Sunday, April 29, 2007

Writing OpEds -- Part One

Don’t fret…there will be more posts about PowerPoint. But I’m finishing a few writing assignments (OpEds) for clients, so I thought I’d write about something fresh on my mind. In the advocacy world, getting an OpEd published in a paper-of-record is often more important than a good news story. But space is limited and editors are picky. Drafting a piece that will appeal to your audience AND interest editors is sometimes tricky.

Most people think a good OpEd is one that gets published. To a certain extent, that’s true. If an editor thought it was good enough to run, then it can’t have been all that bad. But we can all agree that not everything that runs in the paper is good writing. And who’s to say that the readers liked it or, more importantly, agreed with it?

In consulting clients about writing OpEds, I urge them to consider eight guidelines and perform one simple exercise before they even start typing. Today you get four of them.

1. An OpEd should hammer home one idea, and one idea only. Sure, you'll have to make several points along the way to show the reader you know your stuff and that you should be believed. But they should all support the one idea, the one opinion, that you want the reader to share with you when she's done reading your piece.

2. Be confident and opinionated. If they were supposed to be objective, OpEds would run in the news section. This is not a license for arrogance, flippant comments or overgeneralizations. Rather, it is a call to stick to the purpose of this medium: to express a clear opinion and convince others you are correct. Pieces that inform or educate generally make very boring OpEds. Some experts are asked to write OpEds on very specific (boring) topics. I would argue that turning that assignment from one of education to one of advocacy will not only help your cause more, it will make a more compelling piece of writing.

3. Point the reader to do or think something specific. Again, information is important, but an OpEd without a "call to action" – be it mental or physical – will usually fall flat on readers. People read the OpEd page because they want to know what you think, not what you know.

4. Be relevant to readers' lives. Getting the government to address cross-border water policy: important. Getting Washington to address the potential terrorist threat posed by municipal wastewater treatment facilities that use chlorine gas: important and relevant. One of the best – but not perfect – barometers for relevance is timeliness and newsworthiness. If it's happening this week and everyone is reporting on it, chances are people will want to read about it. Telling an OpEd editor that he should run your piece because no one is covering that issue is almost admitting that no one wants to read your piece.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll end there. Tips 5-8 will come shortly.

In the meantime, check out some example OpEds that have run in regional and national papers. None is perfect, and I’m never able to follow ALL of my own advice every time. But you’ll see that there’s a consistency (and a certain level of success) that makes them good examples.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Presenting Tips - The Data Challenge

Next stop on the PowerPoint train is data.

The cliché goes this way: “My content is so complicated that I simply cannot communicate it in a creative way" or "my audience and I are so smart, my slides don't have to look good."

The complaint from the audience is “that was the ugliest, most complicated slide I’ve ever seen. It made me feel stupid.”

I tend to side with the audience.

I’ve worked with a lot of scientists in the last few years, and I tell them that when they present complex information, they can choose to sound brainy and brilliant (and turn off the audience) or they can focus on making sure the audience understands the issue. Not only does the audience appreciate the latter approach more, but it is, after all, the reason you’re presenting the data, isn’t it?

Edward Tufte is the guru of presenting data. So if you’re into hard-core data presentations, you should consider his books and training. But you don’t have to read all his books to improve.

I think there are simpler ways to improve data presentations using PowerPoint’s built-in features.

Like the last post, I have two examples to watch.

The first example
shows a before-and-after approach presenting 650,000 years of data illustrating a connection between atmospheric carbon concentration and temperature. In this clip, the first slide (white background and red and blue lines) is often shot up on the wall while the presenter talks about each intricate detail of the chart. It’s used statically. It just sits there. Compare that to the last part of the clip (black background and white and blue lines). This slide is from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slideshow. It not only fades in various parts of the data – giving the presenter a chance to explain each of them. But it also brings in two new variables – today’s concentration level and the projected level in 45 years. These two new data points make the slide more relevant to the audience: Not only do carbon and temperature rise and fall together, but we’re in trouble if we don’t change our emission trends.

The second example
illustrates the flaws of Microsoft’s default graphing feature compared to a cleaner, more attractive graph.

You’ve seen charts like the first one (made in Excel). The colors are ugly. The lines are faint. The legend is choppy. And all of the data is tossed up on the screen at once. Like the previous example, the only way for a presenter to explain each line is to whip out the dreaded laser pointer, turn his back to the audience and talk to the screen (so the guys in the back of the room can check his BlackBerry).

Contrast that with the second half of the clip. The chart is presented in phases. The colors match and legend looks clean and neat. The difference between the two slides is a 10-minute formatting fix in PowerPoint or Keynote. Sure, Keynote has more “pretty” features than Microsoft products. But PowerPoint can get the job done.

So make data easier on your audience. Space it out and think about how the audience needs to digest each piece. And resist ugly. An attractive slide (even if it contains the same information) will beat an ugly one every time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Presentation example, the good and the bad

In the last post, I went on for a few hundred words about bullets and PowerPoint templates. Too much typing and not enough showing. So I thought I'd show you a quick example of what I meant.

