Stand and deliver: how to give impromptu remarks like a pro

Mark Twain

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain

You’re at a meeting, a retirement party, an awards banquet, a birthday celebration, a wedding, a funeral—any place where people are gathered. Suddenly you hear your name called. Then the dreaded, “Can you say a few words…”

You’re not prepared. You don’t know what to say. But that doesn’t matter because now all eyes are on you.

Giving impromptu remarks is as old as the art of speaking, so why do these moments catch us by surprise? Why do we stumble and falter when we should be hitting them out of the park? After all, it’s only a few words.

If you’re like me, you generally fall back on familiar themes, not really rising to the occasion or shining, just hopeful that you don’t sound too lame—and thankful when it’s over.

It’s in our nature to be anxious about public speaking. It’s part of that fight-or-flight response that’s hardwired into our genes. Our mind freezes up; we become tongue-tied; we feel like all of the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. It’s no wonder the fear of speaking in public is the number one fear, more terrifying than snakes, spiders, heights or death. There’s even a term for it: glossophobia.

Nervousness about speaking may be natural, but that doesn’t get you off the hook. You still have to stand and deliver. Here are some tips for turning those fears around and making the most of the times when you are called upon to speak extempore:

  • Give yourself some credit. There’s a reason why you’ve been asked to say a few words. You’re the subject expert, the trusted friend, the boss. You have a track record of providing insight, offering support or giving encouragement. So give yourself a little credit. You can do this.
  • Someone has to do it. There are times when we simply need to step up and say something. Think of these off-the-cuff moments as opportunities to lead, motivate or teach, to reassure or comfort, to acknowledge, to say thank you or express joy. How you handle these situations can have a huge impact on your reputation as a leader, the relationship you have with colleagues or even the future of an organization. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Step up and own it.
  • Follow a formula. Your remarks may be off the cuff, but that doesn’t mean they have to be disorganized. Good prepared speeches follow certain rules, and so do impromptu remarks. While you don’t have the luxury of developing your points or rehearsing, you can follow a logical format. Consider these strategies:
    • Tell a story. Storytelling is one of the best ways to connect with an audience. Even if you have just have two minutes, you can still recount the first time you met someone or give an interesting anecdote from your career that is germane to the topic.
    • Answer the 5 Ws. Answering the classic who, what, where, when and why is a great way to succinctly convey information, especially if you are called upon to speak at a meeting.
    • Give pros and cons. There are times when you may find it useful to summarize the issue, give the pros and the cons, and then suggest a conclusion.
    • Use Q&A. Asking a question and then answering it is another approach you might try. You may also be able to get your audience to ask you questions.
    • Follow P.R.E.P. Used by Toastmasters, Point, Reason, Example, Point may be one of the easiest ways of organizing your thoughts. Make your main point, give the reason(s) for stating this point, back it up with an example or two, then conclude by reiterating your point. For more ideas, see this how-to from Toastmasters.
  • Breathe. Pause and take a few deep breaths. Stand up if it’s appropriate. Standing gives you more power and helps you project your voice if you are soft-spoken. Collect your thoughts and then consider which formula you will use to deliver your remarks.
  • Say what needs to be said and no more. No one asked you to give a speech. While you may be tempted to go on about your topic, remember it’s just a few words! Try to limit yourself to just one main point.
  • Be prepared. As the old saying goes, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” If you think you might be called on to say something, be ready. I remember being asked to speak at a funeral just as the service started. The family had said they didn’t want any speakers, but they changed their mind at the last minute. Luckily, I had jotted down some ideas beforehand—just in case. As a result, I was able to organize my thoughts and deliver a much better tribute than if I had not prepared ahead of time.
  • Practice. There is really only one way to reduce your fear of public speaking and become better at it, and that—ironically—is to do more of it. If you want to improve your delivery, boost your confidence and chase away those butterflies, consider volunteering to speak. Ask your boss if you can present at the next staff meeting. Try your hand at Toastmasters. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel giving impromptu remarks.
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‘The blissful cloud of summer-indolence’

John Keats

John Keats in 1819, the year he wrote “Ode on Indolence.”

The other day, when I should have been working, I picked up a paperback that had been lying around the house—Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Normally, I don’t give much credence to book blurbs, but I have to say the words “utterly engrossing,” “mesmerizing,” “addictive” and “compelling” held true for this page-turner.

