I am always thankful to get past December 31 of any year. It's not because I hate New Year's celebrations or all the talk about a clean slate, making resolutions, or starting a diet. January 1 means we have 360 days or so until charities and other ...

Here is the latest thinking from Jeffrey Cufaude, Idea Architects

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The More Appealing Appeal

I am always thankful to get past December 31 of any year. It's not because I hate New Year's celebrations or all the talk about a clean slate, making resolutions, or starting a diet.

January 1 means we have 360 days or so until charities and other nonprofits send out their well-intentioned, but often underwhelming last minute year-end solicitations.

If you want to make a new year's resolution that may help with your friend-raising or fundraising, let me suggest a simple one: stop using mass messaging that treats all recipients the same.

Say what?

In a four-hour span one day I received emails from four organizations I support asking me to make a donation before year's end.  Earlier in the year, I had already made contributions ranging from $100-$250 and I have given annually to three of the groups for multiple years.
  • Two emails were completely generic in their pitch, saying little except please make a gift and stressing the year-end deadline for tax-deductible contributions.
  • One was tailored to the organization's announcement of just receiving a major grant. Always a good strategy to link a solicitation to noteworthy and very timely news.
  • One was deeply heartfelt in reflecting on all the good that the organization had accomplished and what more might be possible in the year ahead.
So of these four, two were what I call fundraising spam: generic, impersonal, reflecting little thought.  I dismissed them outright. Two were strong examples of fundraising storytelling.  But those two excellent examples were undermined a bit by a simple mistake they shared with the two weak appeals. And it is a mistake that occurs all too regularly throughout the year, not just at crunch time.

What was it?  They failed to treat current year existing donors with any more personalization or attention than everyone else on the distribution list.  While not a fundraising felony, it certainly falls into the category of an avoidable error.

Here's what I'm talking about: in three of the four emails after the ask was actually made, a comment along the lines of "thanks to those of you who have already made a gift" was then noted.  The fourth email didn't even bother to do that.

At its most basic, when we do this we treat current supporters and their contributions as an afterthought: Oh yeah, thanks for that gift earlier in the year.  Don't ever make donors an afterthought if you want them to keep thinking about you.

So here's the oh-so simple way to avoid doing this again next year.  It's Fundraising 101 that often doesn't occur because of lack of staff time, training, or advance planning of donor communications.
  • Segment major solicitations and communications into two categories at minimum: (1) current year contributors and (2) current year non-contributors.  If you don't know how to do this with whatever list management program you use, stop reading immediately and go learn that first. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built.
  • At minimum craft separate communications for those two lists. Start your pitch to current year supporters with a re-acknowledgement of that contribution and what it has enabled the organization to do. Then launch into telling the story of your future plans and what an additional gift might make possible.  In short: thanks again for the past gift, here's what it has helped us do in the present, and listen to our plans for the future.  We'd love for you to be an even greater part of what we have planned.
That's it. That simple shift requires about 30 minutes to make, a minor investment in your major goal of increasing the support of existing contributors.  You don't want to treat all recipients of your message the same if their current level of interest and support is different ... differentiate your message to make them more meaningful.

Once this is mastered (or perhaps at the same time) do additional segmentation of current contributors based on level of support and engagement and create additional messaging and communications (both in content and form) that match appropriately.

And don't just make this a staff responsibility. While we often draw board members into making the ask, we less frequently involve them in "making the thanks." One of the most fulfilling 15 minutes I've had as a nonprofit board member was when we took time at a board meeting to each do a handwritten thank you note to a donor who had been especially supportive of our current efforts.

So the strategic question if you want next year to be one of greater friend-raising and fundraising is this: how might we make our appeals more appealing and what systems and processes must we create to do so with a consistent level of quality and timeliness?

Now go get to work. Those 360 days will go by quickly.

P.S. Some of you might be asking yourself if this is really such a big deal: don't donors support the cause/organization and not their communication practices? Absolutely, and if you weren't competing for time, interest, attention, and money any list management or communication issues might be more easily overlooked.  But you're not. You're one of many. And more importantly, segmenting lists and messages suggests a level of operational intention and attention that may inspire donor confidence.


Leaders Who Belittle

Image Credit: Leonard John Matthews. Creative Commons License

Stop yelling at us.
We hear you just fine.

Stop talking to us as if you’re all knowing.
We know things, too.

Stop bombarding us with more of the same.
We see the points you’re making.

It’s always dangerous when people trying to lead others unknowingly treat them as if they are uninformed or ignorant.  Dismissing others’ perspectives because you believe yours is better is rarely the way to win converts to your position, yet that’s exactly what some leaders do.

When encountering resistance, they dig in. They talk louder. They talk more. But they talk at us, not with us.  

