This is the third part in a series about communications plans, which are crucial tools for nonprofits and businesses. Check out part I and part II for more!
A communications plan lays out a comprehensive picture of an organization's communications goals and offers executable steps for how to achieve them. It can be created or updated annually to align with the fiscal year, or it can be developed as a companion to a 1-, 3- or even 5-year strategic plan.
It’s an incredibly useful tool for mapping out future growth. But it's impossible to create without first understanding where you are now.
That's why, when we create communications plans for our clients, one of the most important steps entails laying out a comprehensive picture of an organization's current communications channels. This includes digital publications such as blog posts and email blasts, social media, print publications such as annual reports and newsletters, and events and in-person communications such as fundraisers or tours.
This can be a simple list, but it should be as comprehensive as possible. For some organizations, it might include five channels; for some, it might include 50. And for each channel, all relevant details should be included: give bullet points to the goal of the communication, the target audience, the timeline or frequency of the communication, who is responsible internally for producing the communication, and any budget and production specs available. That way, there are multiple angles available for easily slicing through the communications picture: Which members of your team currently bear the greatest communications burden? Which projects require the largest chunks of your budget? Which audiences aren't hearing from you frequently enough?
By laying out a complete picture, you can begin to see where you're putting most of your energy, what's being neglected or underutilized, where you're doubling up unnecessarily, and how content can be leveraged from one channel to another. If, for example, your primary goal is to grow your organization's membership, but all of your resources are going to annual reports and blog posts, it becomes clear that changing tack is merited.
In other words, this part of a communications plan is from whence the planning commences.
This picture can be used to develop and prioritize new communications projects, strategize ways to streamline workflow, design upcoming campaigns, revamp existing collateral, or create tools or templates for internal use. In short, it's the best foundation for an organization to ensure that it's moving in the right direction to efficiently align its communications with its long-term goals.
Our post on beta readers offered a strategy for soliciting structured feedback before project release. But it didn’t discuss strategies for handling that feedback once it arrives in your inbox.
Reading criticism is hard. After all, writing requires time and self-expression. No matter how professionally oriented, criticism can sting.
But integrating criticism is even harder. It's never easy to judge which critical feedback is useful and which isn’t.
The simplest strategy? Look for repetition.
Repetition can be straightforward. If more than one beta reader (or more than one feedback form) specifies the same weakness, well, it’s a weakness.
But repetition can also be oblique. Consider the beta-reader responses to a question that asked about the translation of SME material into everyday language:
And repetition can be overwhelming. It's no fun to read about the many different problems with your project. Luckily, these can usually be condensed into just one or two actual issues. For example:
Criticism might not be fun, but it's so fruitful. And not just for you. Soliciting critical feedback and then actually (and visibly) using it sets in motion a positive feedback loop that strengthens your project, your team, and your business’s commitment to your organizational end game.
We're thrilled to introduce one of our inaugural Double Shift Press authors: Margaret Klein Salamon.
Margaret is the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization, a New York-based nonprofit that's shifting the conversation about climate change, activism, and ultimately, the future of humanity.
The Climate Mobilization lays out a policy platform that approaches climate change as a global emergency that can—and must—be met head on with honest, reality-based solutions.
Margaret holds a PhD in clinical psychology as well as a degree in social anthropology, and this perspective informs The Climate Mobilization’s approach. In a recent article, she argues that we must respond to a changing climate by acknowledging and experiencing the dark feelings that this reality provokes. Only when we allow ourselves to feel fear, anxiety, and even despair will we be able to look at the cataclysmic specter of climate change honestly, and start grappling toward real solutions. And when we begin to enact these real solutions, we'll begin to feel real and encompassing hope for our shared future.
Why is Margaret writing her book now? She wants to gather her existing work, currently published in disparate places. She wants to expound and intensify her ideas through examination and evidence. And she wants to use her book to launch a series of high-profile discussions that will spread The Climate Mobilization’s work.
Margaret is writing the future, and we feel lucky to be a part of it. Check back for more about her forthcoming book.
While a beta release refers to the rollout of an early, mostly untested version of software, the beta phase (and the iterative form of software development in general) is an excellent way to pretest communications projects, too.
Software development usually proceeds from a pre-alpha phase (where R&D is completed), to an alpha phase, (where core functionality is built), to a beta phase, and finally to release.
That beta phase is so crucial because it puts the software—usually ugly and incomplete—out into the world. Chosen users can then play with it and provide the targeted feedback so necessary to completing and releasing the work.
Communications projects (reports, technical manuals, strategic plans) follow a somewhat similar route. First, there is the research and development; then, the outlining, drafting, and collating; finally, execution and testing.
But a beta release is rarely figured into this execution—and it definitely should be.
While most of us pay close attention to after-the-fact metrics, a beta release tests whether content is functional in a way that meets readers’ needs before delivery. Communicators can use the release to gain on-the-ground feedback and integrate it into a project ahead of publication.
To make the most of this opportunity, make recruiting beta readers (using a generic application like Google Forms to help identify members of your target audience) a part of R&D. Later, when the project is almost complete (but still malleable!) push it to beta readers with another form soliciting the feedback required. Common questions include responses to SME material or to calls to action.
