Archive for July 27, 2011

Six Steps to Flawless Press Releases

There’s big news at your chapter: you’ve got award winners, you’ve got community service activities, you’ve got a big fundraiser coming up, you’ve got a new state officer elected from your chapter. Whatever’s going on, you want to get it out in the public eye, right? You want to take this great information from your chapter, and make it into a big news story that all the local media will want to pick up… and use to promote your chapter.

But before your information becomes news, you have to let the media know about it. The easiest way – for the media – is to send them a press release. A press release is essentially a one- to two-page document that tells the media everything they might want or need to know about something. Brevity is good as long as all the essential information is included. However, I would avoid sending more than two pages, especially if it is something the media hasn’t agreed to use.

The following are six tips to writing a good, complete press release.

  • Make sure to include the essentials: time, date, location, contact person and telephone number. Include the date, month and day of the week for the date, and the address, room number and other relevant information for location. A contact person is necessary because a reporter may need more information than you provided. If you don’t want your number published in the paper, say so in the press release. But having a phone number in the paper helps the public know where to go if they want more information too.
  • Avoid acronyms. Your organization’s name is FLIP and everyone calls it FLIP, but only your members know it stands for the Friends of the Library in Pomona. Reporters write for the general public and must define anything not commonly known. You can write VCR in the newspaper without defining it. But must define “CD,” because a CD is either a compact disc or a certificate of deposit. The acronym rule also applies for school names. The area where I work has two LHSs, and I don’t like guessing which one sent me a press release. If you are the only LHS in town, spell it out anyway, because some editorial staffers are not familiar with every school name in town.
  • Proofread. Have someone else read over the release to catch any glaring spelling or grammatical mistakes. Misspelled words and bad writing are considered the signs of an amateur in the public relations world. But YOU are an amateur, so you are given some leeway. A couple of minor grammar or spelling mistakes are OK as long as you don’t have too many, or worse, misspell someone’s name. The journalist is relying on you to spell the names correctly, and those names will appear in the newspaper EXACTLY how you spelled them.
  • Tell me exactly who you are. Include first and last names for everyone and their affiliation with your organization or school, i.e. parent adviser, business teacher. For teachers, I want to know the subject and grade level they teach. For students, I want their full name, age, grade and their title in the organization if they have one. If it is a multi-school event, also include the school for each person.
  • Define yourself. Explain who you are and why I should be interested. Don’t just tell me you’re Friends of the Library in Pomona (FLIP). Tell me what you do. Perhaps FLIP is the only student organization that promotes literacy by offering after-school tutoring to primary grade students and by raising funds to buy books for the Pomona library. If you are holding a fund-raiser, don’t just write “fund-raiser.” Tell me where the funds will go. Are you holding a $5 car wash to send members to a national conference? Well, give me those details. Are you hosting the state conference and bringing in speakers to talk to students? Tell me about the conference and who the speakers are. This information may not appear in the paper but it gives the journalist an idea of what they are writing about and whether the event deserves more than a “brief.”
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to tell me. You have no idea how many times I get a call from the day before or the day of an event that had been planned for months. I hate that. I’m not going to drop everything on such short notice to go and see your principal “kiss a pig” because your school met its test score goals. I would like to know at least a week or two in advance.

One last word of advice: don’t just send the release and never follow up. Media outlets receive literally hundreds of faxes and letters a day. A quick phone call an hour or so after you faxed or e-mailed it will ensure that your press release got to the right person and not lost somewhere. It’s OK to ask if the media will cover the event when you call; just don’t expect a definite answer.

Hey Everyone… Follow Me?

There is a saying that goes, “Do as I say, not as I do.” What does that mean? How often do you tell people to do something, but meanwhile you yourself are doing the exact opposite? What are your actions saying about your ability to lead your peers?

People do what you do, not what you say. Look at your parents. Have your parents ever told you to do (or not do) something, but then you watch them do the exact opposite? Did that make you more likely to follow their lead? How hypocritical is that?