All morning, it was a game of cat and mouse. I’d read a few pages of Larsson; then I’d get back to work. By mid-afternoon, I was hooked, and the rest of the day was irretrievably lost to the girl with the tattoo.

I suppose that once in a while it’s okay to take a mental health day. But it raises questions, especially for those of us who are self-employed or run our own business. How much downtime do we allow ourselves? How often do we hang up a “gone fishing” sign and knock off early?

Last year, I worked nearly every day. I took off one day in June and a few days around Christmas. This year, I am trying to be more balanced. I took off a week in January, and I have another week of vacation planned next month. I’m also trying to set aside time each day to relax and think.

What’s that, you say? Slacker?

Actually, a lot of artists and psychologists will tell you that a little laziness, daydreaming or just goofing off are good for creative thinking. In describing her writing routine, Joyce Carol Oates once said, “I have always spent most of my time staring out the window, noting what is there, daydreaming or brooding.”

I prefer the word indolence. Indolence has its origin in the Latin “indolentia,” meaning freedom from pain. It’s a neutral state in which neither pain nor pleasure is felt, hence its association with idleness and laziness. So if the curse of our human condition is pain and toil and suffering (and busyness), you might say that indolence is its reprieve.

Steinbeck quote

I don’t regard indolence as a character defect—as was once thought—or the moral equivalent of sloth, one of those seven deadly sins we’re supposed to avoid at all cost. No, I view indolence more charitably—not a virtue but not necessarily bad, either. As Steinbeck says of laziness, it’s a state that’s conducive to contemplation. Without it, there can be no balance in our lives.

The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote his “Ode on Indolence” in the spring of 1819. It’s a mediocre poem compared to “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Mockingbird,” which he finished the same year. Yet, Keats told a friend, “the thing I have most enjoyed this year is writing an ode to Indolence.”

In a letter to his brother George, Keats said of indolence, “In this state…the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown…This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.”

Indolence, then, is that sweet spot where the cares of this world melt away, if only temporarily. Indolence must have tugged at Keats because he had a lot to worry about in his short life. He had given up studying to become a surgeon so that he could devote his life to poetry, a decision he brooded over because he knew he would never have any money. His father had died when Keats was just eight. His mother died six years later of consumption, a disease that would take away his brother Tom and cut short Keats’ life at the age of 25.

The epigraph for the poem, “They toil not, neither do they spin,” comes from Matthew 6:28, where “they” refers to the lilies of the field. The verse is part of Jesus’ admonition not to worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air, Jesus says; they don’t sow or reap, and yet God feeds them. Or take the lilies. They don’t labor or spin, yet they are dressed in splendor.

It’s a message that Keats would have appreciated. Giving up the rigors of a medical career to devote his life to writing enabled him to become one of England’s greatest poets. The irony is that he would never know success in his life, nor was he ever made aware of a sizable inheritance that would have made his life much easier.

Needless to say, whenever we strike out on our own, we have our share of doubts and setbacks—both imagined and real. Brief periods of indolence are to be expected, perhaps even prescribed. They provide a respite from worry and stress, give us time to rejuvenate, and prepare us for bursts of creativity and inspiration.

So it’s okay to listen to a nightingale, lose yourself in a novel, walk along the beach or simply delight in “the blissful cloud of summer-indolence.”

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So you want to be a CEO?

Tomorrow's LeadersLast month, an article I wrote on “Tomorrow’s Leaders” landed on the cover of The Federal Credit Union magazine, NAFCU’s bimonthly publication. Back in August, when I was interviewing credit union CEOs for the piece, I shared some of their “secrets” here on The Wayward Journey.

But as I noted then, there really aren’t any secrets to great leadership. The advice I heard from these successful leaders consisted mostly of common-sense, time-tested principles that you can apply to your own life and business, whether you work for a small firm, a large enterprise or just want to improve yourself.

Among the traits of great leaders: They never stop learning; they are good at building relationships; they possess well-honed people skills; they have a clear vision for their organization; and they are highly effective communicators.

When we put the piece together, we decided to include a sidebar called “So You Want to Be a CEO?” While the focus is obviously on credit unions, I think the advice applies to anyone who wants to get ahead. See how many of these you are doing.

So You Want to Be a CEO?

(From The Federal Credit Union magazine, November-December 2014)

Looking to move up? Read the 10 tips below from the leaders we interviewed.

