The virtual shingle is out

I’ve done something I’ve dreamed of for a long time. Following two years of increasing freelance work after 35+ years in the communications field, I’ve launched the Medway Group, a consulting business that lets me focus on what I love most – using the right words to connect the dots between people and ideas.

The Medway Group will be emphasizing strategic communications planning and project management, advocacy outreach, writing/editing and media training.

After retiring from the Municipal Association in 2019, I took some much-needed time to reflect on what I wanted to do next. I took on a few writing and one-off consulting gigs. Turns out, I liked working from my sunny home office. Flossie, my four-legged assistant, liked having her person around for quick walks. That all worked perfectly for a while to let me refocus after many years of fast-paced traditional work environments.

Then COVID hit. As we all worked through through the first “WFH” months, I started getting calls about helping with short-term projects – an academic editing project, media outreach, news releases, a PR plan, advocacy planning. Pre-COVID, these organizations might have wanted a “butt-in-seat” person. But the new WFH mentality gave remote work new credibility and allowed people like me to fit seamlessly into previously “office-only” teams.

As these opportunities continued to pop up, my dream of formalizing this work continued to take shape. This really wasn’t a new idea. Over the years, I had batted around this dream with several friends who have complementary professional strengths. We imagined one day hanging out a shingle to collectively market our various experiences, expertise and networks.

Today that virtual shingle is out. The Medway Group is officially launched. It’s been a long time coming to decide when the idea was “perfectly-enough” baked to introduce to the world. But a very wise person recently reminded me that if I wait for perfect – the perfect timing, the perfect website, the perfect client mix, the perfect combination of services – I’ll never get past the planning.

Another wise friend told me this years ago about his business: “My services aren’t for everyone.” And that’s definitely the case here. I’m clear on my expertise (check out this page on the website for details) and know my strengths. I will be adding colleagues and formalizing relationships with several professionals who can bring in skills to complement mine and expand my networks.

But in the meantime, I’m working on some interesting projects like producing a video/podcast, helping one organization plan for a new communications department and another build a long-range communications strategy. I’m doing several types of writing and editing work while working with yet another client to navigate a legislative issue.

For now, stay tuned for what’s next by following The Medway Group on Twitter and LinkedIn. There’s more to come down the road!

Blink Book Review: “Life in Five Senses” by Gretchen Rubin

Is there anything that we take for granted more than the power of our five senses? Gretchen Rubin’s new book, “Life in Five Senses, How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World,” stunned me out of complacency. It reminded me about the riches we overlook daily because we fail to pay full attention to what we are seeing, tasting, touching, smelling and hearing.

Gretchen studies the five senses through the lens of connectivity to the world around us – a simple premise – but likely something most people easily forget to appreciate. By overlaying art, literature, food, science, family and the natural world, Gretchen chronicles her personal sensory exploration. A reader can choose to ride along on her journey or use her journey to plot their own path. I did a little of both.

The author responds to a potentially life-changing medical issue as a jolt to examine the power of her own senses. Her research includes enough scientific data to be credible, but not boring, for a general audience. But a good bit of what she investigates is experiential. She primes her senses by experimenting with a perfume class, a restaurant that serves diners who are wearing blindfolds, and a sensory deprivation chamber, among other experiences.

Part of her personal project to learn more about her senses was setting a goal to visit the same place every day for a year. She chose the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, most people don’t live walking distance from the Met like Gretchen does, but she ties in all five senses to her daily visits. These adventures allow the museum to be not only a place to look at art, but also a place to practice observation and retrain her senses.

While reading this book, I set out on a mundane errand to buy new bathmats. I normally like a very sensible towel-like bathmat with sticky stuff on the back. But when I touched one that felt like soft puppy fur, I had a visceral reaction. I bought it. A small thing, but a perfect example of how paying attention to my senses prompted me to buy something simple (and relatively inexpensive) that gives me a joy jolt every time I walk in the bathroom. This book is full of Gretchen’s practical examples like this that can help readers retrain how they experience the world.

I checked out the book from the library to put in my beach stack. But by the time I’d finished the first chapter, I knew that had been a mistake. I had to own that book (I bought it at Litchfield Books at Pawley’s Island as a shout out to local bookstores).

My copy now has turned-down pages and multi-colored highlights throughout marking ideas I want to remember, passages I want to go back and re-read, and suggestions for my own experiments. This also made me realize that reading a good book can also involve the sense of touch. I love the feel of turning a page, running my hand over the pages, and scribbling in the margins.