Here is an example related to student leadership. Think about the role of a chapter president, a team leader who starts new activities and projects. Let’s say that the president is attempting to start a project that will affect the entire officer team, whether it is fundraising, community service, or a recruitment project. This is a project that all of the officers will have to chip in and help out on. Does your president delegate responsibilities to other members of the team? Many team leaders push the importance of teamwork, and everyone pulling their own weight. Meanwhile, you might notice some “managers” secretly (or even sometimes boldly) doing the job of others because they fear it will not be completed. Speaking about teamwork on one hand, while completely nullifying its effects on the other, is a great example of a manager killing his credibility.

Here is another example. Have you ever been told by someone to stay away from illegal drugs and alcohol? How credible does that person become to you after you heard that they were seen at a party last weekend drinking, doing drugs and carrying on? Does that person still hold credibility with you? Probably not – that’s why the concept, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is so inappropriate.

If you want to be a true leader, one whose team actually follows your lead, then try this:

  • Recognize the importance of your own statements, actions, and position.
  • Recognize the opportunity to lead, and step up to ensure success for the group by empowering your teammates to do great things.
  • Lead by example.
  • Don’t cover up your mistakes or make excuses…acknowledge them…learn, and get back to serving!The challenge with most people is that they will do what you do and not what you say, so as a leader you have to be prepared to lead by example. Are you a leader that others want to follow because they see you doing what you say, or are you a leader that simply speaks of great things, hoping that others catch on? You may be hoping for some time….

Be A Goal Finisher

So what’s all this talk about goal setting? I know just what you’re thinking: “Hey buddy, I’ve heard about enough of this goal setting thing … I’ve got it!” But have you really got it? As I think back to all of the workshops, seminars, general sessions, and leadership events that I’ve attended, a common element of each was that at some point one of the speakers talked about the importance of setting goals. In fact, the earliest message I can remember listening to was about goal setting and its importance. What a revolutionary concept goal setting was for me at that time! I hadn’t really given much thought to setting my own goals, and prior to that first message, hadn’t heard very much about it. I was sold. Goal setting was the thing for me.

As I attended successive conferences I continued to hear about goal setting. During each message I found myself sitting in the audience thinking, I’ve heard this before. Over time I heard it again and again and again. I thought I’d heard enough until I realized one very important thing. Sure, I’d been listening to each speaker talk about setting goals and I’d taken note of their different approaches and ideas, but had I truly “gotten it”? The answer was a resounding NO. I’d listened to all of them, but I hadn’t yet taken action. I had thought about my goals and ideas and what I wanted to accomplish in life, but my goals were stuck in my head and nothing was being done to accomplish them.

The purpose of this article is it to help you avoid making the same mistakes I made early on. Sure, I was a goal setter and lots of us are, but was I a goal finisher? Not at first I wasn’t, but over time I’ve learned the value of taking the goals from my thoughts and dreams and placing them on paper and making them happen … over time I’ve become a goal finisher. So just what is a goal finisher? Quite simply, it’s the difference between success and mediocrity. (Ok, quick side bar. Mediocrity: of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance. You don’t want Mediocrity!) Choosing to be a goal finisher will define who you are and what you eventually accomplish in life.

To help in the process of becoming a goal finisher, I’ll outline six steps anyone can take to transition from being a goal setter into a goal finisher:

1. Be specific: Make sure you set goals that are clear and specific. A goal should be indicative of what you want to accomplish and should be measurable. An example of a non-specific goal would be to say: “Do better in school.” The problem with a goal like that is trying to define it. How do you know when you’ve achieved it? Just what does “better” mean? A better goal would be: “Get a 3.5 GPA This Semester.” It’s easy to define and you know when you’ve accomplished it.

2. Take some time to plan out your goals. The best way to do this is to set aside an hour or two and go somewhere quiet where you can focus. Write down whatever goals come to your mind and then begin the process of working through them. This will help you avoid just arbitrarily setting meaningless goals. Spend some time thinking about what you want to accomplish. As you think through your goals, what they mean to you, and how they will affect you, you’ll notice that they begin to change and eventually become solid statements of what you want to accomplish in life.

