What we need is a little optimism

optimist-citationI was going through some dusty old things the other day and found a “Youth Appreciation Week Citation” I received in 1969 from the Optimist Club of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Wow, I thought, that’s a long time ago!

What was ironic is that I had just written a blog about the importance of optimism for Aartrijk, a content marketing firm here in the DC area. If ever there were a time when we needed a little optimism, 2017 would be it. Can you think of a more fractured, divisive or uncertain time than today?

Well, yes…1969, as a matter of fact. The year the Optimists gave me that citation was not exactly a tranquil moment in our nation’s history. Nixon was sworn in as president, and the Vietnam War and protests against it were in full swing. The Woodstock music festival was that summer. It was a time of sexual experimentation, counterculture politics, long hair, drugs and psychedelic music, pop art (remember Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can?), feminism, environmentalism, radicalism and revolution.

I suppose if I wanted to be glib, I could say that it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. If you had just been drafted or were fighting for equal rights, you might have thought it was the worst of times. But on July 15, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and everyone in America cheered, you surely thought it was the best of times.

Having lived through Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the Reagan revolution and the Clinton impeachment, I take the long view. I don’t like this era’s vitriol, the intolerance and the downright meanness of our discourse. But I remain optimistic. I can’t explain why, but I think we’re going to be okay. And so I give you the Optimist’s Creed, written by Christian Larson in 1912 and adopted by Optimist International in 1922:

The Optimist’s Creed

Promise Yourself…

To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.

To make all your friends feel that there is something worthwhile in them.

To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.

To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.

To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.

To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

To wear a cheerful expression at all times and give a smile to every living creature you meet.

To give so much time to improving yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

To think well of yourself and to proclaim this fact to the world, not in loud word but in great deeds.

To live in the faith that the whole world is on your side, so long as you are true to the best that is in you.

Christian D. Larson

In my post for Aartrijk, I noted that optimism is good for your health, too. Here are a few points to consider:

  • Studies show that people who look on the bright side have fewer heart problems and better cholesterol readings. “Even more impressive is the impact of a positive outlook on overall health and longevity,” notes the Harvard Medical School “Research tells us that an optimistic outlook early in life can predict better health and a lower rate of death during follow-up periods of 15 to 40 years.”
  • The Mayo Clinic catalogues a host of benefits from positive thinking, including lower rates of depression, better coping skills during hardships and times of stress, and greater resistance to the common cold.

Would you like to put more optimism in your life? The folks at the Mayo Clinic recommend that you cut down on negative thoughts and focus on positive ones, be open to humor, follow a healthy lifestyle and surround yourself with positive people.

Seems like a good prescription for our times.

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Writing: the fundamental building block of communications

Last month, I was interviewed by Jimmy Minichello for the Public Relations Society of America – National Capital Chapter’s Insider newsletter. I talked about the basics of good writing in this video.

I firmly believe that good writing is the fundamental building block of communications. It takes a passion for storytelling, a keen sense of curiosity and lots of practice! For more on writing, see these previous posts:

Does writing still matter? Let me count the ways

Can’t think of a good lead? Try writing a story

Tips for making your writing plain, clear and scrupulous

Strunk & White’s little book on style still packs a punch

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How to succeed in business the ‘indie’ way

idea-1855598_1280Last month, I invited Ami Neiberger-Miller and Sandra Wills Hannon to speak at our Independent Public Relations Alliance meeting about what it takes to become a successful independent practitioner.

Both Ami and Sandra are long-time members of IPRA and have built thriving businesses. Ami’s company, Steppingstone LLC, provides communications and graphic design services to nonprofits, associations and small businesses. Sandra’s The Hannon Group LLC helps clients engage consumers through research-based public information campaigns.

The points that Ami and Sandra made were good advice for anyone thinking about starting a business—or wondering how they might take their business to the next level.

