Facebook friends. Good writers have an incentive and an imperative to produce stuff not that grabs the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, but in fact does so in 140 characters or less.

    As everyone, everywhere increasingly fights for our attention richer more relevant content is trumping quantity. The rush to chuck trash into the cavernous Web simply to fill it up as quickly as possible is over.

    Quality is now much, much more important than quantity. And that’s precisely where painstaking craftsmanship comes in to play.

    What does this mean for you?

    Focus on quality—not quantity. Aim to create and produce only top-shelf content. Spend more time on less volume.

    Pretend your writing will determine whether or not you get the career opportunity of a lifetime; that President Obama will see your next blog; that you’ll wake up to 12 million hits; that your worst elementary school nemesis, the one who snaked your prized Nike sneakers over a telephone line, will read your next published article and finally will be sorry. Whatever it takes to bring out the painstaking craftsman in you.

    Work on developing that fine ear for phrase.

    I’m no Paul O’Neil but I do know this. The best writers are the ones who can tell a good story. They know how to find the right details to make it human and interesting. And they know their way around a metaphor or two.

    Developing that kind of skill takes practice; practice that will greatly increase your chances of grabbing the reader by the throat.

    2013’s Buzz Words Every Writer Should Know

    The fact that there are always new words is among the many things I love about American English. Any noun is fair game to become verb. We allow popular use to change grammar rules. We adopt words and phrases from every other language on the planet.

    Spoiler alert: the downside of all this freedom trending now is that this is the time of year when English word-watchers everywhere list their pet peeves in word use. While some of them get a bit self-righteous, the lists are generally good reminders of words to avoid.

    Misused, Overused or Generally Useless

    Lake Superior State University recently published its 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness, based on nominations submitted from the United States, Canada and beyond.

    Among the dirty dozen that made this year’s list is “trending” of which Kyle Melton of White Lake, Michigan said “A trend is something temporary, thank goodness; however, it is not a verb, and I’m tired of news stations telling me what trite ‘news’ is ‘trending.’”


    Melton has a point in terms of overuse, but his assertion that a trend is not a verb is so ten seconds ago. (Please feel free to submit “so ten seconds ago” for next year. I already checked and it’s not on the list yet.)

    Buzz Kills

    Yesterday posted “10 Industry Buzz Words That Need to Die.” Mobile topped the list.

    And a few weeks ago, British PR agency Twelve Thirty Eight released Buzz Word Report: January 2013, an annual review of the PR jargon and practices that inflame journalists, as determined by surveying British journalists.


    Among the words that presumably cause British journalists to suffer near internal combustion is ‘iconic’. Admittedly, when applied to everything from Kate Middleton’s hair to Colleen Rooney’s platforms as they suggest, I can concur with their recommendation: “Please can we allow this word the respect and privacy it deserves at this special time so that it can recover its true meaning?”

    And it sheds a great deal more understanding on the puzzling cynicism by some British partners of my university who insisted that I refrain from using the word iconic in talking points for the opening of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.


    Take a look at the museum (and where it is) and tell me that architecture doesn’t recover the true meaning of the word iconic.

    For the early 70s retro chic amongst us

    Despite my iconic experience, I think I like Twelve Thirty Eight. Their website claims: You’ll never hear us say “awesome”, “circle back”, “ping me”, “super-exciting” or “reach out”. We’ll never start a sentence with “So,….”. We don’t have a boardroom filled with double beds, a pool table, a company bar, a pinball machine, a vintage caravan parked in the middle of the office, fake grass on the floor, pet monkeys, sponsored dogs or an organic goats milk decaf latte maker. Our holiday plans are unlikely to leave you feeling inadequate.”

    They say their average age is 41 (which they call “early seventies retro chic”) and that most of their ideas “end up in the bin.”

    And I really liked their advice that writers should try to write in English. Specifically, that we should read back what we are sending out to see if we could imagine a real person ever saying it out load.

    They illustrated it with one random example of a chief executive’s quote:

    We are entering a new global paradigm in business whereby operatives are no longer satisfied with having a physical office in which all deals must take place. Enterprise is expanding beyond the four walls of the company headquarters and businesses therefore need tools that facilitate a much more mobile and fluid sales team. As we infiltrate new markets around the world, we expect to roll out our offering on a wider scale and enable businesses to benefit from our market leading product.”

    Buzz word-laden jargon like that makes using iconic a relatively petty concern.

    One million strong, Gangnam Style

    According to Oxford Dictionary online English most likely has more words than any comparable language.

    The impossibility of determining the exact number of words in English didn’t stop Global Language Monitor from publishing their 13th annual estimate (1,019,729.6 as of January 1, 2013). GLM also declared ‘Gangnam Style’ as the top phrase of the year and noted that ‘Frankenstorm,’ Superstorm Sandy’s colloquial name, “went from a meteorologist’s lips to a globally recognized neologism within a few hours.”


    I don’t particularly like Frankenstorm. But the fact that one person could create a globally recognized neologism in a couple hours is kind of amazing.

    There will always be curmudgeons ranting about the overuse of phrases, the use of meaningless words and the like. If you take a look at the lists, you’ll be sad to notice some you’ve used, but, now properly shamed, probably won’t use again.

    It’s a good idea to consult these lists.