3. Place your goals into an easy-to-read format and post them somewhere where you’ll see them every day (e.g. the wall in your bedroom, your bathroom mirror, on your night stand, etc.). A bulleted list can be a very useful way to lay out your goals. That way you can quickly read them when you see them. Don’t have them bunched into a paragraph or written on a post-it note. You want to have your goals written out so that they are clear to see and clear to read. This way you’ll see them, read them, and be reminded of them each day!

4. TAKE ACTION! It’s one thing to write your goals down, but don’t forget what we’ve spent the bulk of this article discussing … you must be a goal finisher and not just a goal setter. As you see your goals each day you’ll be reminded of them. Work aggressively to accomplish them. Take steps every day to get closer to accomplishing your goals. Work a little harder on your homework, spend a little extra time practicing your free throw shots, exercise a little bit more, work a little more at whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish, and you’ll find yourself well on your way to becoming a goal finisher!

5. Track your progress: As you make progress on your goals take note of it and write it down. Keep track of significant milestones along your way. Write notes next to your goals indicating your achievements. When you complete goals, put a check next to them on your list, but don’t cross them out or remove them right away. Leave them there as a reminder of what you’ve accomplished and the progress you’re making. Doing this will provide momentum and give you greater confidence in your ability to achieve your goals.

6. Monitor and redirect: Schedule time every few months to re-visit your goals and to assess where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished. It is so vital that we take time in our lives to stop and think about where we’re at. It’s kind of like a personal inventory. Identify what’s been going well and where you need improvement. During these personal inventories you may come upon new goals or possible modifications to current goals. Take note of these new ideas and write them down.

As you strive to implement these six easy steps you’ll see a big difference in your goal setting efforts. You’ll find that you move more quickly from goal setting to goal finishing and you’ll feel better about your personal progress.

Don’t forget that truly successful people don’t spend their lives waiting for things to happen to them; they take the initiative and make things happen for themselves. They identify areas in their lives where improvement is needed and they aggressively seek out ways to improve. They are not satisfied with simply being goal setters. They are committed to being goal finishers!

Why Customer Service Matters

Have you ever wondered how critical outstanding customer service is to the success of a business? Here’s something to think about…if you own or work in a business that has a focus on customer service, you have exactly three chances to show your customers an excellent experience. There is, of course, the one exception – the absolutely horrible experience. That one will usually cost you the customer’s loyalty in just one visit.

A friend of mine lives in a small town in Washington. Several weeks ago, she went to her neighborhood post office to mail a package. She sat the package on the counter and waited to be helped, while the postman was sitting at his desk balancing his checkbook and tending to personal affairs. He never even acknowledged her presence. Moments later, a gentleman walked through the door, and up jumped the postman. It goes without saying that my friend wasn’t the least bit impressed by the postman’s actions.

The postman greeted the new customer (while still leaving my friend to wait) and asked what he needed. The gentleman let him know that my friend had actually arrived first. The postman finally asked how he could help her. Her simple reply was that she needed to mail a package. The postman’s response was, “that’s Howard’s job… Sorry.”

Of course, like any of us would, she wondered where Howard was and why the person in front of her couldn’t help. So, she asked where Howard was. The postman informed her that Howard was on vacation and he would be back in two weeks. She asked what to do with her package, and he kindly suggested that she take it to the post office in the next town. She asked the postman if he’d ever heard of cross-training (which I’m sure was done somewhat sarcastically due to the frustration caused by Howard’s absence). The postman’s direct response; “Ma’am, I have already learned so much in my life that my brain is full. I have no room to learn any additional skills.” The conversation ended there and she left the post office, completely caught off guard by his inability and unwillingness to meet her needs.

While this story gave me a new incredible comeback to use whenever someone wants to teach me something I don’t care to learn, it completely opened my eyes to the importance of incredible customer service.