One of the many marked-up passages says “The word listen is just a rearrangement of the word silent.” Think on that one a minute!

I’m taking on one of Gretchen’s activities this summer by developing my own Five Senses Self-Portrait. I’ll be adding to it regularly.

In 2022, I set out to get off the screens and back to books for the summer. I set a goal of reading a book a week. My accountability was writing short Blink Book Reviews (so short you can read them in a blink). This review is the first of the 2023 summer series. Join Blink Book Review Facebook group to follow along this summer.

From diploma to today: 20 lessons shared

USC’s graduation this weekend makes me realize it’s been 40 years since my graduation with the best speaker possible for a journalism school grad – Walter Cronkite!

Several days after graduation, I packed my car heading to DC to start my first job as a Congressional receptionist. In looking back, I tried to remember if I was concerned that my first job mainly involved answering phones, giving tours and driving my boss to the airport. After all, I believed my resume illustrated strong leadership skills, solid job experience and good writing samples (and yes, it was appropriate back then to include age and marital status on a resume).

As best I can remember, I was thrilled with that first job. I knew turnover was high in Congressional offices, and young staffers could move up quickly if given the chance to prove themselves. I had my sights set on being a press secretary, after all.

That newly minted young professional had no idea what was in store for the next 40 years of a winding career path. I also had no idea of the lessons I’d learn along the way.

A number of years ago, I started a list of those professional life lessons to use in a presentation for a group of college seniors. Since then, I like to revisit and update this list annually as a way to reflect on the past year.

Lessons from diploma to today

Read on for this year’s updated list of career lessons. Hopefully seasoned and new professionals alike will find a nugget or two here.

1. Take risks. Look for the unexpected opportunities. No one can expect perfection. It’s OK to be a beginner. You can often learn more from mistakes than successes. Yes, really, you can.

2. Cultivate strong writing skills. Solid writers are the people strong leaders want around the leadership table with them. Be the one colleagues seek out to flesh out and articulate ideas clearly on paper with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation. Even if writing isn’t a priority part of your job, be the one on the team who can quickly break down and communicate concepts on paper.

3. Go to your boss with a solution, not a problem. Your boss is solving problems all day. Make her life easier by presenting a solution when you present a problem. Even if it’s not the solution that ultimately solves the problem, presenting an idea for a solution keeps your boss from dreading the sight of you at the door or your number on her phone.

4. Keep up with people. The students you sat next to in class. Your roommates and their friends. Bosses in your entry level college jobs. Lab partners. Professors. The people you met through your campus activities. College deans. They will all have contacts within their professional circles. Stay in touch with them. You never know where a new job contact, sales relationship or your next stellar employee will come from. Every job change I ever made was the result of someone I knew making a connection for me. All of my current Medway Group clients grew out of established relationships. The connection to one of my first clients came from a former intern.

5. Be interested and interesting. Ask good questions and ask them often. Young professionals have a great deal to offer a work environment. Speak up when you have something to offer, but remember to balance your enthusiasm with senior-level colleagues’ experience.

6. Keep learning your craft. Find out what your boss or leaders in your profession are reading or listening to (books, blogs, professional publications, podcasts, websites, etc). Seek out professional development opportunities. Pay for them yourself, if necessary. Join professional organizations and get involved.

7. Be kind and remember that everyone carries their own sack of rocks. You never know what type of personal issues the co-worker who missed a deadline is dealing with at home or with his family.

8. Write thank-you and follow-up notes (handwritten, not emailed). Collect business cards or contact info from people you meet at events, in meetings, or just out and about. A handwritten “nice to meet you” note will set you apart and help people you meet remember you. Technology is good, but the personal touch still matters (along with good penmanship).

9. Travel any chance you get. Travel to small towns and big cities across the country and around the world. Don’t put off travel – use your vacation days. You’ll never tell your grandchildren about that great trip you didn’t take because you were too busy at work.

10. Plan the work before you work the plan. Having no plan gets you nowhere. Plans will change either by force or circumstance. Be flexible, but have a plan regardless of whether it’s a work project, a trip, a job search, a major purchase or an important life decision.

11. Looking busy doesn’t equal being productive. The co-worker who crows about her heavy workload and long hours is probably much less productive than the one who is organized and prioritizes his days.

12. Be a good listener and observer. It’s an old adage, but true – there’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Watching and listening to others can bring valuable insights to the words you eventually speak.