They engage in a monologue about their truth instead of a dialogue in which all participants share their truths.  They advocate the merits of their position instead of inquiring about our thinking.  

Instead of saying "Tell me a little bit more about where you're coming from" we get "Let me tell you a lot more about where I am coming from and where you need to go."

Passionately professing our deepest held convictions is one thing. Convicting those who might not embrace our prophesy is quite another.

If we can’t respect that others might have an opinion or perspective that they believe is as valid as ours, we shouldn't expect them to respect our position or to try it on for size. 

When we belittle others, we end up being little … little in stature, little in influence, and little in results.

We can't hope to influence others if we are not open to influence ourselves.


What do you think?

Four seemingly innocent words that so often unleash such mayhem when expressed: what do you think?

I witnessed this phenomenon in a retreat I recently facilitated. A staff member, eager to get feedback from board members, posed that simple question: "What do you think?"

We've probably all learned the shortcomings of close-ended questions, but I'm not sure as much attention is paid to the possible pitfalls of open-ended questions.

Asking, "what did you think?" is an invitation for completely unfiltered, unstructured, and unfocused input or feedback.  Anything goes ... and just about anything is what you'll get.

If that's what you seek, more power to you.  But if you have a decision to make, you probably need more specific reactions, ones this open-ended invite may not elicit.

In my retreat example, responses ranged from tactical criticism to strategic input, from commenting on one specific element of the proposal to questioning the project's overall intent.

After letting participants offer their wide-ranging thoughts for a few minutes, I gently asked the staff member posing the question: what direction do you need from the board in order to make a decision?

Some basic criteria were put forth, and board members tailored their subsequent input accordingly.  In a relatively short time the staff member had what she needed and we moved on to the next agenda item.

As human beings, we aren't always helpful with a carte blanche invitation to share our thoughts. Fortunately, some simple adjustments in the way we have discussions can more quickly gather the input we need and make the decisions more effectively.
  1. Many organizations find Edward deBono's Six Thinking hats to be a useful and easy-to-implement framework to help a group focus their deliberations on a specific idea or question and get maximum input in minimum time. This is called thinking in parallel.  Some do a compressed version of deBono's six-stage process that is called PMI, exploring Plus Points, Minus Points, and Interesting Points for the item under consideration.
  2. Determining decision-making rules or criteria in advance of recurring types of decisions provides continuity in process and can help minimize potential political or personality battles that might erupt around one specific decision and its potential consequences. An example would be a board or management team that determine specific thresholds or results that automatically move an idea into a pilot stage or cause an existing program to be evaluated for whether or not it should continue. Decision-making can be enhanced by simple if-then statements or by established criteria which all participants use to rank or evaluate options
  3. When asking for ideas or input, frame your question more narrowly to help respondents focus their responses to what you need.  Doing so means you first have to ask yourself: what feedback or input would I find most helpful?  Once you have clarity you can invite others to share accordingly. Edgar Schein's book, Helping, is a wonderful resource for this area.
  4. Narrowing the input sought is a common approach innovators use, as constraints are known to help inspire fresh thinking and new solutions. Rather than opening up a general call for ideas, they invite ideas that meet a limited number of specific criteria already identified as critical to the innovation envisioned.
  5. You can also use a limited number of criteria as a constraint to help quickly reduce the number of ideas or options that are then discussed in greater detail.  Think of a hiring process in which only candidates who have a college degree and a minimum of three year's relevant experience move on to the next round of review.
  6. Create evaluating forms for workshops or programs that gather the input you need to inform the subsequent decisions you will make. Evaluation forms often are too generic because the future use of the feedback they solicit has not been fully considered.
  7. Distinguish between making an adequate decision versus an optimal decision. Sometimes the
    input we need is to determine if something is "good enough" to be shared or released, but all of the deliberation is about making the product perfect … even though that is not the goal.
  8. Finally, don't forget to be inclusive in how you invite the input you seek. Asking for verbal feedback on-demand biases extroverted feedback and may minimize the amount of ideas you gather from more introverted individuals. Giving time to consider the question and allowing people to share input in written form as well as verbal are simple adjustments you can make to honor their participation.
Asking for feedback or input is desirable. Tailor your request to elicit the most thoughtful contributions.

So, what do you think?

Behind the Scenes: Designing and Presenting a 55-minute Webinar

Recently I presented a 55-minute webinar on the topic Say Yes Less: Why it Matters and How To Do It.  To help others who plan similar online learning experiences, this post goes behind the scenes of the design process. I highlight decisions made, the reasoning for them, and lessons learned.

Determining the content 

Having done keynotes and workshops on this topic in recent years, as well as some extensive (as of yet unpublished) writing, I had ample content from which to select.  I spent about three hours reviewing it to produce an initial draft of about 50 possible content points and quotes, initially organizing them into five color-coded sections.

