Reimagining the Computer Keyboard

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At a special event in October announcing Apple’s latest MacBook Pro lineup, SVP Phil Schiller introduced the new Touch Bar feature by explaining that it was designed to provide a dynamic and adaptive replacement for the row of physical function keys that has accompanied computer keyboards since the early 1970s. Why, he asked, should interface design be constrained by the legacy of a 45-year-old technology?

Yet, just to the south of the new Touch Bar on this sleek, ultra-modern device sits a nearly 145-year-old technology that continues to artificially constrain computer interface design — one that I believe is way overdue for a radical reimagining:

The physical keyboard.

You’d probably think that, as a guy who makes his living herding words, I’d be the one yelling the loudest that you can have my keyboard when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. But before I can explain why I believe the future of writing absolutely demands the disappearance of the physical keyboard, first I need to go off on a highly pedantic tangent for just a moment.
Continue reading “Reimagining the Computer Keyboard”

Use Press Releases to Advertise Your Nonprofit

© frender - Fotolia
© frender – Fotolia
The humble press release has been around longer than the Internet. Because of that, a lot of people think that its time has come and gone, replaced first by blog posts and now by social media. But if they’re done right, press releases fill a niche that other forms of marketing communications can’t quite match, particularly in terms of reaching local media outlets.

But like any form of marketing communication, the effectiveness of a press release depends on understanding what it does best and writing for the correct audience. Here’s what you need to know about press releases to make them work for your nonprofit organization.

Target Specific Recipients

The popular notion of press releases is that they are scattered willy-nilly into the ether through mass mailing and PR sites. Don’t do that! Unlike blog posts and social media, which broadcast to everyone, press releases should target specific outlets. Do the legwork first: contact your local media outlets — newspapers, radio stations, community events websites, hyperlocal news blogs — and ask them who covers the local nonprofit community. And we’re not talking about the people who collect upcoming events to be added to the community calendar here. You’re looking for the people who will see the story potential in your exciting new grant-funded program or the vision of your incoming executive director. Then mail your press releases right to them. Include a cover note, too.

Give Recipients the Story

The purpose of a press release isn’t just to convey information, but to do so in a way that makes an editor’s job easier. That means providing them with print- and broadcast-ready copy that they can easily adapt to fill a hole on a page or a dead spot on the air. Write it like a news story, and include one or two choice quotes. Cover the classic “who, what, when, where, why, and how” with succinct, clear, readable prose. Practice reading it out loud using your “radio announcer voice” to see if it sounds like something that could be read over the air. Because it might be!

Include Essential Information

Your press release should have a header with your organization’s logo and full name, and a slogan or tagline if you have one. It should also include the name and contact information of the primary point of contact in case they want to get in touch quickly for more information. At the end of every press release, include a short paragraph of boilerplate language that describes your organization, its activities, and its goals and objectives. All of this information helps recipients understand (or, ideally, remember) your organization and recognize you as a legitimate, authoritative resource.

Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle

Well-written press release content can be reused in other marketing communication products. And that in turn can help you standardize your terminology and build a library of boilerplate language that you can quickly adapt without having to write from scratch every time. If you’re a small shop and you wear multiple hats, that’s an important consideration.

There’s no shortage of templates on the web for designing a press release; pick one, customize it to suit your needs, and stick with it. If you make the content as professional as the design, you will have the marketing communications equivalent of a Swiss Army knife and make the lives of local journalists a lot easier. And that’s a classic win-win.

How to Tell Great Fundraising Stories

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© stmool – Fotolia
“There are three rules for writing the novel,” the author Somerset Maugham once wrote. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” The same holds true for nonfiction stories. In his latest book, Storytelling Can Change the World, author and fundraiser Ken Burnett distills some valuable tips and techniques that he’s picked up in his more than twenty years as an advertising copywriter and fundraising consultant.

Key among them is to trust your readers. “Writers everywhere quickly learn that their job is not to tell the whole story, to etch in every detail of characters, places, impressions, and actions,” Burnett writes. “Much better instead to leave it to the reader’s imagination to fill and color in the gaps.” This is especially true for nonprofit storytelling, in which writers are often tempted to buttress their case with impressive facts and figures that only end up smothering the story. “Stories stick,” Burnett admonishes. “Statistics don’t.”