For any client-facing project with a long development phase, a beta release creates a space in which meaningful info can be gathering and used. It's a bit of a time investment, but the payoff makes it absolutely worthwhile.
Blog writing is an art. Stay with me for a minute—it’s true! In its best iterations, blog writing balances a bit of the personal with a bit of the public, a bit of the closed with a bit of the open, a bit of the crosslinkedly referential with a bit of (or better, a lot of) originality.
Even though blogging always seems just about to go completely out of style, blogs have been around for a couple of decades. And they're still going strong.
That's partly because the best blogs share analogue ancestry with universally familiar forms of writing, especially old-timey diaries and commonplace books (those scrapbook ledgers The Atlantic once called “Tumblrs of an Earlier Era”).
It's also because blogs that are both artfully personal and usefully public, referentially aware and inventively original will always find eager readers.
Creating this kind of balanced blog is hard, though. And today’s guides spend a whole lot of time advocating a content-rich, social-media-driven, imminently scale-able approach.
That works for some, but to do more than saturate, to be a blog-writing artist and eventual influencer, we advocate approaching blogging as an art, specifically the art of bricolage.
Bricolage means creating something new with whatever is at hand. The bricoleur (described by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind) is someone who “shapes the beautiful and useful out of the dump heap of human life.”
The blog-writing bricoleur uses the tools from the collective online dump heap—the rich content, the labyrinthine links, the trending tweets—to create a story that both imitates and initiates.
Jason Kottke is a bricoleur, and so is Tina Roth Eisenberg, and so is Austin Kleon.
And—lest the lineage feel too scant—so, too, is William Shakespeare.
According to a February report in the New York Times, the plagiarism software WCopyfind helped scholars discover new sources—especially George Noth’s unpublished manuscript--for many of Shakespeare's plays.
He would have received an F for plagiarism, but by building out his “mental landscape” with the relevant content all around him, Shakespeare “stole like an artist,” helping to substantiate the bricoleur tradition that reaches its (potential) apotheosis in the internet age.
Shakespeare, the forefather of so much in the English writing, was also, in creating something newly brilliant from derivation, a bricoleur.
So if you’re starting a new blog, dusting off an old one, or looking for fresh inspiration for a blog already well-run, consider the strong (and Shakespearean) tradition of bricolage. Look at what's already-out-there old and make it new.
As anyone in the third sector knows, the 2016 election dramatically altered the landscape in which nonprofits operate. For some, these changes may even pose an existential danger.
So, what's a nonprofit to do? How does an organization strategize in the face of an uncertain future?
This isn't a hypothetical question for some of our clients, who are faced with the necessity of significantly expanding their pool of potential donors and partners. And for faith-based organizations (which face both shrinking government funding and shrinking congregations), connecting with a larger (secular) audience poses unique challenges.
Those challenges (and their solutions) provide useful insight for any mission-driven organization.
We talked about the challenges of communicating in an uncertain environment with one of our recent clients, Cheryl Behrent, director of Sarah's… an Oasis for Women. Sarah's is a Saint Paul-based nonprofit program that provides housing and crucial services for women who have experienced severe violence and trauma. Because it offers a safety net for women who don't have access to any other resources, Sarah’s works primarily with immigrants, whose position in the United States is increasingly tenuous. And like many other nonprofits, Sarah's faces an ever-increasing demand for the services.
What does the uncertainty of the current landscape mean for Sarah’s message?
Cheryl says that flexibility is key. Sarah's was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St Paul Province (CSJ). The CSJs and their ministries foundation provide approximately 50% of Sarah’s funding. The other 50% comes from individual donors and grants from private foundations.
"When I'm in a church setting or faith-based community, the emphasis is that we're a ministry—people are naturally interested to hear about the history of the Sisters, and our connection to the Province," she notes.
But as Cheryl points out, it's important to be able to adopt other frames of reference, depending on the audience. She says, "The CSJs value interfaith connections," so Sarah’s has always given priority to reaching beyond its primary stakeholders and creating broad connections.
That means being adept at considering a wide range of ways that people might find to connect with an organization. For example, Cheryl often prefers to start talks with a Q and A, to understand what her audience's interests are.
This kind of flexibility is predicated on having a solid foundation of clearly defined values and a clearly articulated mission. That foundation gives an organization the ability to adapt its mission statement into an audience-focused positioning statement—that is, a statement that describes why an organization is uniquely qualified to accomplish a goal that a specific audience cares about.
That sort of attention to audience is something that's easy to overlook for nonprofit organizations that are (rightly) focused on accomplishing their core mission. But, as Cheryl recognizes, it's a key example of the kind of nimble thinking that's required of nonprofits now more than ever.
Between us, Jess and I have named four cats, five children, two dissertations, assorted books, and a business. What have we learned? Sometimes a name is instantly, exactly right…and sometimes it takes a little time to grow into.
Double Shift Press…it took a little time.
Actually, we researched, registered, and sketched a whole webpage around a totally different name. But that name wasn’t perfect, so we decided to let it go. When we went back to our list of possibilities, Double Shift Press had already started feeling exactly right.
