Are You Really The Storyteller You Think You Are?

FastCompany had an article about Five Ways Non Profits Struggle last month.

Most of the things mentioned aren’t really news to you if you work in non profits: Restrictions on how grants and donations can be used, employee burn out, ineffective use of data collection and lack of access to capital.

The assertion that,

…most organizations don’t engage in fundraising experimentation because they’re worried about the perception that it might create. There’s a tendency adhere to a set formula–the portion of operations supported by grants, individual contributions, or mission-related revenues–without thinking about how impact can change if you get creative.

was somewhat intriguing. Perhaps I will investigate that idea a little more in the future.

It was the fifth point, however, that I hadn’t expected to see on the list.

53% of nonprofit leaders spend less than two hours preparing for a speech

That’s especially scary considering only 10% of people in the sector consider themselves to be well-trained storytellers, according to Janus’s research. At the same time, there’s a huge payoff for those who learn how to talk engagingly about their mission.

Now arguably, this might not make the top 5 problems facing non-profit leaders, but it could certainly constitute a barrier to success.

While I have encountered a number of people who did a poor job making their case or were deadly boring, I never considered that it might be lack of preparation that contributed to that problem. I think we have all encountered teachers/professors who have a reputation for being boring that spans years. Their problem was more attributable to delivery rather than lack of repetition.

On the other hand, if you do consider yourself a good storyteller and feel that process is an important part of garnering investment and interest in your mission, then it does behoove you to invest time in development and preparation.

This article made me recall how I was recently asked to deliver two talks within a couple days of each other. I was keenly aware that I was much more comfortable discussing content I had spoken on before and felt I did a more effective job delivering it. Even still, I probably practiced and tweaked it for 5-7 hours.

Even though I wasn’t as comfortable delivering the second speech, I invested close to 20 hours developing and rehearsing it.  I suspect when I get some more distance from it, I will be able to go back and cut a lot of extraneous content so I can do a better job on the topic the next time out.

It is admittedly not easy to find the time to do justice to a speech with so many immediate demands on your time. The two talks I recently delivered were definitely a nights and weekends endeavor. It is very much like the situation where the you could do something ten times in the time it takes you to teach a new employee to do the job to a half way acceptable level. In the long term, however, that initial investment can become a long term benefit to the organizational mission.

Data Vs. Your Gut

When I was thinking about what to write today, I figured a good intersection between yesterday’s post about productive employees not necessarily being good manager material and Drew McManus’ recent post about the “Shit Arts Administrators Say” Twitter account is Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, “Three Phrases That Effective Leaders Do Not Say”

Written last summer, Dilenschneider’s primary goal is to advocate for a proper approach to using all the data arts leaders have available to them. She argues that it can often feel easier, and therefore preferable, to rely on gut instinct rather than think critically about what is best for the organization.

Dilenschneider goes to great effort to explain these ideas so visit her page rather than being satisfied with my synopsis.

That said, in brief, the three phrases and suggested alternatives are:

1) “That doesn’t apply to me”
Say instead: “Let’s uncover the extent to which this finding applies to our organization, and explore what can be learned from this information.”

2) “I agree/disagree with the data”
Say instead: “Given these findings, I think our biggest challenge is…

3) “We need more information before we can do anything (on this topic where we already have meaningful information)”
Say instead, “Let’s consider what needs to change and what items need to be tackled to make the most of this information.”

It is in connection with phrase 2, that she addresses the problem of insiders using their gut feelings by warning against things like weighing the opinion of one person (board chair/executive director) more heavily than the hundreds/thousand whose responses comprise the data. Likewise, she points out that not only aren’t industry insiders the target market for the services and products arts organizations provide, insiders tend to have all sorts of blind spots and skewed perspectives due to their position.

One thing she doesn’t mention here, though I am sure she would acknowledge, is that it takes work to understand and evaluate whether data is valid and relevant to you.   It is often also easier to utter these phrases than to invest the time to look at the methodology behind the data to determine whether the results are dependable.

For example, radio and television stations trying to sell you ad space will cite all sorts of numbers about how much exposure you will get. With a little thought, you will quickly come to realize you won’t be reaching anywhere near those numbers as a result of any number of factors.  Your experience as a consumer helps inform a healthy skepticism.

When faced with data for an area in which you have no frame of reference or expertise, it can definitely require some effort to understand and evaluate. It is much more expedient and comfortable to go with one’s gut.