You can avoid data dumping by taking the time up front to think about what the reader will want to get out of your story. To help writers put themselves into the minds of their readers, Burnett recalls a lesson from playwright David Mamet. For every scene in a drama, Mamet taught, a writer has to ask three questions:

  1. Who wants what?
  2. What happens if s/he doesn’t get it?
  3. Why now?

Even then, it may be hard to hear the beating heart of the story the first time you sit down to write it. Experienced writers know that the best stories require multiple drafts. Newbery Award-winning author Shannon Hale has likened the first draft to shoveling sand into a box from which she will later build sand castles. Feedback and testing are important for improving drafts; don’t be afraid to ask people to read each version and tell you what works for them and what doesn’t. But when you do, stress to your readers that you’re not seeking rewrites, approvals, or sign-offs at this stage. Draft stories are vulnerable to well-intentioned meddling, which inevitably hurts the story more than it helps.

A great story is an investment. The more work you put into crafting your story up front, the more durable, and thus cost-effective, it will be for your organization. Burnett recalls how, when he was working with the international nongovernmental organization ActionAid, fundraisers were concerned that a film about the organization and its mission that they showed to prospective donors had become overused and was no longer an effective motivator. However, testing quickly revealed that the film’s effect was just as potent as when it had first appeared; it was the fundraisers themselves who were getting tired of it, simply because they had shown it so many times. As a result, ActionAid’s fundraisers continued to show the film to great effect for many more years — generating gifts that might have otherwise been lost had the film been retired early.

How much have you invested in your fundraising stories?

This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.

What Makes a Fundraising Story Great?

© Kirsty Pargeter - Fotolia
© Kirsty Pargeter – Fotolia
Fiction storytellers are taught from an early age to “write what you know” and to “show, not tell.” Both of these admonitions apply to nonfiction storytelling as well. “The most important person in a story is you,” says fundraiser Ken Burnett to colleagues who come to him for advice. At first glance, this might seem to contradict the fundraising mantra of focusing the story on the donor and not on the organization. But in practice, the two perspectives are not just complementary, but also necessary. In a well-told story, you are serving as a proxy for the donor. “It is in effect saying, ‘I was there and I saw this, and believe me, if you had been standing there beside me, you would understand this too,'” Burnett explains.

An effective eyewitness story exudes authenticity. “It’s a lot harder sell when you have to repackage other people’s stories,” Burnett says. He advises people not to write their stories down too quickly after they happen. A story full of raw, fresh emotions tends to come across as false and insincere. At the other extreme, over-editing can have the same effect, though it can sometimes be difficult to balance the need for review and approval up the chain with the need to preserve what makes the story compelling. (“I like to believe that the customer is always right,” Burnett observed, “but I wish that the customer wouldn’t always rewrite!”)

Regardless of the writing and review process, the goal should be to craft a story that reads like it was created more or less spontaneously. “You can still script a story,” says Burnett, “but the best stories retain an element of improvisation.”

A successful story is also tailored for its audience. As legendary advertising copywriter David Ogilvy put it, “If we don’t understand them, how can we expect them to understand us?” When writing stories, fundraisers can and should draw on their extensive knowledge of donors and the community to craft a tale that will resonate with them. To share a story is to give a donor something of value stands out from everything else that’s coming in through their inbox and mailbox. Your generosity in offering a story to a prospective donor is more likely to lead to that person wanting to share something with you in return.

This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.

Effective Stories Make People Trust You — So Tell Them to Donors!

© Frank Boston - Fotolia
© Frank Boston – Fotolia
What makes donors feel good about you and your organization? Veteran fundraiser Ken Burnett likes to talk to colleagues about a chemical called oxytocin. Discovered in 1952, oxytocin is a natural hormone used by doctors to safely induce labor. A little over a decade ago, oxytocin was also found to generate feelings of trust and cooperation in people. When he read about this discovery, Burnett saw a potential application for fundraising. “If we only could work out how to release the right chemicals in our donor’s brains, we’d be more successful,” he would tell fundraisers. Then, with a laugh, he would add, “The secret of success would be to take out a syringe of oxytocin and squirt it up their noses!”