Here are the five main takeaways from Ami’s presentation:

  1. Network with people, not with computers or Twitter handles. “Find a water cooler crowd. I my case, it was IPRA—people  who would celebrate success with me, give me advice when I needed it, and support me when life didn’t go well.”
  2. Learn from others the things you don’t know and keep striving to improve. “One of the challenges I faced is that I didn’t come from a PR agency. So I had to learn how to market myself, compete for business and service clients. I learned through trial and error, read a lot of advice online and had coffee with wonderful people like my co-presenter Sandra. I partnered with others who knew things I didn’t know.”
  3. Be shrewd about your time. “I did a lot of networking early on. But I became more shrewd about how I invested my time. I’ve dropped my membership in organizations that don’t lead to the type of clients we want or take too much time. I’m also shrewd about my work time. I’m aware of the time I spend on deliverables, billing or marketing. So efficiency is important.”
  4. Invest in building a public persona and good systems. “My first website and business cards were awful. I made them myself. Lucky for me, my husband is a graphic designer and he joined the firm. Today, I have a much better website, a well-developed blog, a LinkedIn profile, a business Facebook page and a very active Twitter feed with about 7,000 followers. It’s important to have sound financial management tools, too. I use QuickBooks Self-Employed, and I love it.”
  5. Persevere and keep a cushion. “I always advise people who are self-employed to keep a cushion, a cash reserve. It gives you options.”

About four years ago, Sandra started landing large contracts and needed to staff up to stay competitive. She now employees 50 people and has done work for NIH, General Motors and the White House, among others.

Sandra advises solo practitioners to identify their niche, i.e., what they’re good at, and to develop that market. By creating a virtual agency of specialists who complemented her skills and experience, she was also able to offer more to her clients than she could possibly offer on her own.

“Collaboration is important in growing a business,” she says. “By collaborating, you can expand your subject expertise, extend your capabilities and enlarge the scope of your business. You can attract new clients and offer them more.”

She credits the success and growth of her practice to building good teams, sharing the work and delivering superior customer service. She has taken as her business model the PR agency approach, assembling teams based on client needs and projects, and focusing on client satisfaction and retention.

“I am constantly looking for new ways of partnering,” she says. At the same time, she has become selective in responding to RFPs, mindful of what her niche is and what her firm can offer prospective clients.

Both Sandra and Ami believe in giving back and have been active members of IPRA and other professional groups. They have made the indie life work for them and are good examples for others who might want to take the plunge.

Says Ami, “Having an independent practice has allowed me to balance my work and home life. My husband and I work mostly from our home office on the third floor of an old house we are renovating in western Loudoun County. Our practice supports our family, and we are on the leading edge of the new economy—one where people work for multiple clients and on their own terms.”

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Instead of time management, consider energy management

runner-888016_640Time is something that we constantly obsess about. An army of business consultants and self-help gurus has made millions with countless time management courses, day planners, books and apps that we eagerly devour.

Organize your day, get through all your emails, conduct efficient meetings, tackle big projects, eliminate distractions, carve out time for family and personal fulfillment—you can do it all if you just learn to master time!

Yet we may be stressing about the wrong things. A new generation of consultants now says we should focus more on managing our personal energy—not our time. I have to say, there’s something to it. There are only so many hours in a day that we can be productive. The human body just wasn’t made to go full-bore for 12-16 hours straight. Energy management recognizes that your day has its ups and downs—energy peaks and valleys. It suggests that you build in breaks where you can rest and reenergize.

Personal energy expert Tony Schwartz notes in a New York Times essay, “Human beings aren’t meant to operate like computers—at high speeds, continuously, for long periods. Instead, we’re physiologically designed to pulse, to move rhythmically between spending and renewing energy.”

Drawing on research by sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, Schwartz explains that our bodies need a break about every 90 minutes. Unfortunately, he says, we override those signals with coffee, sugar and stress hormones.

“In a workday devoid of real breaks, we don’t think as clearly, logically or creatively in the eighth hour as we did in the second,” Schwartz says. “We don’t listen as attentively in the third hour of an endless meeting as we did during the first. Put in too many hours, too continuously, and collateral damage eventually ensues, in the form of disengagement, broken relationships, sickness and a lower quality of work.”