Because of this one experience, at least ten people have heard directly from her how horrible her experience was, and every one of these people will likely keep this in mind should they ever need to mail a package in a small town in Washington (though I’d personally like to visit this post office just to see if this guy has any more great punch-lines). Those ten or so people (of which I’m one) will likely repeat the story five times each (though I’m repeating it in an environment that could reach thousands – but no big deal – the names have been deleted to protect the innocent). That’s a total of 50 or more people who have heard about the poor customer service at this one business.

Looking at things from the opposite angle… what would have happened if her experience at the post office was fantastic? She likely wouldn’t have shared her experience with anyone. How often does a friend tell you how easy it was to mail a package at the post office? Not that often…but if they find out that the postman’s brain is full, now we have a dinner table conversation!

Unfortunately, this is the reality. When we tell stories to our friends, we usually tell about a negative experience or a humorous experience (or a hybrid of the two). We rarely tell stories about how nice the grocery store clerk was when she ran our items over the scanner and indicated the amount due. HOWEVER, the entire story sparked an ongoing critique of the post office – some of us at the table shared how great our post offices are, others of us shared how horrible they were.

So, as you can see, providing extraordinary customer service won’t necessarily get your name heard as often as poor customer service – but wouldn’t you rather be the post office that was bragged about than the one whose employee has a full brain?

Moving back to the thought I opened with, I’d like to explain why a business only gets three chances to prove that their customer service is awesome. If a business makes a mistake or provides a poor experience on one visit, customers may discount the experience as an anomaly. On the second disappointing visit to a business, a customer concludes that there’s a problem. On the third visit, the customer decides to take their business elsewhere – and the dinner conversations begin! It’s not long before that business’ name is held in vain and the grapevine of discontent and frustration begins to spread around town. The simple solution: Make every encounter a best encounter and you’ll ensure that your business or enterprise is never the topic of any critical dinner conversation.

So What I’m Hearing You Say Is…

Studies show that babies can hear while still in their mother’s womb. We have been listening longer then we have been speaking; but just listening doesn’t mean we always understand what is being said. Listening is natural, but understanding takes practice. Fine-tuning your listening skills can be accomplished through two steps: first, learning to avoid traditional responses; and second, learning how to show empathy and request concreteness.

Step 1: Avoiding Traditional Responses
Traditional responses are just what the name suggests: responses to communication that are overused, and often take control away from others. There are three traditional responses, in particular, that great listeners try to avoid: the ignoring response, the advice-giving response, and the personal experience response. All of these common mistakes can lead the speaker to feel belittled, berated, or brushed off, despite the responder’s good intentions!

Let’s take a look at these three traditional responses in detail, so we can see how to avoid them:

The Ignoring Response: This can be done nonverbally by avoiding eye contact or turning your back on the speaker. It can also be done verbally by short sayings that don’t connect to what the speaker was saying such as “oh, that’s nice,” right after they finished telling you about the death of their pet. (hopefully the listener wouldn’t be that unfeeling, this is an extreme example!) When people say things that are hard to accept, others often choose not to acknowledge what was said. For example, a fellow member of your leadership team may complain about the lack of organization in your meetings. An ignoring response to this complaint might be, “It’s ok, don’t worry. Everything always gets done.” Note how the responder completely ignores the original point, trying to direct attention away from it. This is a total ignoring response, and one that’s destined to cause negative feelings and poor teamwork in your group!

Brush-off’s count as ignoring responses, and if you ignore one of your teammates or coworkers, you’re heading down the road to total communication breakdown.

The Advice-Giving Response: Advice is one of the easiest responses to give, and most people are eager to dish it out. Giving advice can sometimes be helpful, but it often overrides the main focus of showing the speaker that they have been heard. Additionally, if you give advice you remove the responsibility for the issue from them to you; in essence, you are crippling them and overburdening yourself! For example, a business partner has run into a challenge with her boss and grumbles to you about it. Let’s say you give her an advice-giving response… one of two results will emerge from this. If your advice works out perfectly and fixes the problem, your coworker will now run to you every time a new issue arises (instead of the better method of arriving at a solution herself). Or, on the other hand, your advice could work out poorly, and result in your coworker suffering. Then, she blames you, because it was your advice that made it worse.