13. Stay in the loop, but avoid the gossip. Be a “boundary spanner”— someone who is respected and trusted by people at all levels of the organization. Just don’t be the one who everyone counts on to know “the dirt.”

14. Build your financial literacy. Pay yourself first. If you use direct deposit, set up an allocated amount to go to your savings account from each paycheck. If you get the chance to participate in your company’s 401K, do it! Even that smallest contribution early in your career will help you establish good saving and investment habits. Learn the basics of budgeting, saving and investing. Keep your rainy day fund separate from your retirement dollars.

15. Seek out a mentor. I’ve found most mentor relationships happen naturally rather than being established formally. Be on the lookout for them. I bet my best mentors probably don’t know they even served in that role. Also, look for “reverse mentoring” opportunities. You can be a resource to your older colleagues. Seasoned professionals can learn a great deal from their younger peers.

16. A good editor will make you shine. Don’t look at having your writing edited as you would look at a teacher correcting a paper. Editing is a collaborative process, and there’s always room for improvement in your writing.

17. Move during the day. Regardless of whether you have a desk job, use your lap as your desk while sitting on the couch or work outside of a traditional office environment, moving your body and getting your brain engaged in something other than your work is key to sanity and creativity. Walk around the block, stretch once an hour, or put in your earbuds and listen to high energy music.

18. Sharpen your speaking skills. A strong speaking presence doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but practice can help anyone improve. Seek out opportunities to speak up in meetings, identify your pain points, practice in front of a mirror, watch speakers you admire. Learn to be the one in the room who can catch – and keep – people’s attention.

19. Establish your personal brand. Decide what you want your reputation in the workplace to be, and let your actions define you. Keep promises and make deadlines. Under-promise and over-deliver. Avoid behavior in your personal life that could hurt your professional life (even more true today with all the risks of social media in the mix). Remember that details count, especially when getting the details right sets you apart from others.

20. Have fun and be creative. Figure out your own version of work/life balance. The “balance” will probably fluctuate daily, and it most certainly looks different after this COVID experience, but keep focused on creative outlets, exercise and hobbies that let you have fun.

Following my own advice

Over the past couple of years, I’ve realized it’s never too late to follow my own advice while launching into my latest professional adventure as a business owner at The Medway Group.  I’ve connected my love of writing (#2) and editing (#16) with the relationships I’ve developed over my career (#4, 15).

I’ve spent a lot of time evaluating my strengths, identifying opportunities, learning all I could about being an entrepreneur (#6), asking questions and seeking advice (#12), and plotting a plan (#10).

Thanks to insight and advice from many professional colleagues and mentors (#15, 18), I’m now busy helping clients with their writing and editing projects. I’m working with organizations to fine tune their communications planning and staffing. I’m plotting advocacy strategy around legislative issues and leading media training through my work with the Buckley School of Public Speaking.

I’m grateful for the opportunities today that let me share my strengths and do the type of work I enjoy. (Read more about the work The Medway Group is doing.) I’m also making sure not to overlook the importance of that balance we hear so much about (#20) by making time for my music, family, friends, and travel (#9). And I keep sending those hand-written thank you notes (#8).

Where’s the Objectivity? A panel discussion

A lively crowd of more than 70 gathered on April 25 at Still Hopes Retirement Community for a panel discussion featuring three local media professionals discussing the topic of “Where’s the Objectivity” in news gathering and dissemination in today’s world.

Harry Logan, former managing editor for the Florence Morning News and The State; Jay Bender, attorney for the SC Press Association; and Reba Campbell, communications strategist and president of The Medway Group, participated in a lively discussion.

Seven takeaways

1 –In today’s world, anyone or any organization has the ability to bypass traditional news outlets allowing anyone to be a newsmaker. On one hand, this can be a positive allowing reputable public relations professionals opportunities to bypass the traditional news gatekeepers and publish their own news. However, this can also be a negative giving the same access to shady characters to also publish their own news. In both cases, even the most sophisticated readers can often find it difficult to discern the difference between “real” news and “fake news.” (see #7)

2 – Everyone should always question their news sources – even the most trusted ones (see #1) – and be their own reporter and editor. People often unintentionally end up in their own echo chamber by creating their own news feeds that only push information that reinforces their own point of view.

3 – The definition of social media typically is considered to be the digital platforms though which anyone can self-publish information. This includes sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Reddit, as well as blogs and other self-published websites.