  1. Practice good communications skills. Do you understand different styles of communication? Are you a good listener? Are you good at building relationships?

  2. Round out your experience at the credit union. Learn all you can about compliance, operations and lending. Develop relationships with other departments. Find out what they do and how you might assist them.

  3. Get some financial knowledge. You don’t have to be a CFO, but you do need to know your way around a balance sheet and income statement. You need to understand credit union ratios and be familiar with asset/liability management (ALM).

  4. Do your best work. You’ll get noticed if you’re willing to go the extra mile and consistently perform at a high level. Volunteer for new assignments. Have a passion for what you do.

  5. Be a lifelong learner. Broaden your horizons. Embrace new ideas. Attend conferences, take a management class, read industry trade publications and business books, sign up for webcasts. Always ask questions and seek to know more.

  6. Network with your peers and leaders. Seek out a mentor, or mentor someone else. Collaborate with others to help solve organizational problems.

  7. Increase your EQ (emotional intelligence). Work on developing your empathy, self-awareness, motivation and social skills. Pay attention to how others perceive you and whether you are communicating well. How engaged are you? Are you contributing to team building?

  8. Stay informed about credit union trends and industry issues.

  9. Have a vision and purpose for what you do. Keep the mission of helping your members foremost in your mind.

  10. Ask others for feedback and to provide you with their candid assessment of your work and management style. Better yet, seek out that person who is most critical of your work, and ask them how you can improve.

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10 ways to step out of your comfort zone

Man working at desk

What steps are you taking to get out of your comfort zone?

I read a LinkedIn post recently by Paul Lanigan on why it’s important to step out of your comfort zone if you want to be successful (“Are you smothering your own success?”). His piece had lots to say to me and perhaps others who find themselves blocked at times, not by lack of intelligence, talent or energy, but by their own insecurities and fears.

As a certified Introvert on the Myers-Brigg personality type indicator, I often find myself way out of my comfort zone. I’d say I’ve been out of my comfort zone since at least third grade. Why third grade? Because I can still remember when Ms. Mullins asked me to read aloud a story I had written. I don’t remember the story, just the class staring at me as I stumbled over my own words.

I recovered, of course, and I learned the truth of Lanigan’s main takeaway: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is just one step outside your comfort zone.”

Whenever I pushed myself, whenever I took on something that seemed way beyond my ability, whenever I raised my hand, stepped up or sometimes just showed up, it invariably led to something better. It seemed the more discomfort I was willing to endure, the more I was rewarded.

As Lanigan puts it, “Your discomfort tolerance is the number one determinant of your success. To get what others don’t, you have to do what others won’t.”

Imagine a shy, tongue-tied high school kid terrified of public speaking. What would possess him to join the debate team of all things? I’m not sure why I did, but my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner! The experience of arguing a case, and learning the rules of evidence, how to research issues and be succinct, helped me later in life to be a more persuasive writer and make key points in op-eds and columns.

We all have stories of being drawn out of our comfort zone. Sometimes it’s a step we’ve taken on our own, or maybe it’s a teacher or friend who’s nudged us a bit. Whether you’re a parent, a volunteer, an employee or a CEO, you need to step out from time to time. Here is some good advice from Lanigan on how to do it:

  1. Ask yourself if the discomfort that you’re feeling is a price worth paying for achieving your goal.

  2. Stop looking for new. This is usually an indication that you don’t want to acknowledge you haven’t mastered the old, but you want to kid yourself that you are doing something useful.

  3. Form an accountability group with like-minded people. Don’t allow excuses.

  4. Stop taking the short cut – growth is uncomfortable. There are no silver bullets.

  5. Identify the times and moments where you typically wimp out, then plan and rehearse an alternative course of action.

  6. Detach yourself from your emotions.

  7. Ask yourself – what is the worst thing that can happen – can you live with the worst case?

  8. Set clear goals that give you a clear sense of purpose.

  9. Push through your comfort zone in other areas of your life. If you are afraid of heights – tackle that fear and you will feel better about yourself immediately. You will also carry the courage it took to overcome your fear into other spheres. Courage is contagious.

  10. Make a to-do list every day and order the tasks by comfort level – not priority because overcoming discomfort should be your number one priority.

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Old dogs and new tricks: One generation sharpens another

Kids on a pier

What will define Generation Z…and what will they learn from us?