Dilenschneider does say there are times in which these phrases are useful. Note that final caveat though:

  • For instance, it’s a good idea to say, “That doesn’t apply to me” after you’ve collected the data and understand the true extent to which it applies to your organization, and you’ve found that it doesn’t.
  • It’s okay to say, “I disagree with this data” to discount findings when it is data about you and only you.
  • And it’s wise to say, “We need more information before we can do anything,” when it’s a big or expensive change and the takeaway is unclear. In such a case, you should absolutely gather more information!

This said, these phrases are all too often uttered defensively. If these words are about to escape your lips, think twice.

Your Resolution To Create Connections With Arts And Culture Starts Today! (or maybe tomorrow depending on when you read this)

For over two years now I have been talking about Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative to build public will for arts and culture.

While readers have had an opportunity to review the materials on the website, few have been able to attend the Arts Midwest presentations and ask questions in person.

Well you are in luck! Tomorrow, Tuesday, December 19 @ noon CST Creating Connection program manager Anne Romens will be hosting a webinar to discuss the project and findings. You can register by following that link.

Anne also hosted a webinar on the subject last week. The video of that webinar is available if you don’t have the opportunity to participate on Tuesday. You’ll want to pay attention around the 33 minute mark for the shout out to some work I have been doing.

Even if you don’t think you will become the full throated advocate for the project that I am, at the very least you can come away from the webinar with some tips on how to change your messaging and promotional materials to be more audience and experience focused.

The webinar comes at the right time to allow you to resolve to do a better job in the New Year so check it out.

When You Realize Your Hip “Wear Jeans” Series Audience Is Actually More Conservative Than The Masterworks Audience

Earlier this year, I wrote about studies funded by the Wallace Foundation that helped Ballet Austin gain some insight about their audiences. Recently I discovered the Wallace Foundation had supported a similar study by the Seattle Symphony.

The piece is a short read, but if you don’t even have time for that, watch the accompanying video. There are some interesting contrasts between what the symphony assumed and the reality.

The study focused on three programs the symphony felt would connect with younger and newer audiences: Untuxed, an informal series where the musicians perform sans-tux (and black dress). Start time is earlier and program duration is no longer than 75 minutes.

Sonic Evolution – a series that draws on the influences and music of Seattle area pop music bands and incorporates video.

The third series is Untitled, a late night (10 pm start) chamber series set in the lobby with alternative seating and special mood lighting featuring “challenging 20th and 21st century compositions.”

What they found was that only the Untuxed series had a significant draw for new audiences. They were also interested to learn that the audience for the edgy Untitled series skewed older than they had anticipated.

Somewhat to the administration’s initial disappointment, the Untuxed audience seemed to prefer the “greatest hits” of classical music, making the tastes of the Masterworks audience look progressive by comparison.

They appreciated works like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein’s Candide Overture—nothing more adventurous. “Untuxed is actually the most conservative audience that we have,” said Wade; they wanted music that they “know and love.”

…said one audience member. “I love the fact that it is ‘the best of’.” Another, who found the music “relaxing,” agreed and voiced appreciation for Untuxed’s other key draw—its early start and short span. “I am going to be able to make it home for my kids’ bedtime, and that means a lot to me,” she said.

They had also hoped that Untuxed would be an on-ramp to transition audiences to their core Masterworks series. Unfortunately, few have made that transition. In fact, most people who attended Untuxed had attended a Masterworks concert first. The good news, however, was that the cheaper Untuxed series didn’t cannibalize the Masterworks audience as was first feared.

…Untuxed, like Sonic Evolution and Untitled, is a separate program—or brand extension—neither more nor less. But all three are valuable, even without affecting attendance at the core Masterworks concerts, because they draw new audiences to Benaroya Hall. They are providing, as Wade says, “another lens on the orchestra,” taking SSO deeper into the community.

Among the other steps Seattle Symphony Orchestra is taking to grow their audiences is directly approaching businesses, hotels, condominiums and apartment complexes in the downtown area with ticket offers for employees and residents. That effort brought in $177,000 in sales to new or lapsed audiences.

They are really focusing on customer service training at every level and making a special effort to welcome new attendees.

SSO has also created a “Surprise and Delight” program for new subscribers. In it, staff members greet them by name when they arrive at Benaroya Hall and tell them SSO is glad they’ve come. “What we found,” said Wade, “is that, in fact, the people that we greet renew at a significantly higher rate than people that we don’t greet.” In the 2016-17 season, that tally was 41 percent versus 29 percent.

At each concert, about 35 new members also hear a buzz when their ticket is scanned, and are told to go to the information desk. “They are looking curious,” Kunkel said—and about five to seven of the 35 never go to the desk, he added. Those who do, however, are thanked and given free drink tickets. “Their concern falls away,” said Kunkel, who works the desk, “and they get a big smile on their faces.”

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