Double Shift is our second shift, after all. But it’s not a side hustle—it’s a concentration and an expansion of what we already do at Modern Writing Services.
Double Shift is our clients’ second shift, too. Developing, writing, designing, and publishing a book is a lot of (very worthwhile) work. Perhaps even more so for women, who are already—as Arlie Hochschild wrote way back in 1989 in The Second Shift—uniquely accustomed to this reality.
But Double Shift is about way more than work, even very worthwhile work. It’s about the—quite literal—expansion of possibilities.
Did you know that in the late 1800s, a “double shift key machine” described a category of typewriter with two shift keys? Adding a second shift key to the keyboard enabled each key to denote three characters instead of just one or even two.
So Double Shift Press also speaks to the value of collaboration, and to the way that collaboration can make a good book exponentially better (for authors and readers).
We're excited to share news about our inaugural titles—stay tuned!
Are you a human? Then you are probably sometimes in the position of presenting your ideas to other humans in a manner that you hope is convincing. Maybe you regularly give presentations at work. Maybe it’s the occasional board or PTO meeting. Maybe you're in charge of the family reunion slideshow. Or maybe you just need ammunition to convince your spouse to watch the show you want to watch.
Whatever the case, you want your presentation to be good. Because as we all know from bitter experience, little compares to an awful presentation.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a designer to create a truly engaging presentation. If your budget doesn't allow you to hire a professional, you can find free tools that make your presentation a pleasure to behold. One tool we like is Prezi. Here's why:
In this time of tech-induced attention-deficit-disorder, in which distraction is censorship, reading books for pleasure is both a powerful antidote and a tiny commitment to the coming revolution.
Maybe I go too far?
And yet, a few books over the last few weeks have given me so much…well, if not deep and democratic thoughtfulness, then an opportunity for the kind of far-ranging meditative rumination that makes life meaningful. If you also require an unTwitter, consider taking a tour of the following titles.
First, head west to L.A., where IQ (Joe Ide) is set. It’s a detective story featuring the kind of Sherlockian genius who is erratic and cold but also earnest and redeemable. It hits some familiar urban-mystery beats, but its South-Central-L.A. backdrop is so playful and poignant, and the idiosyncratic detective is so over the top and understated, that it exceeds the category.
Next up, travel to rainy Dublin, where Conversations with Friends (Sally Rooney) unfurls. It was a critical darling of late 2017, and though I almost hated the emo-reanimating, aggressively first-person narrator, I felt like I got her (which…?). The book’s inability to conceive of a woman in her late-30s as anything but completely irrelevant (sorry, ladies) is (mostly) offset by an interestingly indirect, unresolved depiction of marriage.
Now go back (way back) to the 1970s Midwest of Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng). Everyone loves Little Fires Everywhere, but Ng’s first book about a disconnected interracial family is affecting. I spent the first half arching my brows at the pat characters and adherence to the plot’s pattern. I spent the last half crying my eyes out. And it wasn’t just because I was sad. It was because—what’s the cliché?—the world is so beautiful and life is so short.
End your tour in France with How to Behave in a Crowd (Camille Bordas). Isadore, the protagonist-narrator, is an empathetic 11-year-old kid brother of five genius older siblings. His anthropological view of his family, and his tendency to engage rather than alienate make him a delightful narrative companion. Also delightful: This is Bordas’s first book in English, and the slight disruption in the English-language rendering of the French family is very charming.
These books took me places, but mostly by offering a respite from the hot takes and Twitter feed that regularly ignite the flames on the side of my face. I wouldn’t call them escapist, though—or I would, but what they allowed me to escape was my own tiny sphere of tech-abetted interiority. My new problem is that the only book left on my bedside table is Behave. Help! Which books have helped you log off, mute all, and carry on?
Kudos if your practical streak compelled you to continue reading past that headline. The fact is, when you think of a template, you're probably not moved to soaring flights of spiritual inspiration.
But maybe you should be. After all, the word template has its etymological roots in temple, a consecrated place of worship. The closer relative templet came into usage in the 17th century, to refer specifically to part of the support structure of a building (holy or otherwise). And by the 19th century, that architectural usage had developed into the word template as we use it today: a pattern or gauge that provides a guide for the creation of something new.
If you ask us, it's not crazy to think of a template as a sort of holy architecture for communications.
Every organization has routine communications to create, whether a simple blog post or complex client-facing correspondence. And too often, we waste time reinventing the wheel (and risk introducing errors or inconsistencies) when it's time to get those communications out the door.
Not only are templates enormous time and money savers, they also ensure that your communications are visually and formally consistent, and anchored in your house style.
A template that provides the structure for visuals and content makes simple communications almost effortless. And even with more complex communications, such as strategic plans or project reports, working with a template frees up your brain—and your budget—to focus on your message.
Building a temple of templates: it's often one of the first things we discuss when consulting with clients about how to streamline and improve their communications. And it doesn't have to be complicated. When creating a blog post, a slide deck, or a project report, set your document design, determine your formatting styles, and block out space for visuals and captions. Then your save your work as a template.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, and mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, and mom to three troublemakers.