There are many sources for learning more about managing your personal energy, including Schwartz’s 2007 Harvard Business Review article, “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” where he talks about his research with employees at Wachovia Bank. The employees in Schwartz’s control group practiced energy-renewing techniques and performed better in a range metrics, from engagement and personal satisfaction to customer relations and loan production.

Managing your energy starts with eliminating those things in your life that can deplete your energy levels. It isn’t hard to figure out what those are:

Are you working too many hours without any clear boundaries?

Are you getting enough sleep?

Are you eating properly?

Are you exercising?

Do you let too many things worry you?

While you work on removing these energy zappers, you can also begin to rearrange your day to maximize bursts of peak energy and build in time for renewal. Here are a few tips:

  • Make a list of activities that give you energy. Examples might include taking a short walk, sharing ideas with a friend or colleague, listening to music or meditating. Make sure you are doing these every day.
  • Schedule your work so you “sprint” in blocks of 90-120 minutes. Try not to have interruptions during this time so you can totally focus on your work. Do not multi-task during your peak energy times.
  • After each sprint, relax and do one of your energy-renewing activities. Make sure your breaks are long enough. Most people don’t allow themselves nearly enough time to recover.
  • Resist scheduling back-to-back meetings or an impossible travel schedule. Give yourself enough time to unwind, breathe and enjoy yourself.
  • Break down big projects and goals into smaller steps. Reward yourself and your team when milestones are achieved.
  • Stay positive. Learn to avoid or minimize the amount of time spent with individuals who are a drain on your energy. Encourage your employees to bring you solutions, not just problems.
  • Get your family and friends to help you prioritize your time so you can spend quality time with them. Allow them to hold you accountable for your downtime.
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Credit unions are proving to be a smart alternative to banks

sept-oct-tfcuCredit unions are on a roll. In March, I wrote about the gains they’ve made in auto lending (“Credit unions rev up for growth”). In the most recent issue of The Federal Credit Union, I write about their equally impressive progress in the mortgage-lending space (“Credit unions gain ground by focusing on member needs“).

Consumers are catching on that these member-owned institutions are a smart alternative to banks and finance companies. Credit unions are increasing their market share and beating out bigger competitors because they’re in business to serve their members, not make a profit.

As I note in this most recent piece, mortgage lending dipped across the board for all lenders during the housing crisis. But credit union lending rebounded in 2010 and began to increase; lending at other institutions, however, continued to fall and then leveled out.

As a result, credit union mortgage growth rates have outstripped bank mortgage growth rates every year since 2008. Credit union market share grew from 1.9 percent of originations in 2005 to nearly 8 percent in 2015—a fourfold increase in just 10 years!

It’s ironic that at about the same time my mortgage story graced the cover of TFCU, news accounts began surfacing of widespread illegal practices at Wells Fargo Bank. The bank was fined a record $185 million by regulators for secretly opening unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts to boost sales figures. Apparently 2 million sham accounts were opened, and 5,300 employees were fired for ethics violations.

After looking at my article again the other day, I think some of the words carry even more weight in light of the Wells Fargo scandal:

Credit unions were formed to serve the needs of their members, not private investors…Their members-first approach has become a winning formula—superior products and competitive prices, coupled with a high degree of service and loyalty.

If you don’t belong to a credit union, maybe you should. They offer the same products and services you’d get at a large bank but with fewer fees, higher returns on your savings, and lower rates on loans and credit cards. And chances are no one will illegally open an account in your name just to collect a sales commission.

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Start your day in a good mood and get more done

Meditation FaceHow does your day start?

Meditation? Exercise? Reading? Or maybe you have to get the kids ready for school, solve a family crisis or battle traffic.

Arriving at work with a positive attitude isn’t always easy—especially if your day starts with an argument or an accident on the freeway—but there are things you can do to eliminate stress and begin your day in the right frame of mind.