Fortunately for fundraisers, science has since discovered a less invasive method of invoking feelings of generosity within the brains of donors: storytelling.

Dr. Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity and president of Ofactor Inc., is the scientist who first discovered the emotional benefits of oxytocin and recently demonstrated that character-driven narratives caused the brain to make produce the hormone (“Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review, October 28, 2014). “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph” Zak writes. “It will capture people’s hearts — by first attracting their brains.”

Zak’s discovery didn’t surprise Burnett, the managing trustee for the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. Shortly before Zak’s findings were announced, Burnett released what he considers his most important book, Storytelling Can Change the World, a handbook for building lifetime relationships with donors through the power of compelling narrative. Science, it seems, has finally caught up with Burnett, who’s been trying to convince nonprofits about the power of stories for years.

“The book is the core of my philosophy of what’s wrong with fundraising,” says Burnett, an active participant in the ongoing civic debate in the UK over fundraising practices that have led to controversial regulatory changes. “We have to move from persistent asking to consistent inspiration. And storytelling is brilliant at doing that.”

Changing the World, One Story at a Time

In Storytelling Can Change the World, Burnett argues that there are only two types of stories: those that inform and entertain people, and those that rouse them to action. Fundraisers, he says, too often rely on the former while avoiding the latter. He illustrates the distinction using a story of his own. Imagine two Roman senators, Caius and Marcellus. Both are master orators. Caius presents indisputable facts and persuasive evidence using reason and logic, inspiring his audience to applaud his skill. Marcellus, on the other hand, arouses passionate emotions and paints vivid narrative scenes, inspiring his listeners to rise out of their seats willing to follow him wherever he points.

Fundraisers, argues Burnett, need to emulate Marcellus. “We don’t want our stories merely to move our readers to applause,” Burnett writes. “Rather, we want them to leap to their feet, passionate, angry, impelled and determined to make change happen.” According to Burnett, the stories that rouse audiences to their feet are:

  • About the reader, not the cause
  • Interesting, surprising, or unexpected
  • Believable, real, and accessible
  • Gripping
  • Simple, visual, memorable, and friendly
  • Capable of grabbing the audience’s emotions

Storytelling also offers a solution to a troubling paradox revealed by many donor surveys: Donors report feeling a sense of satisfaction and achievement when they give, but dislike being asked. A good story, says Burnett, encourages people to give without feeling like they’re being asked in the first place. “The two ‘i’s in fundraising should not stand for ‘interruption’ and ‘irritation,'” he emphasizes. “They should stand for ‘inspiration’ and ‘information.’ And storytelling is key to that.”

This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.

Celebrating “The Power of Connection” at CSM’s Sixth Annual Nonprofit Institute Conference

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the sixth annual conference of the Nonprofit Institute at the College of Southern Maryland in La Plata. I didn’t do a head count, but I’m guessing that around 150 people representing charitable organizations from the three counties of southern Maryland, along with representatives from private and public institutions that support them, attended. The mood was lively, the venue was terrific, the programming was valuable, and the networking opportunities were legion. The perfect recipe for a great conference.

The programming was worthy of the setting. The conference had fifteen sessions divided into tracks for marketing, fundraising, management, strategic planning, and leadership, followed by “TED Talk” style presentations from three local nonprofits sharing their innovative best practices for connecting with their communities. I attended sessions on strategic planning, sustainability, and social media ROI, and took lots of notes (and was not surprised to see lots of people doing likewise).

Launched just five years ago, the Nonprofit Institute serves as a central clearinghouse of information and resources for the estimated 1,000-plus small- and medium-size nonprofits in Charles, Calvert, and St. Mary’s counties, which are located far — both geographically and psychologically — from the state’s center of political and financial gravity in Annapolis. The institute receives funding from all three both county governments as well as administrative and logistical support from the college. In addition to the annual conference, it offers seminars, in-person and web-based workshops, and training.