Last week, Shira Harrington of Purposeful Hire spoke about generational differences at an IPRA luncheon. Listening to her talk, I was transported back to the early days in my career when beat-up old reporters ran PR shops and the typewriter was the only technology you needed to know how to use.

Shira gave a great presentation on how to work with and reach Millennials, but in the larger context of overlapping generations—beginning with the Veterans Generation and moving on to the Baby Boomers, Generation X and then Generation Y (Millennials), the largest generation at over 80 million. Much of what she had to say I had heard before, but it made me think in new ways about my own generation, my parents’, my son’s and the generation to come after the Millennials.

As if on cue, a member of the newest generation, Generation Z, appeared at my side as I was writing this post. Kylie, age 7, watched for a moment, then asked, “How did you learn to type so fast?” I told her I learned on a typewriter and asked if she had ever seen one.

“In a museum,” she replied. I had to laugh, but I realized she was right. Where else would you see a typewriter these days!

I let Kylie type on my laptop as we talked about writing. She wrote a note to her mom and dad without any help and asked me to print it. I was surprised at how comfortable she was on the keyboard and that she knew how to change font styles and point sizes in Word.

I suspect that some day PR bosses will say they are just beat-up old content marketers, and a new generation of practitioners, Kylie’s generation, will roll their eyes and say, “You are so 2014.”

Thankfully, writing is one PR skill that hasn’t fallen out of favor and isn’t likely to in the future. Writing seems to be a hot commodity these days with storytelling all the rage and like-worthy content in high demand.

I got my start in community newspapers, then had a stint as the editor of a Washington newsletter. So I came to PR like many who toiled away in print before finding their way into the growing field of communications.

I cannot imagine good writing ever going out of style, although surely there will always be debate as to what is style and how best to engage an audience. You wouldn’t expect a copywriter today to write in iambic pentameter, but that doesn’t mean Shakespeare wasn’t one heck of a writer.

Each generation must reinvent what has come before and make it its own. In the process, one generation sharpens another. Defining moments such as the birth of the Internet, 9/11 or the Great Recession impact us all—not just Millennials or Gen Xers.

I may have started my career with the typewriter and the Compugraphic machine, but I would no sooner go back to them than a Millennial would give up his smart phone. We all arrive at the future at the same time, just with different experiences under our belts.

I had the experience of sending press releases through the mail. Gen X had the experience of creating targeted emails and using online distribution services. Millennials are masters of social media. My dad, who was a mechanical engineer, relied on a slide rule and produced detailed technical drawings by hand, but he was also an early adopter of something called the computer.

It’s interesting and helpful to know the characteristics of each generation—how they view themselves, experience the world and approach the workplace—but as Shira suggested, we shouldn’t stereotype. Nor should we forget that old dogs can, and do, learn new tricks. And sometimes in the process they teach the youngsters a thing or two.

You might be a Millennial if…

SelfieIf you need some help understanding the Millennial Generation, you can’t go wrong reading this Bulldog Reporter article that Shira Harrington recommends: “PR for Millennials: The Five-Factor Recipe for a Winning Campaign” by Talia Sinkinson.

Here are five key qualities of Millennials that Sinkinson says PR and marketing people need to keep in mind:

  1. Experential. Millennials want experiences more than things.
  2. Self-broadcasting. Millennials have a propensity for documenting themselves and their activity constantly—and then sharing it with their followers.
  3. Passion-pointed. Millennials are “Generation Us.” They are community-focused and self-organize around passion points.
  4. Authenticity of strangers. Thanks to Yelp and other social media review tools, Millennials are the first generation to trust strangers more than friends or family when making purchasing decisions.
  5. Noncommittal. Millennials don’t like commitment. They want to try things, rent for a while and share.

So when designing a campaign that targets Millennials, Sinkinson says to remember these five points:

  • Be a conduit to experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for self-broadcast.
  • Join passion-point online hubs.
  • Leverage strangers over friends.
  • Give them a taste—without the pressure to buy.
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Eliminate the inessentials and focus on the essentials

Man with phone

Photo from freerangestock.com.

Sitting in a client meeting this past week, I realized that so much of our success as managers and leaders lies in determining what we can realistically accomplish—and what we can’t.

Like most successful organizations, this client has talented people, lots of ideas, but not enough time to get everything done. So that’s where I come in—to help out and provide some guidance.

