Helping Clients Tell Stories that Stick

In nearly 25 years of helping clients spread their messages, I’ve heard a lot of incredible successes and passionate pleas for support and empathy. Sometimes, it can be impossible to resist getting swept away in the energy and excitement of the client’s mission – but no matter how enthusiastic you may become about your client’s story, it’s always important to remember that it’s truly his or hers to tell.

This slightly thorny truth is even sharper today, since the internet has extended the longevity of a piece by making it easy to find even years from publication. One of the first Google results for my name is usually a profile of my architectural drawings in the New York Times… from February 1990!

When it comes to clients, this new permanence – making ancient news immediately available – can cause extra stickiness when dealing with bad press, an ill-advised quote or a lackluster interview. Accordingly, in helping clients tell their stories, it becomes paramount to make sure that they project their personal identity, in addition to their organization’s brand and mission – so that in 25 years, when someone asks their robot assistant to Google the organization, what comes up is a document of passion and personality, not simply a rote list of talking points.Remember to keep a little personality in your nonprofit's storytelling!

One client of ours, many years back, inadvertently underscored the importance of injecting a little personality into a presentation. This nonprofit leader worked primarily with elders. She was passionate and dedicated 100% of her talents to her work, which was clear to everyone who met her. When it came to public speaking, though, she spoke stiffly and kept to her notecards, effectively stifling all the passion and fire she projected in person-to-person interactions.

With an organization like hers, filled with wonderfully touching moments, all funders, donors, families and elected officials would need in order to instantly align to her cause was a well-told, publicly shared story. Instead, each speaking engagement was a lost opportunity, a vacuum of boredom and polite applause where there should have been rapt attention and standing ovations. Something had to change.

We needed to find the key to opening up her usual boundless enthusiasm instead of having it clamped down when she donned her business hat.

We discovered that each evening over dinner, she would share the highs and the lows of her day with her children. Her motivation was to inspire them to do good in the world, and she readily shared her stories with energy and zest. Having heard this, we suggested that she paper-clip reminder photos of her children to the top of her next speech. From then on, she was a firebrand at the podium.

That was a crucial lesson for us to learn as a young firm. Most PR professionals will tell you their job is to tell clients’ stories. To be sure, it is – but when a client can be his or her own best advocate, it’s also our job to step out of the way and facilitate the client’s own storytelling. By helping our client project her innate passion and personality while speaking publicly, her advocacy was twice as convincing. And, unlike another dry press release, her testimony will remain vital as long as it’s search-indexed.

Cultivating an “Awareness of Now” in 2014

More so than any year before, 2013 truly unfolded moment by moment.

2013 was the year of newsjacking – clever marketers were seizing Twitter opportunities left and right, from the Oreo Super Bowl blackout to DiGiorno’s Sound of Music moment of livetweeting glory:


DiGiorno live tweets The Sound of Music

It was also the year of Snapchat, ephemeral pictures and videos that disappear after just a few seconds, Vine’s seven-second clips, and Instagram’s answer to both apps. Even though taking a picture might make you less likely to remember the event or photograph you’re witnessing, people, especially young people, spent most of this year pointing their smartphones in front of them and snapping away. But even beyond the question of medium, storytelling in the past year leaned heavily on the ever-increasing rate of change in our world. One of my favorite examples was IBM’s “World’s Smallest Movie” spot – in which IBM’s scientists manipulated their revolutionary storage technology to animate a story about a boy named Adam and his pet atom using tiny carbon molecules.

The spot works because it connects the idea of people to an impersonal-seeming and oblique technology, while simultaneously illustrating just how incredible and world-changing the research behind the product is. In other words, telling your organization’s story is no longer a question of simple intent, copy and placement. The timeliness factor has become the main factor. This year, cultivating an “awareness of now” became the best thing a marketer can do.

Plenty of tools exist to help you focus on the topics and conversations that are most important to your industry, your clients or your donors – and to find the people who are engaging in them. Twitter is, of course, the best tool for keeping tabs on an industry, but the still-kicking Google Alert, RSS feeds, mention and a well-populated list of bloggers are all good places to start.

Someone, somewhere is having the conversation you want to join. Whether by being topical and funny on Twitter or by providing your expertise to a journalist precisely when they need it for their next story, the best way to get your organization’s voice into that conversation is to be exactly on time. In 2014, an awareness of now will make sure that when the moment comes, you’ll be ready, and – if you’re savvy and timely – you’ll be able to make it your moment.

Nonprofit Management is Archival: Telling Your Organization’s Story

Earlier this fall, my family undertook a move from an Upper East Side apartment to one in East Harlem. On top of our busy life at Winkleman Company, nonprofit board activities and my teaching at Columbia University, we’re still throwing our spare time at unpacking. Taking care to assess every piece of furniture, every knickknack and every memento that made the first cut of moving (but may not fit into our life’s new schema) has brought into focus for me the relationship of memory and possessions.