(Interesting fact: the institute estimates that, altogether, the nonprofit sector in southern Maryland employs over 6,000 people, making it the second-largest employer in the region.)

I’m glad to know that there is such a terrific resource available so close to my new base of operations. I’m looking forward to getting to know the institute and, through it, the local nonprofit scene. If the conference is any indication, it’s a warm, welcoming, and deeply talent-rich environment.

(Correction: the Nonprofit Institute is supported by Charles and St. Mary’s counties. Active Voice regrets the error.)

Ken Burnett’s Tips for Great Stories

j0309629I’ve been reading — and rereading — Ken Burnett’s indispensable guide to writing for nonprofits, Storytelling Can Change the World, for an upcoming article in Advancing Philanthropy (you can read my interview with Ken on relationship fundraising in the Spring 2016 issue here.) As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to improve my craft. Ken’s book includes a useful list of questions that every writer should ask before they start writing their story:

  • Is it about the reader, rather than about your cause, case, objective, or, heaven forbid, organization?
  • Is it interesting, surprising, unexpected?
  • Is it believable? Real? Accessible?
  • Is it a good, gripping story? One person, talking to another?
  • Is it simple, visual, memorable, and friendly?
  • Does it truly grab the emotions?

I’m going to print these out and put them over my monitor so that I can review them whenever I’m about to start writing a client’s story. You might want to do the same!

Rethinking the Ask, Part 2: Storytelling, Not Selling

“The market for something to believe in is infinite.” — Hugh McLeod

Ken Burnett (www.kenburnett.com), managing trustee for the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII, www.sofii.org) and author of the classic handbook Relationship Fundraising: A Donor Based Approach to the Business of Raising Money (Jossey-Bass, 2002), loves that quote.

Burnett believes that fundraising could be on the cusp of what he calls a “golden age,” but it will not happen unless donors’ experiences become consistently and continually very much better and more desirable. However, will the profession be willing or able to come together as a whole to make the kinds of sweeping fundamental changes that will permit that era to come to pass? It could, Burnett explains, if there is a confluence of three distinct factors:

  • The enormous untapped potential represented by improved donor retention;
  • Dramatic demographic changes resulting in an increase in donors age 65 and up who are looking for fulfilling activities that nonprofits can provide; and
  • Opportunities to engage the corporate sector, which is increasingly wants to be seen as contributing to the social good.

“What prevents us from making the most of all these opportunities, tragically, is the nature and quality of the experience that we’ve traditionally offered our donors and that, in our current paradigm, we seem unable to change,” Burnett writes. This is why he has come to see storytelling, not selling, as the essential activity of fundraisers.

People still care about nonprofits and the causes they were created to address, but they want to be engaged by them in more meaningful ways, and on their own terms. Ken Burnett believes that the way to do this is through relationships in which shared storytelling is used to convey the need. Otherwise, if fundraisers don’t change their approach themselves, change may be forced on them.

“People are going to have to want to listen to us,” says Burnett. “We have the best stories to tell and we have the best reasons to tell them. Right now, people can hang up on us or cross the street to avoid us, so we have to find ways to make people cross the street to come to listen to us instead. And no one pretends that’s going to be easy.”

Dramatic changes in technology have made it possible to reach more people using certain techniques, most importantly the rise of the World Wide Web. “Communications have changed completely since the first edition of my book came out,” says Burnett. “I fundamentally believe communication is the core of fundraising, and given that it has changed so much, I think it’s remarkable that my book is still relevant.”

It’s easy to see how today’s fundraisers can use social media channels, e-newsletters, email blasts, interactive websites, and mobile apps to accomplish those goals more readily. But at the same time, does Burnett feel that relationship fundraising is in danger of becoming passé in an age where many relationships are conducted primarily through tiny screens?

“I do think that things are becoming more superficial, that you need to have a shorter attention span now,” Burnett admits. He notes that the boomer generation is aging out of the prime giving age bracket, and the generation that is moving into their prime giving years have different expectations about how they want to be approached and be engaged. “We can’t just keep asking the younger generation the same way as we asked their elders,” he says. “We have to find a better way that is more inspiring and less obvious.

