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

SignsForRestrooms

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

TravelorsUnbrellaAdvertisement

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

foodcourt

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.

Advertisements

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.

0789

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.

The First Wonder of Writing: Storytelling

I feel I should apologize for the hiatus I’ve taken from this blog. First, I was buried in work and something had to give. Actually a few things had to. But this blog was one of the ones I missed the most.

The work barrage lifted eventually, but then there was this terrible backlog of things that also needed doing—like laundry, preparing for the holidays, enjoying the half dozen yearend concerts and performances my kids were involved in, and going to the dentist.

By the time I felt caught up, I had a strong desire to curl up in front of the fire, crochet myself a snuggie and re-watch the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey and/or play mindless word games, for at least a month.

But now I am refreshed, reenergized and ready to blog like crazy.

So I decided to kick off with a positive spin. A trade publication I get recently ran a “Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing” series.

It’s fun to read and helpful but, the negativity got to me. Don’t we business and organization writers ever do anything right? Have we nothing to celebrate?

And thus came to be this first installment of what I’m calling the Seven Wonders of Writing. To me, there is something pretty inspiring, and yes even wonderful, about the opportunity to tell a story so I’m putting that as he first wonder I’ll write about, because it really is that important.

Bottom line, you want to be read. You want to write well. And moreover, you’ve got something to communicate. With any luck it is something important and meaningful.

But it’s a challenge since each and every one of us speaks our own personal language based on our age, stage, wage, gender, race, education, life experiences, id, ego, baggage, filters and favorite breakfast cereal.

If there’s one thing no one can resist, no matter whether he or she wakes up to fruit loops or oat bran, it is a good story.

Robert McKee, the award winning Hollywood screenwriter, in Story writes that stories are our most prolific art form. Just consider the daily stream of prose, films, shows, broadcasts, online legends, water cooler anecdotes, office sagas, bedtime children’s tales, barroom bragging, social media gossip, and more that we take in each and every day.

Why? McKee says we can’t get enough because stories are the most accessible way we have of trying to answer the ever elusive question of how we should lead our lives. In other words, stories give us insight or as McKee writes:

“(Stories are) but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”

In another life, I was a student teacher in high school English. Teens aren’t an easy audience. I learned quickly that the surest, fastest and most effective way to get every one of those adolescent eyes on me was to tell a true, personal story.

So what gets in the way of telling stories when we write?

Mainly, it takes time. Too much is written from behind a computer screen. To get a great story, you can’t do all the research and interviewing by Internet and phone. You can convey all the essential information very accurately, but you won’t get the story behind the story, the surprising tales that pop up when people relax and get to know one another.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on a family who made a significant gift to further research on autism. It was great news. A nice story. The family lives in my state but on the far side of it, meaning more than an hour’s drive for me, one way. What’s more, the only time they had to talk to me was late on a Friday.

I already had a boatload of material. I could have phoned them for a few additional answers and followed-up with email. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

It wouldn’t have been much of a story. I wouldn’t have heard firsthand about their journey with a grandson with autism. When the grandfather recounted the day he heard his grandson say “Grandpa” for the first time in seven years, the storyteller within me said wow. I’ll never forget it. It’s the kind of detail I know that readers will remember to.

And It might just help someone sort out the anarchy of existence.

Yep, story telling can be pretty wonderful.

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?