First, it’s important to understand that mood affects productivity. This is especially true with creative endeavors such as writing and design, or in those instances where you interact with customers or work on teams.

A few years ago, researchers Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk studied the work habits of call center representatives at a Fortune 500 company. The representatives who started the day in a good mood delivered superior results and felt more positive after their calls. Colleagues who arrived in a bad mood suffered a dip in productivity of up to 10 percent.

Writing about their research in The Wall Street Journal, Rothbard noted, “Many organizations wrongly assume that employees dealing with things like stressful commutes or worrisome family problems can simply check their emotions at the door. Most can’t. But there are steps that both employees and employers can take to reset the bad moods that compromise job performance.

“One important way employees can reset a negative mood on their own is by creating a so-called intentional transition. That might mean stopping for a coffee, listening to a favorite piece of music or taking a more scenic route to the office. As our findings show, it’s more than just a feel-good strategy—it can set the stage for making a better impression at work.”

Adds Jo Miller in a Daily Muse post, “A positive mood lifts your brain’s dopamine levels, resulting in improved cognitive performance. So build a mood-lifter into your commute, whether it’s listening to music, calling a friend for a virtual coffee chat, watching an uplifting TED talk or catching a highlight from your favorite late night show, and enjoy the resulting boost in brainpower as you arrive at your desk.”

I have to admit that I am rarely early for an appointment, but I find that when I build extra travel time into my schedule my mood is much better. So another simple strategy is to just leave your house 10 minutes earlier than you normally would for work or a meeting.

Having a mantra—a favorite quote, saying or prayer—that you can say to yourself in stressful situations is helpful, too. A mantra keeps you centered and focused on what is important in your life and helps you recognize and eliminate those things that are distractions.

The interesting thing about Rothbard and Wilk’s research is that employees who started their day in a good mood tended to stay that way throughout the day. They felt better after talking with customers and provided better service on subsequent calls. Unfortunately, those who arrived in a bad mood also tended to stay that way.

Managers and organizations can help facilitate better moods by creating a culture that encourages a positive start to the day. Fairly easy tactics include building in time for socializing at the beginning of the work day, having food available (cookies, for example), holding quick motivational meetings and sending emails that contain positive messages about the company’s goals.

How about you? How do you get yourself or your staff in a positive frame of mind?

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Can’t think of a good lead? Try writing a story

Writer at typewriterRemember those boring expository writing assignments in high school? Everything had to fit neatly into a three-step formula: 1) an introductory paragraph with a thesis, 2) supporting paragraphs and 3) a conclusion that summarized your ideas. Those kinds of essays are a struggle to write, and frankly no one likes reading them, either!

Then there’s the tried-and-true inverted pyramid, where you answer the “five W’s” in your lead paragraph and present supporting information in descending order of importance. It’s a form favored by newspapers because readers can glean the essential points from your summary lead, and editors can cut the story from the bottom up without losing any key facts.

This historic lead sentence from an Associated Press reporter is considered one of the earliest examples of the inverted pyramid style:

Washington, Friday, April 14, 1865

The President was shot in a theater to-night and perhaps mortally wounded.

There’s no doubt that the inverted pyramid is an efficient way to write. It satisfied the needs of publishers in the Industrial Age when news was often received by telegraph, pages were laid out by hand and typesetters had to be able to cut stories on the fly if they didn’t fit. In the Digital Age, these concerns are no longer an issue. There is room to tell a good story and employ the techniques of fiction to reel in the reader.

In summarizing the case for abandoning the inverted pyramid, Chip Scanlan of The Poynter Institute writes, “The inverted pyramid…tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle and end. Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers to stay awake, let alone read on.”

So if you’re struggling to find the perfect lead for an article or press release, perhaps it’s time to break free of the shackles of the inverted pyramid or expository style. Just as news outlets have been experimenting with alternative forms of reporting, PR firms are using new kinds of storytelling to reach and influence audiences.