“I’ve never met a donor who wants to be marketed at,” he concludes, “but I’ve met many who want to be inspired.”

This post was adapted from “Inspiring Better: How Relationship Fundraising Can Win Back Skeptical Donors and Change the Way Fundraisers Think about Approaching Them” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Spring 2016 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.

Rethinking the Ask

Community support and helping  children concept with shadows of a group of extended adult hands offering help or therapy to a child in need as an education symbol of social responsibility for needy kids and teacher guidance to students who need extra care.I’ve been writing about the nonprofit sector for fifteen years. In that time, I’ve covered everything from best practices in event planning to the effects of mobile communications on our ability to decipher nonverbal cues. Recently, whenever I’ve written about some aspect of donor behavior, I’ve noticed a common thread. Consider, for example, the following trends:

  • In the UK, lawmakers have responded to the public outcry over “aggressive” and “invasive” fundraising practices by calling for increased regulatory oversight of nonprofits.
  • Donors are giving more money to fewer charities, and are doing a lot more research before making their gifts.
  • Survey after survey reports that donors feel oversolicited, even by the causes they believe in.
  • Donors are increasingly insisting on having “a seat at the table” in determining how their gifts are used, and expect personalized, tailored interactions with the organizations they support.
  • Donors expect nonprofits to be able to quantifiably demonstrate the effects and outcomes of their gifts.
  • Donors increasingly are turning to third-party wealth-management vehicles, such as donor-advised funds and private foundations, that allow them to manage the disbursement of their funds.

The common element in these trends is that more and more, it is the donors, and not the fundraisers, who are setting the terms of engagement with nonprofits. This is a significant, but not wholly unpredictable, change in the fundraising dynamic.

The ubiquity of mobile devices has enabled us to take unprecedented control over the details of our lives. Apps have allowed us to “game” the way we drive, the temperature of our homes, and even our health, in turn providing us with an endless stream of data and feedback with which to interact. We’ve quickly become used to the idea of being in charge. The goal of technological intermediaries, such as smartphones and smart watches, is to give us timely information that’s easy to understand and act on.

So perhaps it’s only natural that we are coming to expect the same from our physical intermediaries, like fundraisers.

I predict that over the next decade and beyond, these and other similar trends in donor behavior will radically redefine the basic unit of fundraising: the ask. It’s my belief that eventually, instead of fundraisers asking donors for help, it will be donors who ask fundraisers how they can help.

And as that day draws closer, the most frequently asked question by fundraisers will be, How can we get our donors to make the ask?

This dramatic shift will require fundraisers to play a different role than the one they’re used to playing. Instead of asking, fundraisers will be answering. Instead of persuading donors to make a gift, fundraisers will be persuading donors to want to make a gift.

That may sound like semantic hair-splitting, but a veteran salesperson will tell you that there’s a world of difference between asking someone to give you money and persuading that person to ask you to take their money. It requires a whole different approach to communicating with donors.

In upcoming blog posts and articles, I hope to explore this idea and its implications, and start finding some answers to the question. I invite you to offer your thoughts as well, so that we can start setting the terms of the discussion in these earliest days.

Image: iStockPhoto.com

Paula Whitacre Shares Digital File Management and E-mail Tips

Paula Whitacre of Full Circle Communications recently featured some of my tips and techniques for managing digital files and e-mail in her newsletter, Ease of Writing. The article, “Managing e-Files for Writing Success,” is a summary of my presentation at the 10th annual Communication Central this past September in Rochester, New York.

Take a look! As Paula says:

All of Paul’s ideas won’t work for you (or me), but they can get us thinking about the systems we can develop that will work for us.

I hope some of the ideas — which include steps to be followed before, during, and after a project, moving between devices, and backing up — are helpful. And please feel free to leave a comment with questions or suggestions for improving digital file and e-mail management.

If you can’t get enough of file management for publications professionals, then you’ll want to sign up for my online workshop “File Management and Version Control” on Thursday, January 21, 2016, at 11:00 am Eastern. The workshop is being offered by Copyediting, the online newsletter and resource for editors in the digital age.