4 – Social media sites don’t have the same legal restrictions as traditional media outlets. For instance, a newspaper will have liability for libel if it publishes false information that injures someone’s reputation in letters to the editor. The newspaper can be sued and have to defend the case. Facebook and other social media outlets, however, are insulated from liability, no matter how outrageous the information being posted.

5 – In South Carolina, 24 out of 46 counties are considered to be “news deserts” meaning they have only one local newspaper. One county has no local papers anymore. The financial models that traditional print newspapers depended on the past on are no longer viable – due in large part to digital competition and staffing challenges. (graphic and research credit: USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications Bateman Team.)

6 – Artificial intelligence is in its infancy. The potential for an increase in dissemination of false information goes up exponentially with the ability create an image, a sound or words that can imitate a person precisely. There’s no way to know at this early stage of AI usage how it will impact the world of journalism and news gathering. Today’s angst over AI isn’t all that different from how we looked at using calculators in the classroom 30 years ago.

7 – Good websites for checking the veracity of news sources include the News Literacy Project, Rumor Guard and Fact Check. Snopes can be helpful for fact checking general rumors and potential misinformation (including those pesky Facebook posts that encourage users to cut and paste posts that guarantee more friends, fewer ads, etc.)

Blink Book Review: “It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs” by Mary Louise Kelly

The books I enjoy the most typically sit unfinished with one chapter to go. They deliciously hang out in my reading stack or on my audio book list the same way the last bite of my favorite chocolate cookie sits wrapped up on the counter.

I savor the thought of it. I visit it occasionally. I conjure up visions of slowly consuming that last morsel.

It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs” is one of those books. It sat unfinished in my audio book app for five days. I just didn’t want it to end.

This book is the memoir of NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly’s “year of no do-overs” as her 18-year-old son entered his senior year in high school. Her job as the anchor of NPR’s afternoon news show, “All Things Considered,” meant she went on air every weekday at 4 p.m.  – the exact time of her sons’ weekly Monday soccer games. (Her younger son was a high school sophomore at the time and also a soccer player.)

Every year, Kelly had told herself, this would be the year that she would make the time to be more present, go to more games, carve out more time with her sons. Every year, when she fell short of this goal, she knew she had many more years ahead for a do-over. Then her first-born became a senior. Kelly realized there would be no more do-overs.

She wrote this book in real time as she lived her son’s senior year through the eyes and the heart of a highly successful, deeply committed news professional who also wanted to make sure her family came first. It’s written in essay-style chapters that connect a reader with compelling first-person storytelling, gut busting humor, and non-judgmental sage advice.

It’s obvious from the first chapter that Kelly is more than only a radio news host. She writes with the clarity of a newspaper reporter (which she was), the depth of a novelist (which she is) and the heart of a mom (which she will always be).

This audio book version caused untold “driveway moments” when I had to finish a chapter before getting out of the car. I daily looked forward to riding around town feeling like Mary Louise (we’re on a first name basis by now, of course) was buckled in my passenger seat chatting about her personal experiences as a mom, international public radio correspondent, friend, daughter and wife. Her voice is as familiar as a family member’s (I’m a huge NPR fan girl), so it made for easy listening.

But when I realized I was at the last chapter, I chugged in a big breath. I stopped the audio book. I wasn’t ready to kick her out of my car.

Through this book, I had traveled with Mary Louise as she interviewed world leaders in Ukraine, Afghanistan and countless international capitals and war zones. I screamed with her as she loudly cheered on her sons at their soccer games she was able to attend. I cried with her when she emotionally detailed the last walk with her ailing father. I’d giggled with her as she detailed the deep connection she maintains with her group of college girlfriends.

So I let it sit for a few days. Then I chose to finish that last chapter while on a solitary walk. I knew that last chapter would contain wisdom, humor and some sage advice. And it did. I belly laughed and I cried.

Then I went to my new local bookstore to buy the hard copy of the book (spoiler alert: All Good Books had already sold out of the book, so I had to order one). That’s what I do when I love an audio book so much that I need to be able to return to the lovely turns of words and mark up the pages with my favorite passages. Then I share the book with friends. In my world, that’s the highest compliment I can pay a book!

In the summer of 2022, Reba created her summer reading challenge to get off the screen and back to books by reading a book a week. Her accountability was to write a series of Blink Book Reviews of 300ish words so someone could read them in a blink. This is the latest in her occasional ongoing (and sometimes more like two blinks-long) series. Join her Blink Book Review Facebook group to get all the reviews and books suggestions from others.