A UT group asked me to give a presentation about the TXU fight: what it entailed, what Environmental Defense did, how we won, etc. So I have two movie files for you to watch. The first is what you'd normally expect for a quick 30 minute presentation about something. It goes by fast, so you might want to pause and restart a couple of times.

Click here to watch the video (Quicktime file)...then come back and read the rest.

Pretty boring. All the facts are there, but you could probably hear me reading the bullets in your ear.

Now look at another movie file. It's a bit longer, but I think it's worth the 3 minutes. And there's no sound...so don't adjust your speakers.

Click here to watch the next video.

It doesn't look like a PowerPoint, does it?

Of course, there's some narrative that you miss out on. And you might wonder what I mean by some of the text on the screen. But that's OK. That's why you have a speaker. If the slides were perfect stand-ins for speakers, we wouldn't need speakers. This is an attractive and descriptive visual aid that supports a speaker who will inject anecdotes, factoids and commentary throughout the presentation. You want to see the next slide, and you want to hear what the speaker has to say about it.

Let me know if that helps show that the "no bullets" approach actually works.

Until next time...

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Presenting Tips -- Part One

I’ve recently been in a presentation groove. I’ve been giving various presentations – most of them related to global warming or the TXU power plant fight – for the last six months. And I’ve been through some interesting training on how to create and perform (yes, perform…not read) effective presentations. So I figured that I’d spend a few posts on presentation skills…from the basic tasks of outlining and organizing your presentation to platform and audience management skills.

One of the presentations I’ve been giving is the one Al Gore turned into “An Inconvenient Truth.” And after almost every performance the conversation turns from global warming to the presentation tool itself. People say they’ve never seen such a beautiful presentation. And they’ve never sat through a 75 minute presentation without yawning or checking their BlackBerries. Gore’s slide deck is an excellent example of what does and doesn’t work in front of a crowd.

And it shows what can happen when we resist PowerPoint's two most tempting and powerful tools of boredom: bullets and the template wizard.

Remember this: bullets kill. They kill enthusiasm and they kill creativity. They kill audiences. And worst of all, they kill any sense of responsibility speakers used to feel – long ago, before PowerPoint – to develop a speech that they had to rehearse or even understand. People now click to the next slide. They read that slide. They click to the next slide. Bang! Another dead presentation.

The global warming presentation I’ve been using has 300 slides. I think two of them have bullets. Part of why the presentation is so powerful is that each presenter actually has to know, understand and practice it. It’s a performance. No reading allowed. It takes A LOT of rehearsal. But, holy cow, it makes such a difference.

If bullets are what kill presentations, the template wizard is the AK-47 that makes killing presentations so easy. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use the template wizard – no matter how enthusiastically your IT guy promotes it. He’s an IT guy, not a communicator. The most compelling presentations I have ever seen, including Al Gore’s slide deck and Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ keynote addresses, are templateless. They have a picture and a word. Or a chart and a word. The slides enhance what the speaker is saying. They are not a visual crutch at which the speaker can simply stare and mumble.

The antidote to leaning on the template crutch is simple. I advise colleagues and clients to turn off their computers and think about the days before PowerPoint when we had to actually think through and write down what we wanted to say. Develop a snapshot of your main message, the key points you have to deliver and a few anecdotes, studies or facts you’ll need to prove your point.

Then, and only then, think about whether PowerPoint can help you make your case. You might realize that you’ve been leaning on a PowerPoint crutch you never even needed.

Stay tuned for more presentation tips. Due up next week: why reading your slides is not only terribly boring, but actually inhibits learning.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Know where you're going before you start

All this pressure. The first post better be good, right?

Well, let me start where I’ve started with every client or employer I’ve ever had. If you don’t have a clear idea where you want your communication effort to take you, you’re going to waste a lot of time and money.

To make this point with clients, I've used a rather trite analogy, provided by our friends at Disney in the clip below:



Any communication professional that does not provide a client or employer a clear audience-based goal for a scope of work is implying that productivity equals success. Lots of press clips is success. A pretty video is success. A fancy website is success. You get the idea. You’ve probably seen it in action.

So my most basic tip to non-profit communicators is to resist the urge to produce without consequence. Have the courage and patience to demand of your organization a true communication objective each year. And then let that objective serve as a filter for the tactical opportunities that arise throughout the year.

You’ll not only have done your organization a real service, you’ll also free yourself from time-consuming projects that provide little benefit to your cause other than a stack of press clips that you'll end up recycling in January or using to get your next job.

Welcome to the Rowan Report

Rowan Communication helps non-profit organizations and good-intentioned causes of all stripes communicate more effectively.

The Rowan Report isn't just a marketing tool, it's part of my corporate tithe: check back often for communication success stories and "best practice" tips intended to help people who have chosen to dedicate their communication careers to a cause.

Subscribing by email (look right) is the best way to keep up with new posts.