    But, I also will take a moment to appreciate a language that puts at my disposal more than one million words, and counting. Not to mention that it offers the possibility that any one of us could create a globally recognized neologism of our own. But hopefully, a better one than Frankenstorm.

    Make Every Word Tell

    An old friend showed up in my office the other day. Or at least it felt like it when I walked in to discover a gently used, third edition copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White sitting on my desk one morning.

    Good old Strunk and White! Turned out a colleague had been cleaning her office and thought I might like to have it. She was right. I had the same book nestled next to my Webster’s Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus for years. Until 2008 when the glue on the binding so completely disintegrated it became nothing but loose pages. I can’t believe I’ve lived for this long without a replacement.

    I flipped right to my favorite part: page 23, rule 17.

    Omit Needless Words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

    E.B. White, who would go on to become one of America’s most influential essayists, was a student in William Strunk’s English class at Cornell in 1919. White has this to say about rule 17:

    There you have a short, valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity—sixty-three words that could change the world.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    A magazine I edit came out this week. Picking up a copy, can I find needless words? You bet I can. Try as I might, there are still what now appear to me as glaringly useless adjectives when I could have shown instead of told what was what. A point is belabored in one piece. There’s a quote that should have been summarized. Strunk makes it all so clear.

    I find solace in White. The man who immortalized himself with Charlotte’s Web and contributed to the New Yorker for six decades wrote:

    I have been trying to omit needless words since 1919, and although there are still many words that cry for omission and the huge task will never be accomplished, it is exciting to me to reread the masterly Strunkian elaboration of this noble theme.

    Whew. I can breathe again. And keep striving to make every word tell.

    Stunk had informally published The Elements of Style for his students. White, after exalting the book and his former professor in his New Yorker column in 1957, first updated and edited the book in 1959 in partnership with publisher Macmillan and Company. It was so well received that he updated and edited two more editions in 1972 and 1979. White’s stepson, Roger Angell, provided a foreword for a fourth edition in 2000 and an illustrated version appeared in 2005.

    To say that The Elements of Style is an important book would be a monstrous understatement. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Time Magazine called it one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

    Yet, it has its distractors. According to Wikipedia a Boston Globe review of the most recent edition called it an “aging zombie of a book…a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 70s taboos and 1990s computer advice.” Maybe the reviewer should have stuck with the third edition like me.

    “The Elements” was required reading when I took Hope College’s advanced expository writing class in 1983. By then it had already sold millions of copies. According to a Today Show report on the book’s golden anniversary, more than 10 million copies had been sold since 1959.

    Mark Garvey published Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in 2009. I didn’t know that until today. I’m thinking about starting my 2012 Christmas list with Garvey’s book at the top.

    So when you run across Strunk and White, where do you land? Someone delighted to see an old friend? Happy to welcome in two seasoned English lovers, eager to reconnect with a favorite rule? Or do you view it as aging zombie hodgepodge?

    To Compose is Human, To Edit Divine

    Last week I attended the International Association of Business Communicators 2012 World Conference. I heard the venerable Ann Wylie (Wylie Communications, Inc.) speak on writing for readability.

    Here’s the thing: research shows that the more words you use, the less people will read.

    Ann, who consults for clients like The Mayo Clinic and FedEx while earning prestigious communications awards, points to six decades of research. It all says this: easy-to-read copy improves readership, perseverance, comprehension, speed and retention. And, a big, BIG part of making your writing easier to read is keeping it concise.

    And don’t go thinking that it depends on your audience. It doesn’t.

    Most everyone–bus drivers, rocket scientists, senior citizens, college students and millionaires alike–prefers simple text over complex. In short, we want to get our information quickly and easily.

    Having said all that, I should end this blog right now, right? Trouble is, if you’ve ever tried to rein in your writing you know it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

    Thankfully, there are some tricks that can help. Ann had three stellar ones.

    First, use short words. Of the 100 most commonly used words in the English language (as ranked on, all have six letters or less, most have four or less letters.

    Remember, your readers may understand that “our organization facilitates the creation of transformative programs for individuals” means you help people. But why make readers slog through that?

    The Wall Street Journal averages 4.8 characters per word and two syllables per word. Personally, I think The Wall Street Journal is a smart and good standard.

    Photo by

    Need more convincing? Ann’s research shows that longer words reduce sharing of your writing and decrease understanding. Big words also make your message seem dishonest.

    Next, shorten your sentences. Much like long words, lengthy sentences reduce comprehension. To get 100 percent comprehension from readers, you would have to write only eight word sentences, says Ann.

    But you can still score 90 percent comprehension with 14 words or less. Wisely, Ann suggests staying within 150 percent of that standard: so aim for 21 words or less.

    By the way, I just went back over each of the sentences in this blog. I had to shorten two.

    Finally, keep your paragraphs short.

    In this case, it’s all about perception. Shorter paragraphs look easier to read.

    Ann’s advice?  Aim for 42 words or less. Then, three sentences or less per paragraph for print; one to two sentences for online. Unless they are super short, like this one.

    You can also look at reading levels with a scoring vehicle of your choice. For example, with Flesch Reading Ease you should hit 60-70; with Flesch-Kincade grade level, 7th-8th grade rules.

    Now, please excuse me. I’ve got some editing to do.