Behind the media scenes at the trial of the century

Huge shout-out to the leadership of SCPRSA for their wildly successful professional development conference on April 19! It was my first time being back among a large group of communications professionals since COVID started. I sure have missed my professional networks!

I had the pleasure of facilitating a panel with City of Walterboro, SC officials who successfully navigated the media onslaught during the recent Murdaugh trial. Panelists were Mayor Bill Young, City Manager Jeff Molinari, and Director of Tourism and Downtown Development Scott Grooms.

There’s a lot to unpack from the many insights and observations they shared, but here are three takeaways (more detail coming in a full article including the backstory of the mayor being mistakenly identified on CourtTV as John Grisham).

1 – Mayor Young knew from the start there would be so much beyond their control with the trial in town, so they focused on what was in their control. Walterboro already had a strong hospitality brand as the “Front Porch of the Lowcountry,” so they set out do all they could to accommodate the media to make them feel welcome. A camera operator from a national television network commented to the mayor that the Walterboro team treated them even better than what they see at the Master’s or the Heritage.

2 –  Grooms, who has 30+ years in local broadcasting, was responsible for setting up and managing the media center. He had a goal of solving any media issues immediately – ideally within 15 minutes. The staff treated the media well, and in turn, the media members were in the city’s corner when issues popped up. Comfortable office space in the city’s wildlife center (shared with snakes, gators and frogs), extra high speed internet, accessible parking and food trucks to accommodate the short 90-minute lunch breaks were just a few of the services the city organized.

3 – Molinari said city leaders wanted to make sure that local businesses wouldn’t be disrupted. Only two small downtown streets had to be blocked off, and city public works and public safety staff quickly took care of any concerns that could have escalated into issues. Molinari said he was surprised at how quickly the trial became the “new normal” for city staff who adapted quickly to keep regular services running while, at the same time, accommodate the thousands of visitors.

On a personal note, one of the things I love most about being in the communications field is the years’ worth of relationships I’ve been able to establish and maintain. Today, two of these worlds intersected with these panel members – all three of whom I’ve had the good fortune to work with in my previous lives with the Municipal Association of SC and my first stint at SCETV.

Blink Book Review: “Women Holding Things”

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

That’s one of the many reasons I walked out of Square Books in Oxford, MS, recently with writer and illustrator Maira Kalman’s newest book,“Women Holding Things.” I knew her of art only because one of her paintings depicting a soulful basset hound graced the cover of Strunk and White’s latest edition of “The Elements of Style.” That dog enticed me to upgrade my college-issued version of this grammar book several years ago.

After picking up the display copy of “Women Holding Things” on the bookstore table, I was immediately intrigued by this book’s title and cover art. I flipped the book over to look for the typical reviews or author bio. To my delight, I found only the following quote:

Nothing on the dustcover or the book flaps gives the reader any intel about the author, the artwork or the contents of the book. As I flipped through the pages with sparse words and expressive paintings, I found myself holding this book close without even thinking about what I was doing.

I browsed through pages with artwork that includes women holding the weight of the world, holding hands, holding grudges, holding pearls, holding court, holding true to herself and holding books. I ran my fingers over the substantial texture of the book’s pages and smelled that ink smell that only someone who loves books can detect.

After I thought I’d had my fill of holding this little piece of magic, I returned the book to its place on the table. I browsed a bit. I debated over buying a recent new novel or biography. I considered which box of notecards most matched my mood that day.

I returned to the book. I needed to read more. Kalman’s bare use of language reminded me to spend more time absorbing the vivid artwork. Then the artwork reminded me to think more carefully about what I hold dear and close and accountable and true in my life.

We left the store with this book after my husband bought it for my Easter basket gift.

I read the whole thing on the plane from Memphis to Charlotte.

I’ve read it again – twice.

This isn’t a book you borrow from the library. You must own it to hold onto the experience of running your hands over the pages – urging you to hold it tight in both delight and despair, in both the bigness of the world and the smallness of your life, in both the emotion of Kalman’s beautiful art and the pleasant exhaustion of her everyday words.

In the summer of 2022, I created my summer reading challenge to get off the screen and back to books by reading a book a week. My accountability was to write a series of Blink Book Reviews of 300ish words so someone could read them in a blink. This is the latest in this occasional ongoing series. Join my Blink Book Review Facebook group to get all the reviews and books suggestions from others.

The magic and mess of a blank page

I started the year trying to resume the discipline of keeping a handwritten journal. This process of deliberately writing by hand has reminded me how it so often results in a flow that’s very different from writing using a keyboard.