Leaving the meeting, though, I wondered how much of what we discussed would get accomplished. How would we prioritize the dozens of ideas that were thrown on the table?

You see, I am finally learning that there is a limit to what I can do. I always seem to be overreaching, and that’s when I get into trouble.

Business author Tom Peters was recently interviewed for the McKinsey Quarterly on the topic of leading in the 21st century. I thought his comments were especially pertinent in light of my meeting:

Peter Drucker once said the number-one trait of an effective leader is that they do one thing at a time. Today’s technology tools give you great opportunities to do 73 things at a time or to at least delude yourself that you are. I see managers who look like 12-year-olds with attention deficit disorder, running around from one thing to the next, constantly barraged with information, constantly chasing the next shiny thing.

The only thing on earth that never lies to you is your calendar. That’s why I’m a fanatic on the topic of time management. But when you use that term, people think, “Here’s an adult with a brain. And he’s teaching time management. Find something more important, please.” But something more important doesn’t exist.

I have written before about the importance of establishing priorities and budgeting your time. I like Jim Collins’ idea of creating a “stop-doing” list to eliminate those things that aren’t working. That allows you to focus on those things that are working.

Peter Bregman has a similar idea in his book 18 Minutes. He suggests starting your day by making two lists: a focus list and an ignore list. Your focus list consists of things you need to accomplish as well as what’s important. Your ignore list consists of those things you are willing to forego, i.e., what’s not important.

A few weeks ago, James Clear blogged about Warren Buffett’s own version of the two-list strategy. Clear tells how Buffett helped an employee focus his career by having him create a list of 25 goals. Then Buffett told his employee to circle his top five goals. The employee now had two lists: five very important goals and 20 less important goals.

Buffett asked his employee what he planned to do about the 20 goals that didn’t get circled. The employee replied that he would focus most of his energy on the top five, but he would still try to work on the other 20, too.

According to Clear, Buffett replied, “No, you’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid-at-all-cost’ list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”

Eliminating the inessential in our lives is hard because often we feel it is essential. That’s where I think Peters is right. The calendar has this wonderful way of helping us focus. There is a limit to what we can do. So why not focus on those things that we know we need to get done?

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Designers are the unsung heroes of communications

brush with colors

Good designers are one part artist and one part marketer.

I’ve been working on a white paper for one of my clients, and this past week I got to see how the designer turned my copy into a fresh, reader-friendly piece that really pops. I was truly amazed by the transformation of the text, and it reminded me once again how important good design is to public relations and marketing.

I often think designers are the unsung heroes of communications. Their work has a huge impact on how well our collateral, ads or websites are received. Good design is indispensable to reaching audiences.

Over the years, I’ve worked with good designers and bad designers. The bad ones may have a lot of talent, but they focus too much on their design and not enough on the client’s needs. Their artwork doesn’t support the text or the project’s goals. It overshadows and dominates. I guess you might call it art for art’s sake. Just as bad are those designers unwilling to take a chance. Their artwork is merely decorative, more of an ornament or embellishment of the text.

Good designers aren’t just creative; they go beyond their art to come up with design solutions that meet the client’s business objectives and support its brand identity. In a well-designed piece, you don’t really notice where text and graphics begin and end. Words and images combine to create something that is greater than the parts. It’s holistic. It has impact. And it gets results.

I’ve always obsessed over design, even as a word person. When I became the editor of the Chesapeake Post at the ripe age of 24, I spent hours poring over its pages, trying to figure out ways to streamline and modernize the layout of a tiny, sleepy weekly newspaper that hadn’t had a makeover in years.

My interest in design has continued throughout my career in public relations. For this latest white paper, my job was to research and write the piece. Still, I couldn’t help but create text boxes for sidebars and place subheads and pull quotes in the text where I thought it was appropriate.

I was tickled to see that the designer picked up on some of my ideas. But more importantly, the designer created graphics that went far beyond what I had envisioned. It was the difference between me drawing a stick figure and Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa.

You may think that you aren’t in a position to influence design. Perhaps you do media relations, plan events or write content. But even writers and planners can make design suggestions. And if it’s your project, you have no excuse for not taking an active interest in how it looks.

So what do you look for in a good designer, or what can you do to make sure the designer you already have is producing designs to your satisfaction?

