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.


Put me in the scene…and I’m yours


When you write: “snarling and baring its fangs, the dog lunged at her neck,” your readers mentally put a hand to their throats.

If you’ve built the scene very well, maybe readers physically cover their throats.

When writing evokes our senses we feel like we are there, experiencing it. To get that kind of reaction, your writing must be full of description, of details and places that make us see the story as it unfolds.

A news piece on by Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent, did exactly that.

The story included a picture of a young woman holding a happy baby. The headline read: Surrogate offered $10,000 to abort baby. And a deck added: “Surrogacy ends with legal actions, secretive flight to another state.”

That was enough to make me curious, but the real-time, story-in-action approach got me to read the entire piece.

(CNN) — Crystal Kelley ran through the calendar once again in her head.

It was August, and if she got pregnant soon, she could avoid carrying during the hot summer months — she’d done that before and didn’t want to do it again. There was no time to lose.

But there was one problem: She had no one to get her pregnant.

Kelley picked up the phone and called a familiar number. What about the nice single man who’d inquired before — would he be interested? No, the woman told her. She hadn’t heard from him in weeks.

Disappointed, Kelley asked if there was anyone else who would hire her. She’d had two miscarriages herself and wanted to help someone else with fertility problems. In return, she’d get a $22,000 fee.

Hold on, the woman said, let me see.

Yes, she said, there was a couple who wanted to meet her. Was she ready to take down their e-mail address?

Absolutely, Kelley answered.

I’m right on that phone with Kelley, sweltering in the August heat. What will happen next? You can’t help but wonder.

And that’s exactly what you want your readers to do.

Writing for the web: 10 things to love about it

Using the same kind of writing style for the web as you would for a traditional medium would be a lot like producing a radio program for the Big Screen. Or recreating a movie on an etch-a-sketch. Or painting a QR code on the back of a bus. Or setting up a Skype account for your cat.


Well, you get the idea.

Different mediums have different strengths. And the web is a medium where you can be more informal and have some fun. What’s not to love about that?

So here, in no particular order, are just 10 of the things web writers should appreciate:

  1. You can be funny, have a little verve, show a little leg. It may not be appropriate every time, but some personality can work wonders, especially with a dry subject.
  2. Not only can you use a conversational tone, you can switch into direct dialogue. Yeah, that means you can make smart little side comments like this. Brilliant, eh?
  3. Short works.
  4. As do numbered lists. Or bullets.
  5. And you aren’t limited to words and graphics. Got a podcast or a video? Want to ask a question? You can do it with multimedia. Like this:

  6. Your audience can talk back to you. They can share your stuff, “like” you, subscribe, flame you or use your comments section to try to sell soap. (Please, don’t do those last two though.) Whatever the case, you get some feedback. With a little testing that can mean better engagement with your audience.
  7. Make a mistake? Well, at least you can change it the minute you find out.
  8. You get instant metrics! You can know how many people looked at something, and for how long, whether they clicked through and etc. It really is a marketing paradise.
  9. Get a great new idea? You can add new content as it comes to light.
  10. All this and its free! Well, sort of. You’ve got to have a computer, electricity and a connection. Graphic content and a photography budget is nice. Of course you probably want to get paid. But a lot of the production costs may be already bought and paid for.

What did I miss? What do you love about writing for the web?

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.

Imagination is Everything

I have a lot of magnets on my refrigerator. Most of them are from family vacations. A few predate the family vacation stage of my adult life–surviving a dorm room, several apartments and two houses. One of those is a quote illustrated by the graphic artist Mary Engelbreit.

One of my refrigerator’s most vintage magnets.

It reads: “To imagine is everything. To know is nothing at all.”

A faculty friend came to my house one time and was clearly offended by the sentiment. On the surface, she had a point. All educated people—and this friend has Ph.D. after her name afterall—certainly want knowledge to be everything. If it were, it would illuminate a clear path to success. Learn a bunch of stuff; achieve fame and fortune, right?

Would it help if I told you that the quote originated from Albert Einstein?

Clearly, knowledge is less powerful today than ever. Most of what you know is stagnant and based on the past. And knowledge can get in the way of being open to new ideas and reaching new heights, which was Einstein’s point I am sure.

Late last week I attended a workshop with the best workshop title I’ve ever heard: The Do it Yourself Lobotomy. Catchy, huh? I had a lot of work to do that day, but I just couldn’t miss out on it.

Tom Monahan presented the DIY Lobotomy. No, not the pizza guy; the creativity guru.

The lobotomy was all about learning techniques to separate your left brain from your right, and moreover to arrive at creative ideas by directing your brain to go in new directions. It was heady stuff, no pun intended.

He gave a simple and very useful definition for creativity.  If it surprises you, it’s creative. So, if you are trying to come up with something creative, knowledge is the devil.

New ideas are found in the unknown, not the known. The secret is not to know, so you begin to wonder. And break out of rigid thought patterns that lead you to predictable outcomes.

My favorite technique from the workshop was the “law of large numbers.” He demonstrated how forcing yourself to generate more and more ideas will use quantity to get to quality.