This got me to thinking about a poem I’d written several years ago about writing by hand

On the first day of a writer’s workshop, the instructor said we would be writing by hand.

Write with a pen? On paper? Surely, you’re kidding, I thought. I write with a pen only when hard copy editing, jotting off personal thank-you notes or signing an occasional check. I’m the queen of a paperless workspace, the diva of electronic communication.

The instructor offered us the choice of old-style composition books for our writing work. I reached for my laptop saying, “I don’t write by hand.”

“Here we do,” the instructor said.

So in the interest of cooperation, I dutifully selected the notebook with the cover that most appealed to me. I pulled out the only pen I had in my bag – a purple roller ball I used for editing at work. I opened the notebook, skimmed my hand across the first page and gripped my purple pen helplessly. I felt completely blank.

There’s something different about staring down a blank piece of paper versus a blank computer screen. At least the screen has other distractions going on … icons, blinking cursor, color. That blank lined page scared me. That purple pen felt like lead in my hand.

I’ve always liked the simplicity of “cut and paste” on a computer. If I get something wrong, it’s just a matter of highlight and delete. The consistency of font choices is familiar. They are tidy and easy to manage. Things might occasionally get messy with track changes, but I can always hide that. And a computer key never leaks purple ink or leaves a ridge on my finger.

Writing by hand means I can go back to another page and find words I thought I didn’t need. Those words are still sitting right there where I left them, good as new. This is unlike typing on a computer. Once that delete key zaps out a word, a turn of a phrase or a thought, it’s pretty much gone for good.

The process of writing by hand with that purple pen has led me to a softer acceptance of my daily striving to get it right the first time – whatever “it” is. My default had long been “get it right, and if you don’t, just quickly fix it.”

But now when I open my paper journal (almost) every day, I try not to see just a blank page. I remind myself to see possibilities in the messes of colors and lines and squiggles that often lead me to places I didn’t know I could explore.

Sure, it’s messy. But isn’t that how we get to the good stuff?

Seeking practice over perfect

“Practice makes perfect.” Surely a mantra we all heard as children…whether it was in sports, spelling, music or math. This was a standard line repeated by grown-ups who were just trying to help us learn. Practice is a good thing…right? But perfect? Rarely possible.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand perfection is a false master regardless of the task. My perfect custard might look like your messy pie. My perfect swan dive might be your belly flop. Perfection is subjective. It’s as inaccurate a measure of success as coloring in the lines is for creativity.

In her new book, The Lives We Actually Have, author Kate Bowler tackles the gremlins of perfection this way in one of her 100 blessings for imperfect days:

“ … In this culture of more, more, more, make me less. Less tidy and afraid, less polished and buttoned up, less prideful and judgmental. Turn down the volume of my expectations, and let me hear the birds sing…”

Kate Bowler

These beautiful words lead me toward thinking about practice, rather than perfect. How can we be less perfect and make time for more practice?

After years of being tethered to that false master of perfection, I’ve learned being open to the adventure that practice brings is freeing, encouraging, and often surprising … if I turn down the volume of expectations, as Kate writes.

In my daily life, I practice to finish something so I can try again. I practice to expand my perspective and learn more. I practice to get better and explore what’s next. My writing practice has sparked a curiosity I didn’t know I had. My music practice has brought me a sense of connectedness I never imagined at my age. My yoga practice has led me to risk a handstand and hang from a yoga wall. All have given me a satisfaction I wouldn’t have discovered if I had been seeking perfect rather than embracing practice.

Writing practice

My writing often involves taking rambling notes of observations with no idea of what connect points may eventually arise. These notes may be random words scribbled in purple ink on the back of receipts or emails I send myself while waiting for the gas tank to fill. Just the practice of capturing observations, turns of words or the echoes of people’s stories gives me huge pleasure – not because I’m using them to write a perfect best seller, but because they keep me curious.

The practice of writing is also calming. I can often tame the head chatter clanging around like pinball marbles once I take a few minutes to shoot them out through my fingers. If something insightful lands on the page, great. If a connection to someone comes of it, all the better.

But I know one thing for sure … I never want to perfect this practice of writing because then I’d stop asking questions and discovering new paths. Perfection is when the fun and discovery of it end.

Music practice

Practicing music has brought me joy far beyond just the notes or chords I’ve learned to play. Sure it’s fun to master something I abandoned as a kid, but most of my music practice happens with other people. With these people, I get my inspiration to be better because I want to be connected to something bigger, not because I just want to master a riff, a chord or a song.