Here are a couple of thoughts:

  • In addition to demonstrating artistic ability, designers need to possess a good working knowledge of production techniques. If it’s a printed piece, do they understand the printing process? How to prepare files? How to select inks? The different types of presses? If it’s a digital design, are they up on the latest technology and creative tools? Do they understand how their designs will change on mobile formats?
  • Take the time to explain the purpose of your piece and its intended audience. This is key. The designer must understand your marketing and business strategy and be able to produce a product that meets your needs. Lisa Nalewik, writing for the blog Savvytalk, suggests that in addition to being talented, designers must have an:
    • Excellent understanding of business and marketing fundamentals, particularly how to leverage business and marketing knowledge to create end products that meet or exceed a client’s goals and expectations.
    • Ability to visualize and experience end products you’re creating through the eyes of the target audience (and sometimes, multiple target audiences)…Another popular way of saying the same thing is “Being able to walk in someone else’s shoes.” In this case, the shoes of your target audience.

These last two criteria are what separate mediocre designers from truly good designers. The designers who can work magic are the ones who understand that the real measure of success is not whether a design looks pretty but whether it achieves the client’s business goals.

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Breathing life into the Valley of Dry Bones


Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” – Ezekiel 37:5


My visits to Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia’s largest prison, remind me of one of Ezekiel’s visions. It’s the one in Ezekiel 37 where God restores a valley of dry bones to life. Ezekiel records that there is a noise and rattling of bones as God breathes life into the dead.

Whenever our Kairos prison ministry team enters Greensville, God causes dry bones to rise up. The spiritually dead are awakened. Our team recently completed a four-day retreat with 42 inmates, and there was no shortage of miracles as life was breathed into the Valley of Dry Bones.

It’s hard to explain what a Kairos Weekend is all about. Some call it a short course in Christianity. While that’s correct, it really doesn’t do it justice. It’s kind of like saying that Jesus was a guy who lived 2,000 years ago and not mentioning that he’s the son of God and the redeemer of mankind.

All I can say is that during our Kairos time, we always see amazing transformations. It may not happen with every man, but it occurs with enough frequency and in such powerful ways that we know that something wonderful is at work. We know it’s not us, so it must be God.

Iron chain link

The Kairos prison ministry program is helping to break chains and renew faith.

There was a time when I would have scoffed if you told me that men behind bars could be changed simply by the power of forgiveness and love. But I have seen it with my own eyes. Men have learned to trust again, to forgive others and themselves, to live with new purpose, and to spread a message of hope and light in a place of darkness.

I admit that there was also a time when my belief in God’s healing power was about the size of a postage stamp. My bones were dry. But Kairos and Greensville changed that. I’ve gone from a postage stamp to a railroad car, and I’m working on a freight train.

On Sunday night at our closing ceremony, a group of us joined the prison’s praise band to sing about an army rising up to “Break Every Chain.” As I looked around the gymnasium filled with well over 200 people, I realized that the Valley of Dry Bones had stood up as an army, an entire room filled with inmates, visitors and our Kairos team moved by the power of Jesus.

You don’t have to attend a Kairos Weekend to see that America’s criminal justice system cries out for change. We lock up more young men in their prime than any other country, and those men are disproportionately black. We do very little to rehabilitate them and support them when they are released. Is it any wonder that many of them return to prison?

Still, we know that Kairos is making a difference in their lives. Recidivism rates go down in prisons that have Kairos and so does inmate-on-inmate violence. We know that Kairos has reunited families, restored relationships and led to jobs when inmates are released. At the very least, it gives them a new sense of decency and respect for themselves and others. For some, it is an absolute lifesaver.

About 90 percent of the incarcerated in the U.S. will be released at some point. They’ll move back home or into new neighborhoods. Not all of them will have the benefit of Kairos, but those who do will be better equipped to start their lives over. If a former resident of Greensville moves next door to me, I know I would want him to have had a Kairos experience.

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Libraries can teach us something about customer experience

libraries

The old and the new at libraries seem to make for a good customer experience. Photo from freerangestock.com.

When’s the last time you went to the library, and what did you go for?

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve used your local library’s services at least once over the past 12 months to borrow books or other media, do research, use the computers or access the Internet. That’s according to a nationwide survey conducted last December by the Pew Research Center.

You’d think in the digital age that library use would have dwindled. After all, most of the research I did as a college student can now be done on a tablet while sipping coffee at Starbucks. And books? Who needs them when you have a Kindle?