That doesn’t mean that bad ideas are good. It just means that you have to generate a lot of trash to get to the really good ideas. We tend to only let out ideas that we think might be good. But when you self-impose a ridiculous quantity requirement and add in some deadline pressure, the creativity-stealing censor inside you tends to shut down.

With dozens of teams working around the workshop room, it became obvious that the teams with the most ideas had some of the worst ones, but also all of the very best ones. Less wasn’t more. More was more!

All this, doesn’t mean knowledge is nothing. Because in the end, all new ideas are just old ideas put together in an unexpected way.

So when do you get your best ideas? Maybe the correct answer is: you never know!

Reading Really is Fundamental

If you want to improve your writing, you’ll need to read. A lot. It really is just about that simple.

Does it matter what you read? Well, certainly if you limit your reading to weak, poorly edited rubbish, your writing might suffer. Then again, if you only read things that are brilliant, you might back yourself into a major writers block trying to measure up.

The happy middle ground of mixing your reading of some ordinary work with some that is excellent should allow you to see the difference and begin to see how you could improve.

My son’s 9th grade English teacher recently assigned a reading log to accompany reading some classic literature. I majored in English and communications in college and I never once was assigned a reading log. But, I think it is great idea.

A reading log can simply consist of three or four things you want to watch out for while reading. Say, good examples of emotions being engaged, recurring elements, great word play, voice, or anything that is currently troubling you in your own writing. I may not have ever had a reading log assignment, but I do know that just jotting down outstanding examples will better allow your reading to inform your writing.

When I read, especially a good Anne Tyler novel, I tend to lose myself. Relating to the characters, captivated by the plot, intrigued by the tension, compelled to read more, completely entertained and wondering how three hours just slipped by. Reading with awareness about the author’s craft doesn’t ruin the joy of reading for me—but it does make me think more critically about what exactly makes the writing so good.

I hear a lot about how little the American public reads these days. I am not convinced that is the whole story. I know the magazine industry is flourishing (yes, print is not dead—but more on that in a future blog). And digital resources have multiplied what is available exponentially.

Today, I read an article about a researcher who placed study participants in an MRI machine to monitor their brain flow while they read the works of Jane Austin. Her subject’s minds were engaged far beyond what would be expected—including parts of the brain normally used for physical activity. That puts a whole new spin on the value of reading the classics!

The article really stuck with me for another reason. The researcher is writing a book on the history of distraction. She believes that today’s complaints about inattention and diverted minds are far from a modern phenomenon. In fact, she says 18th Century thinkers were very concerned about short attention spans. Sound familiar?

I believe there are still a lot of avid readers, and perhaps even more avid readers in waiting. I admit I fluctuate between the two depending on how busy I am on any particular day. But I always enjoy reading and I do know my writing improves whenever I read.

So, what are you reading? And how do you think it helps your writing?

Writing with Sound or Silence?

Have you ever worked in a construction zone? While still at your desk job?

Recently, in what used to be a conference room adjacent to my office, some new offices were framed and dry-walled into existence. At the same time that a power tool extravaganza was underway on the floor directly above me to finish off some other new spaces. And just down the hall a half dozen cubicles got expanded—by method of continual hammering.

Oddly, I didn’t find it difficult to concentrate in this environment. I say oddly, because I consider myself on the high maintenance end of noise sensitivity. My all time favorite time to write is early on a Saturday, before anyone else gets up.

Here’s my theory. Irregular but normal decibel noise—like people talking—can be much harder to ignore than loud, constant sound.

It got me thinking about the best environment in which to write. Total silence? Mechanical chaos? While enjoying public transportation? Or as a nature-lover? With music or without? And, if with, what kind of music? Vocal or instrumental? Soothing and in the background, or upfront and personal? Or does it just depend on the project? Or on your personality?

Julie Platt, an author at GradHacker in her blog A Work Soundtrack, says this:

I have a hard time working without music. No matter what grad school related task I am working on, it just feels strange to be doing it in silence. In a world where a pair of earbuds are as expected an accessory as a pair of pants, it’s clear that I’m not alone in my need to have music playing whenever I’m engaged in some serious cognitive activity.”

What??? I thought silence made for peaceful concentration. And I didn’t think my lack of earbuds was as unexpected as not wearing pants. Her comments left me feeling seriously and cognitively out of touch.

A variety of research has been conducted on the effects of music on learning. Just google “Mozart Effect” to learn more. So, maybe I am missing out on a serious, cognitive boost from music by stubbornly enjoying silence for writing?

I’ve owned an iphone for more than a year, but never put a note of music on the thing. Ten months ago, I even bought myself a higher end pair of ear buds. I’ve never used them.

But today that changes. I’m uploading music. (I’ve got loads of it. I just haven’t been using it for working.) And I reclaimed the ear buds from a certain family member.

I hope it will be a fun experiment. I’ll revisit it in a future post.

Meanwhile, what is your favorite environment for writing?

And if you are a fellow silence enthusiast who wants to join me in this experiment, you can check out Julie Platt’s good advice on getting the right kind of music for productivity at