The blessing of my Sip N Strummers

Practicing music in a group also absorbs my imperfections. When enough of us are playing together, one person’s imperfect note can be swallowed up by the group. What a gift to practice without the worry of perfect.

Yoga practice

When I first started frequenting yoga classes, I thought the phrase “practice yoga” sounded a bit pretentious … and yoga isn’t supposed to be pretentious, right? At first, it often seemed the instructor who spoke the words “practice yoga” was a limber 20-something who didn’t get it was impossible for a middle-aged woman to practice herself into a back bend or headstand.

After several years of an increasingly frequent yoga practice and some very gifted and encouraging instructors, I now understand now why it’s called a practice. I initially saw yoga as striving toward an athletic goal like moving from a circuit of 30 to 40 to 50 squats. But I’ve discovered the real practice with yoga is the exact opposite of striving – it’s working from where you are at that moment.

Maybe today I can do a back bend, but tomorrow I may not even be able to touch my toes. That’s OK … just enjoy and finish today’s practice and come next time ready to practice again.

A commitment to finishing my practice so I can try again

In her book, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott speaks beautifully of practice and making a commitment to finishing (in this case she’s talking about writing but it’s an apt observation for any type of practice). “What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”

But here finishing doesn’t mean perfecting. It’s recognizing there’s always more to see, learn and discover if we allow it and just keep practicing rather than striving for that unreachable state of perfect.

I think I’ll stay on this path of practicing practice rather than practicing perfect for a while. It’s a lot more fun.

Tips for working with content expert writers

Comms professionals often depend on content experts to write about technical or complex topics for general audience newsletters, websites or social posts. But when content experts write about topics they know best, the document they produce might include industry lingo, technical language or assumptions about what a reader already knows.

This is where the editor comes in to be the connect point between the writer’s intention and the reader’s experience.

Avoiding disconnects between the context expert writer and editor

Consider this. An investment company has a nationally recognized tax attorney on staff. But she may not be accustomed to breaking down a new tax law for senior citizen investors. Or maybe an acclaimed scientist works for a non-profit. Although he is well-versed about the challenges of ecological decline in wetlands, he may not have experience connecting the issue to donors who read a newsletter article.

Unfortunately, enlisting content experts to write for a general audience newsletter or website can sometimes lead to a disconnect – leaving the content expert feeling the comms team is questioning his expertise or undermining his value. At the same time, this disconnect can put the comms team in the position of being disparaged by the expert as the organization’s “word nerd grammar police” who dumb down or oversimplify the writing.

Comms professionals who write as part of their job learn to focus on the reader and to separate themselves personally from their writing. They don’t take editing personally and embrace it as part of a process. People who don’t frequently write for a general audience, however, can sometimes see edits as an insult. They may get offended if the document comes back looking like a middle school English paper that the teacher has bled on with red ink.

It’s all about the reader

As Stephen Covey wrote, the solution lies with “begin with the end in mind.” And here, the end is the reader – not the writer or the editor. By agreeing up front to what the reader needs, the writer and the editor start from a place of mutual understanding working toward the same goal of engaging the reader.

When recruiting content experts to write for a more general audience, specific guidance from the comms team can support a writer’s success, make editing easier, and (most importantly) ensure readers easily understand the message that’s being conveyed.

Five tips for success with content expert writers

1 – Be clear that writing and editing are about focusing on the reader, not the writer or the editor. Editing is not an attempt to judge the writer’s expertise. Rather, editing is a collaborative process to ensure the writing meets its goals to inform the reader. By positioning writing with a focus on the reader/audience rather than on the writing process, content experts will feel they are part of the team.

2 – Set up content expert writers for success by giving clear instructions. A checklist that includes information about the audience, the goal of the content and specifics about what is to be communicated can be helpful. Give a quick summary of the tone and voice, word count, and use of bullets or lists, graphics or charts. Download a template of instructions here.

3 – Give content expert writers a very short style guide to encourage a confidence level with the organization’s rules for grammar and punctuation. This could include some of the most common errors the comms team sees or grammar rules, such as the Oxford comma or sentence spacing, that vary among style guides. Also helpful are pointers about sentence structure and length (vary them) and use of active versus passive voice (active is typically more powerful).