A solid first pass, the five categories soon felt somewhat limiting.  To free myself of my initial categorizations, I created a text-only slide for each point or quote.  This fresh look at the content helped me spot a few gaps, and I did additional research and reading to gather more insights.  With these additions, the slide deck swelled to about 90 slides.  

Total prep time at this point was approximately five hours. 

Reviewing other webinars 

I reviewed six archived webinars, three that colleagues recommended and three previously presented by LeaderShape, my webinar's host.  While watching, I noted the timing for a few key elements: (1) welcome, logistics information, and presenter introductions, (2) when the presenter started sharing substantive content, and (3) every interaction opportunity (chat, polling, Q&A, et al).

I discovered that on average, each webinar spent 6-8 minutes initially on logistics and introductions.  This may partially have been a strategic buffer for people arriving after the official start time.  Overall interaction generally was less than I would have anticipated with Q&A or chat often saved until the end of the webinar.  These chronological assessments greatly informed the design choices I subsequently made. 

Six hours of webinar viewing brought my total prep time to 11 hours. 

Getting out of the blocks faster 

One overarching goal for my design was to accelerate participant engagement and the presentation of substantive content.  With LeaderShape’s blessing, we moved the start time to five after the hour in order to allow people to arrive on time from meetings just ending on the hour.  

Given that most webinars seem to start on the hour, I assumed some would show up then.  For their viewing, I created a five-minute slide show that rotated logistics information, chat questions the session would pose, and content-rich quotes. The quotes were pulled out of my draft content slide deck and also were provided in a downloadable handout. This “arrival” deck ran in silence until the final 45 seconds when an upbeat music element was introduced to get people’s attention that we were about to begin.

In collaboration with my LeaderShape host, we dramatically reduced the amount of time spent on logistics, as well as my intro. To support her verbal explanations, I created a slide illustrating the various webinar functions participants could use. My complete bio was available as a handout from the start of the webinar, and the host kept her intro of me very brief while we displayed a single slide highlighting my entire job/career history.  

LeaderShape’s previous webinars also included 2-3 minutes of organizational promotion on the front end.  To support my desire for a faster immersion into the content, we relocated this to about 20 minutes into the session and designed it as a commercial break.  A 90-second promo video coupled with the LeaderShape host offering a bit of commentary for three promotional slides I created made this a nice change of pace. 

Creating the arrival show and the additional visuals required two hours of work, increasing total prep time to 13 hours. 

Designing the main content flow and visuals 

From my draft content slides, I identified about a dozen to offer a quick overview of my key points.  To accelerate participants engaging with the content and each other, I interspersed three purposeful but brief polls and one chat question.  I wanted to quickly model a more active learning experience.

The draft slide deck now contained about 80 slides, far more than what I might use in a face-to-face presentation of the same length, but appropriate for the more frequent visual shifts a webinar can use to reengage participants’ attention. I organized the slides into several different combinations before deciding on three sections after my opening: rethinking your beliefs, refreshing your behaviors, and how to say no.  Several hours were then spent ordering the slides and honing text and images to only the essential and compelling.  During this process, I eliminated a few duplicative content points and combined a few slides for more powerful messaging.

Finally, I identified logical polling and chat question opportunities in each segment and built them into my slide deck and the webinar platform’s polling function. I used a uniform color, iconography, and layout for the polling and chat question slides throughout my deck to distinguish them from the other content. 

I invested three hours on this final slide design, bringing total prep time to 16 hours. 

Two offline content rehearsals on my own and two online tech rehearsals consumed three hours total, and the three experiments below involved two additional hours of work.  Final total prep time? 21 hours. 

Three other design decisions 

1. Eliminating polling dead air 

I find dead air during polling (or the presenter narration of responses coming in) to be lacking.  My solution was to first introduce the polling question and options on a slide and let people quickly scan their choices.  I then opened up the actual polling function for them to cast their votes while simultaneously playing a 20-second lively music clip in the background.  

I purchased these royalty-free clips from 123RF, a stock image and audio website, for about $50 total, including the music used in the arrival slide show. They required a bit of conversion to work on the Big Marker webinar platform.  I do not know if it felt better for participants, but I liked it. 

2. Soliciting participant input 

Ideally, the registration process allows for asking participants to share questions about the webinar topic or what they hope to learn.  Big Marker did not, so the registration confirmation included a link to a separate two-question online survey. To entice contributions, we informed participants that upon completing the survey they would receive a link to a Dropbox folder with a few resource articles I had selected.  Only 10% of the registrants responded, but their contributions helped shape the webinar content. 