If a teammate or friend asks you for advice, that’s one thing; but often we’re tempted to start doling out suggestions when that’s not really what’s being looked for. Don’t offer advice just because you can; it may be better for your friend or teammate to come up with his or her own solution.

The Personal Experience Response: When you share a similar personal experience after a person speaks, it shows the speaker that you want to shift the attention to yourself. We often do this in hopes of showing connection, often as a lead-up to an advice-giving response, but the attempt will usually backfire. It may lead to the original speaker feeling ignored (because you just want to talk about yourself) or unimportant (since you felt the need to stop talking about their experience to talk about your own). For example, someone tells you about a great leadership conference they went to, and you turn around and say “Oh yeah, I went to a conference once and we did________ and _________ and then_________ and so on. And it was a ton of fun.” Suddenly the original speaker finds himself in the middle of a competition… and they don’t want to compete. They leave the conversation feeling like they have been “one upped” when all you, as a listener, were trying to do was show them you understood what they were talking about. You know this one all too well; avoid being the “one time at band camp…..” listener.

Listening to Understand
The most effective leaders are the ones that can get to the heart of those they lead. Nothing is more effective then showing empathy and truly understanding what the speaker is trying to say. This can be difficult to accomplish because we all think and feel differently, but doors fly open left and right when you as a leader can understand what it is those you lead are trying to say. But it’s not enough for you to know it… they have to know it, too! You can accomplish that by listening well, and then avoiding the traditional responses listed above.

Step 2: Showing Empathy
When an opportunity comes to listen to a problem or an experience, the first thing to do is show empathy. An empathetic leader is sensitive to the person’s thoughts and feelings, out loud. At its simplest, an empathetic response looks a lot like the following:

“You’re feeling feeling word because paraphrase of content.”

For instance, a friend tells you that his dog contracted rabies and passed away. Your reply, using the above model, might be along the lines of, “You’re feeling terribly sad because your pet has died.” Obviously you wouldn’t use those exact words; as I said, this is the empathetic response at its simplest.

As you practice, you can personalize your response so that it feels natural to you. This response says to the speaker that you know what was said, and that you can identify with what he’s feeling. You may not always feel it yourself, but by identifying the feeling word you show the speaker you can connect with them on his own emotional level. Here’s a more complete example of an empathetic response:

Speaker: “That stupid test, it wasn’t anything like the chapters in the book. If it wasn’t for that one test score I would have had an A in the class.”

Listener: “I bet that made you so angry. The test wasn’t what you had prepared for and now your grade is lower then you like.”

Step 2 and a Half: Requesting Concreteness
Now if you were to leave the conversation at that point, the speaker would have felt that their feelings had been validated, and that’s a good thing. But, active listeners want to do more than just validate; they want to help the speaker come to some sort of closure. You can accomplish this by requesting concreteness.

Requesting concreteness encourages others to be more specific in their challenges. In the case above an active-listener listens for on vague words such as “stupid,” “anything like,” and “would have.” Requesting concreteness is done through asking simple questions such as “What do you mean when you say “it wasn’t anything like the chapters?”, “Stupid?”, or “Explain how you would have gotten a better grade.”

These short questions quickly turn the focus back to the speaker and allows for the listener to better understand the situation. In getting the speaker to talk more about the issue, it also allows them to work through the challenge for themselves. After the listener has listened, the speaker may realize it really hasn’t ruined their grade, or maybe it wasn’t a big deal after all. With more active-listening from the leader, teammates and friends can develop their own methods to control their thoughts and feelings and to create constructive methods of dealing with their problems.

So, what I am hearing you say is… listening doesn’t always equate to understanding, but when a leader practices basic active-listening skills, they can form deeper connections with those they lead. This is one of the very best ways that leaders can enhance their own management ability, gain respect from their team, and strengthen the individuals they interact with.

Portions of this article are based on information given in the “Counseling Skills Workbook” by Richard A. Heaps, Scerinda Johnson, and Kenneth P. Schwab.