4 – Eliminate the “middle school English teacher” syndrome by ensuring the edit process feels collaborative rather than punitive. Trade in a red editing pen for a purple one for hard copy editing. Writers often say this is a kinder, gentler approach than the dreaded red pen. Or use comment bubbles to explain the “why” behind edits when editing a digital copy. This can be particularly helpful for a content expert who will be writing frequently for a more general audience.

5 – Enlist support of the organization’s leadership to reinforce the importance and value of expert voices in written content. When the organization’s leaders stress the value of the content expert’s role in communicating a message to readers in a way they will understand, everyone wins.

Reba Hull Campbell has wanted to be a writer ever since winning the VFW writing contest in the fourth grade. She delights in the editing process and encourages others to see it as a puzzle to be solved not a chore to be endured.

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Lobbying + Communications Teams = Heavenly Match or Rocky Marriage?

In theory, an organization’s lobbying activities should be closely aligned with its communications strategies. After all, the success of lobbying and grassroots advocacy efforts hinges on good communication of a well-articulated and targeted message to influence policy decisions at the local, state or federal level.

In practice, however, organizations sometimes find that turf battles and conflicting priorities between these two important functions mean lobbying and communications teams are doing their own thing. Both are in the business of communicating. However, if internal communication and organizational alignment between these two functions are not part of your culture, collaboration may not happen naturally.

For example, maybe the communications staff doesn’t get involved in developing policy talking points or letters to government officials. Or maybe the lobbying or policy staff sees the communications team as just writers, designers or press release machines who set unrealistic deadlines without understanding the urgency of issues management.

When an issue heats up, organizations that haven’t successfully integrated their communication planning and their lobbying strategy are often left with unfocused and conflicting messages delivered to grassroots stakeholders who should be your best messengers to policy makers.

Policy-related communication means more than developing fact sheets, writing letters to policy makers, and dashing off the reactive letter to the editor.

If the communications and lobbying teams are working together year-round and before an issue heats up, the communications team will understand the priority policy issues the lobbying team expects to deal with during the year. The lobbying team will be aware of the broader communications landscape and how to tie the organization’s priority policy issues into the ongoing communication strategy of the organization to its stakeholders and policy makers.

Five tips for aligning comms and lobbying messaging

Below are five tips for aligning your organization’s communications efforts with lobbying strategies.

1. Develop overall organizational messages with policy goals in mind. The talking points the communications team uses to pitch a news story should align with the messages the organization is communicating to policy makers. For example, the organization is pushing for changes to a tax policy. Put a face on the issue in a news pitch by incorporating the consequences of the tax law on families it affects.

2. Integrate your proactive issue-related messages into the organization’s publications’ feature stories year-round. If the communications and lobbying teams are working together throughout the year rather than just when a news release is needed to push action on a specific issue, the messages will not appear to be self-serving or politically motivated. The communications team can include the government relations team in editorial planning year-round to ensure this alignment happens.

3. Identify and educate your “third-party endorsers.” It’s not just stakeholders who can be the best grassroots third-party endorsers of an organization’s issues. Often it’s the people or organizations beyond your members/customers/stakeholders who benefit from your service or program that can provide a less self-serving approach to your message. But first, these supporters must be engaged and invested in the value of a service or program long before their voice is needed—either for direct contact with a policy maker or to shore up your message in a news story. Communicate strategically with these potential “third-party endorsers” through targeted emails, newsletters, or direct contact to help them understand the importance of your issues to their interests.

4. Engage your grassroots members and third-party endorsers as voices for opinion columns, letters to the editor, and reporter sources for local stories related to your issues. Regardless of the proliferation of online news sources, policy makers at all levels still count on the local newspaper as a primary source of local information. You can start building up good will around your issues through good news stories pitched in advance of an issue becoming controversial. Not only do you create the buzz when the story comes out but you also can use the clips in social media posts.

5. Don’t focus on just getting your organization’s name “out.” Rather, look for opportunities to leave your organization’s “fingerprints” on a news story that will reinforce your policy message. This can be called your fingerprint index. A “10-finger hit” results from a positive news story where a third party endorses your organization’s issue, program, or service, shoring up your position on an issue. A “five-finger hit” is when a member, customer, stakeholder or board leader is featured in a news story telling a story or integrating an issue related to your program or service. Stories that are solely focused on the organization’s leaders or staff get only “two fingers’” credit.

Regardless of whether your organization has dozens of issues before Congress or one issue before your city council, your first goal should be to coordinate the message that’s going out between your communications and lobbying teams. If your communications department and lobbying staff aren’t in lock step at the beginning of the process, you’re already behind the competition.

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