3. Increasing evaluation response rate 

Low evaluation completion for webinars is common, and this was true for LeaderShape’s past efforts. To try and increase the response rate I: made an evaluation plea in the arrival slide show displayed prior to our beginning, offered a verbal plea at the end of my presentation, and added the incentive of entry into a leadership book drawing for every evaluation completed.  Happily, we improved the response rate to slightly more than 50%! 

Key lessons learned 

Participant evaluations were strong on the metric that matters most to me: how much value they received from my webinar compared to others they have attended. I had planned for an even more powerful learning experience, but ran into a few hiccups.

Despite no problems during two tech rehearsals, my microphone and webcam failed to connect with the webinar platform on the presentation day. This led to last-minute conversations with the tech folks, resulting in me using a telephone audio connection for speaking.  Live time on camera was not possible. Sigh.

Some additional minor tech issues caused a slightly later start than planned.  Losing these minutes on the front end coupled with the initial chat conversations running longer than I had planned meant I was pressed a bit for time.  This forced me to eliminate the final two chats, something that lessened both participant engagement and the overall impact a bit.

I also failed to allow time for the host's wrap-up.  Duh me. As a result we ran over our ending time, something I hate doing.  I still am upset that I did not build that content segment into my flow and timing. 

Bottom line? 

This effort felt like two steps forward, one step back.  While the overall experience seemed to deliver strong value and some of the new ideas worked fairly well, I know I could have avoided some miscues and plan to do so in the next webinar I present.

I hope you found this behind the scenes tour to be informative.  I welcome your questions in the comments and will definitely respond to them.

A recording of the webinar can be found here.  I believe you will need to provide a name and email simply for tracking views of the recording.

Another behind the scenes post (for a 60-minute face-to-face session) can be found here.

If you would like me to present Say Yes Less: Whit It Matters and How To Do It in keynote, workshop, or webinar format, please complete this brief inquiry.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

Who decides someone should do anything?

That was the question I posed recently during a lively debate over a latte or two (OK, three) with colleagues. The entire conversation started when a friend asked us for advice about an opportunity she was considering. “You really should do it” was the chorus from most everyone, but not me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a total relativist believing there is only gray in the world, nothing but ambiguous space in which any decision can be legitimized as an acceptable one. But this whole notion of should is something I have always found to be a bit suspect.

When individuals believe something should be done they often make the statement as if some omnipotent God has issued a decree on the topic. In fact, what we should do can often be traced to a few perspectives: (1) the prevailing social norm; (2) what those offering the suggestion to us would do if they were in our situation; or (3) deeply engrained mental models we have grown to believe and accept over time.

Let’s use my friend’s situation for further illustration. She was trying to decide whether or not to accept a major promotion at her company. Doing so would significantly increase her visibility with the movers and shakers, as well as bring a fairly hefty pay increase. It also, however, would require a dramatically increased workload, significant travel, and an apparent reduction in her overall quality of life. So who can says she should move in that direction?

Operating under the dominant mental model that tends to declare all hierarchical advancement in an organization to be good, she should take the plunge. But when examined through the lens of her own personal values and priorities, the decision may not be quite so simple. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

This is the challenge we all face on a fairly regular basis. Deciding what to do based on our own internal barometer. Trouble is, prevailing social norms and dominant schools of thoughts are so pervasive and so powerful, we often succumb to their notion of what we should be doing.

And too often, we blindly enable the tradition of socially accepted “shoulds” without questioning their relevance or appropriateness for the matter at hand. Example: just because someone has been vice president of an organization doesn’t mean she should become the president. Yet that advancement is too often seen as inevitable. Organizations frequently fail to even assess the candidate’s skills and interests against the position’s demands and the organization’s needs.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. It’s time to put on a better critical thinking cap as we approach our decisions. Just because one of your competitors is engaged in a particular action, doesn’t mean it would be a viable business opportunity for your organization. Just because your neighbors are adding on to their house, doesn’t mean doing so would be a good investment for your home. Just because one of your colleagues is jumping at a new position, doesn’t mean taking on that role is the right choice for you.

The next time you find yourself feeling you “should” do something, take pause. Dig a little deeper and assess whether you are responding to someone else’s notion of what is right for you, or a set of criteria more internally driven. That’s the only way we can make decisions true to our own individual and organizational purpose and values.


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Contact Jeffrey at info@ideaarchitects.org for custom-designed keynotes, workshops, and retreats.

I help ppl & orgs rethink their beliefs and behaviors to refresh their results. Write. Speak. Facilitate. TEDx talk on lifelong learning—goo.gl/Mwnrsw8G. I specialize in the design and facilitation of highly engaging learning experiences (individual workshops, retreats, or complete conferences), compelling keynotes, and teaching presentation and facilitation skills to subject matter experts to enhance their competence and confidence.

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