Philosophers and thinkers from the Greeks to the Renaissance often used the position of rooms and objects in the construction of “memory houses,” mental structures intended to organize their ideas — the ars memoriae, or “art of memory,” as the Romans called it. Perhaps the idea first came to its inventor during a home move.

Each object in each room signified a portion of the total concept to be remembered, and their placements relative to each other represented the relationship between them. While I took stock of our possessions, I recollected the story of each. I came to realize that our lovingly organized photo albums, bookshelves, artwork and furniture told the story of our lives together and

A 1912 Corgi Classic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. When I bought mine it was the first time I saved towards a goal.

A 1912 Corgi Classic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. When I bought mine it was the first time I saved towards a goal.

individually. The wall of family photographs catalogs the people whose stories intersect ours, from my grandfather in his pharmacy in the 1920s and my wife’s rocket-pioneering grandparents to my son graduating from high school. The vintage toy cars, like my prized 1912 Corgi Classic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, and political memorabilia harken back to past times and youthful enthusiasms.

The same principle would apply to an organization’s story. Some of this arrangement is literal — the way you style your office, which achievements you display to your visitors and in what order — but also the way that you manage and track your operations. In the short term, it enables learning and saves time. How did we run this event last year? What worked and didn’t work? In the long term, though, inventory and reflection define your values and build your traditions. Archives and stories, whether legitimate files required by law or scrapbooks of letters from clients and students, digital or paper, all contribute to a picture of not only who you are, but where you’ve been and the lives you’ve touched along the way.

During my days at Clark University, for example, we were tasked with a logo redesign. Other members of the committee suggested hiring an ad agency, focus groups and designers, but we couldn’t quite agree on what the logo should convey. To find our identity, we went to the archives and looked at our school’s history. We saw what we’d achieved in the past, and we were proud of that tradition. Accordingly, we found an elegant logo from the 1920s that not only fit our current concepts, but nodded to our institution’s humble regard for the past successes that enabled us to seek excellence in the current moment.

As an organization, you must sometimes confront the question of modifying your presentation. Whether it’s a logo redesign or a total brand overhaul in preparation for a capital campaign, the next chapter of the story is impossible to write without reading the ones that have come before. Commitment to an archival perspective enables you, as a leader, to help your organization find its way forward.

For your sanity, it is important to remember that becoming a good archivist doesn’t necessarily mean keeping everything. Any compelling story requires development, and whether by loss or by the introduction of a better idea, sometimes this development requires us to let go of possessions, practices and people. While packing to move, I left some things behind, things that weren’t crucial to my life now because they didn’t contribute to the story of who I am. In doing so, I freed up a little space — blank pages, if you will — on which to continue the next chapter of my story.

Keeping Perspective in Nonprofit Management

Why did you get into nonprofit management? Was it to become a bold-faced name in the society pages? For a summer home in the Hamptons, perhaps? Or was it for a different reason — were you motivated, as so many are, by the desire to make a positive impact and to help people?

I’ve been involved in nonprofits for my entire career, and in all of those years, nearly every client, coworker and student has been there for a bigger reason than just a paycheck. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a return to a disturbing and saddening trend – nonprofit CEOs and executive directors caught with their hands in the till. Although I’ll decline to name examples, I’m sure you can think of a few.

Why do so many heads of nonprofits get into trouble?


Don’t be distracted by the trappings of wealth

I think it has to do with perspective. When you work as hard as many nonprofit leaders do, you may become disenchanted with the discrepancy between your lifestyle and many of your biggest donors. Seeing the chairman of your board drive up to the board meeting every week in his $90,000 car may be a distraction. Although you entered the business of nonprofits to help people, the allure of a brass chandelier in your office can become blinding, and the money to pay for it seems readily available, although earmarked for a program for children.

To counteract this siren’s call, it’s important to maintain your perspective. Rather than meet at a pricey restaurant or club for lunch, for example, one client of mine had VIPs eat the same food the nonprofit serves its consumers, right in the same cafeteria. The lunch effectively reminded the donors who their efforts and support were helping and their reasons for involvement – all the while keeping the heads of the organization humble. Doing so allowed everyone involved to be inspired and motivated by the organization’s real purpose.

While I can’t say for sure what motivates the reprehensible behavior of nonprofit heads who skim or cheat, I know that these episodes offer an important lesson. A career of nonprofit management can be very high stress and often underpaid, relative to your major donors. Rather than succumb to the pressure and temptations, the best thing for a nonprofit lead to do is to remain true to the goal of his/her organization and to remember why he/she chose that path. Suddenly, a brass chandelier seems less attractive.