But libraries are alive and well. In fact, U.S. libraries circulate something like 2.5 billion books and other materials each year. Getting a library card is still a rite of passage for a young person or immigrant.

“Despite the Internet, it seems, libraries persist—even thrive,” the Carnegie Reporter tells us. The Reporter notes that visits per capita and circulation have gone up even as the Internet has reached into every area of American life.

It was Andrew Carnegie who almost single-handedly created America’s public library system, donating the funds to build 1,689 libraries in the U.S. starting in 1889. The hallmarks of a Carnegie Library were public support for its construction and operation, free service for all, and an open-stacks or self-service policy.

Over a hundred years later, more than half of the original Carnegie Libraries are still in use. In New York City, 31 of the original 39 libraries remain the nucleus of the New York Public Library system.

It’s amazing to me how libraries have remained vital amid change and upheaval. With the exception of schools and universities, what other institution can claim such a lasting and profound legacy as the public library system?

In the Pew survey, 91 percent of Americans aged 16 and older said public libraries are important to their communities; and 76 percent said libraries are important to them and their families.

Libraries have survived and thrived over the years by understanding their mission and putting the needs of their customers first. But it wasn’t always that way. At one time, libraries acted as reliquaries, veritable temples to learning. Librarians were the keepers of rare books and manuscripts, the guardians of knowledge. Libraries were for the privileged few, the learned, the educated, the literati—heavens, not the great, unwashed masses.

The Carnegie Libraries changed that. To have open stacks where everyone could help themselves to books, oh my gosh, what a welcome change!

Whenever I’m at a library, I love spending time in the shelves, exploring or chasing down books I’ve looked up in the catalog.

library

Did you know that next week (Oct. 19-25) is National Friends of Libraries Week?

When I was an undergraduate at U.Va., one of my favorite haunts was Alderman Library, whose open stacks occupied a series of half-floors, accessible by narrow, metal staircases. Each time I ventured into the recesses of the stacks, it was an adventure. There was no telling what I would find. As a graduate student at George Mason, I also spent many an hour in the stacks at Fenwick Library, always finding something that I didn’t know was there.

Okay, that’s me waxing nostalgic. But what makes libraries hip today?

Here are three things they continue to do right that you might want to pay attention to in your own organization:

  1. A place to go to. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about our need for a “third place” between home and work where people can gather, connect and enrich themselves and society. It could be a cafe, a hair salon, a pub…or a library. As it turns out, we don’t always like to read or study alone. Libraries are inviting spaces where people can spend time lost in a book, engage with others or attend a class or lecture. It’s safe, it’s free, you don’t have to buy anything and you can stay as long as you want. What about your business, how inviting is it to customers?
  2. Improvement. Libraries are integral to our concept of self-improvement, the idea that through education and individual initiative we can have a better life or career. As the Carnegie Reporter notes, “if you think self-improvement is dead, or is only the kind of thing people do at the gym nowadays, you need to visit a public library or two—particularly in a neighborhood full of new Americans. They need a place to go where they can pursue the mission of improvement, which after all is what made them come to this country to begin with.” Does your organization have a culture of improvement?
  3. Adaptation. If you haven’t set foot in a library since childhood, you might be surprised by what you find. Yes, there are still a lot of books. But there are rows of computers, too. And you’ll likely find CDs, DVDs and books on tape. At tax time, you’ll see volunteers helping people prepare their returns. You’ll see kids programs, job fairs, speakers, tutors, translators and teachers. There’s free Wi-Fi, and the library’s website is rich with content and free access to specialty publications and subscription-only periodicals. How much has your business changed in the last decade?

I’m excited about the new technology ideas that Pew Research asked Americans about in its study. Apparently some libraries are already exploring these. See what you think:

  • Online research services allowing patrons to pose questions and get answers from librarians: 37% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use an “ask a librarian” type of service, and another 36% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • Apps-based access to library materials and programs: 35% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 28% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • Access to technology “petting zoos” to try out new devices: 35% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 34% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • GPS-navigation apps to help patrons locate material inside library buildings: 34% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 28% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • “Redbox”-style lending machines or kiosks located throughout the community where people can check out books, movies or music without having to go to the library itself: 33% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 30% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • “Amazon”-style customized book/audio/video recommendation schemes that are based on patrons’ prior library behavior: 29% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 35% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
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