Here are a few forms you might try:

The hourglass formula: If you give your readers all the news upfront, they may not stick around to read the rest of the story. Try the hourglass approach with important news in the beginning, a transition designed to hold your readers’ interest in the middle and a big conclusion at the end.

The classic fairy tale: We’ve been entertained since childhood with “once-upon-a-time” stories. The formula is pretty simple: Set the scene; introduce a conflict or complication; resolve the conflict/complication; and describe how the story ends. Or try the upside-down version that begins with the ending, gives the background, leads to the main action and then provides a conclusion.

News feature story: Pioneered by The Wall Street Journal, this form seeks to explain the news rather than report it. It typically begins with an anecdotal lead to hook the reader and then moves into a balanced explanation of both sides of an issue. Its hallmark is the “nut graph,” a paragraph that puts everything into context and makes the case for why the reader should care.

Feature/news story: PR writing coach Ann Wylie describes a hybrid form of news release that “has a feature head and an inverted pyramid tail. The beauty of this beast is that it brings the story to life at the top with a feature lead, nut graph and background section…Use it when you have a story that would benefit from a feature lead but that needs a just-the-facts-ma’am resolution.”

There are other forms you might consider, too. For example, infographics, FAQs and listicles have become popular ways of presenting information via the Internet. Choose the form that works best to tell your story and connect with your audience. Give your readers a compelling reason to read what you’ve written, not an empty formula you learned in high school.

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Memorial Day: ‘The Victory for what it lost and gained’

Angel in cemeteryI’ve never lost a family member or friend to war. So it is hard for me to imagine the feelings Memorial Day must stir up in those who have been close to someone who never came home.

Robert Frost lost his best friend, the British poet Edward Thomas, to World War I. Thomas enlisted in the war and was killed in less than two months at Vimy Ridge on Easter, 1917. Frost had urged Thomas to write poetry and published a volume of his poems in the U.S.

“So close was the friendship that had developed between them that Thomas and Frost planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming,” writes Matthew Hollis in a 2011 article for The Guardian (“Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war“). Indeed, Frost called Thomas “the only brother I ever had.”

In his 1920 poem “To E.T.,” Frost struggles to reconcile what is lost and gained in victory when a brother is taken from us in war. Memorial Day seems like a good day to remember not just those who died protecting our freedoms but the ones who were left behind to grieve and wonder what might have been.

To E.T.

By Robert Frost

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

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Standing with others may be the first step to helping them


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived to be 82 and had a remarkable career as a writer, philosopher, scientist and statesman.

I have been thinking these last few days about a quotation attributed to the German writer Goethe:

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”

It’s one of those inspirational quotes you might see on Facebook, but does it hold up under scrutiny?

Having just finished reading Gregory Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart,” which I mentioned a few posts back, I’ve been in a more accepting frame of mind lately. Boyle’s message is that everyone has intrinsic value—even the gang members he works with in East Los Angeles. A Jesuit priest, Boyle notes that Jesus loved everyone, no matter who they were (leper, prostitute, tax collector, criminal—there was room for everyone in the kingdom). Indeed, the only instructions we have from Jesus—and Boyle—are to love one another, especially those who may be different from us. Accept, understand and cherish them for who they are, not for who you wish they could be.

Boyle paraphrases the words of a Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, who says the truest measure of compassion lies not in our service to those on the margins but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. The only way we can eliminate slavery, poverty and other social injustice, Boyle says, is to stand with those who are suffering: “We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing.”

This is heady stuff—and hard to do. I suppose it is the difference between handing a homeless person a few bucks and inviting them to have lunch with you at Denny’s. It is far easier to give someone money and be on your way, thinking that you have helped in some small way. But whether we look at a homeless person as Goethe might or through Boyle’s eyes, we diminish that person when we walk away without recognizing our kinship and their worth as a human being.

How do we help someone become the person they are capable of becoming? I think it begins with resisting the temptation to judge them or impose our values on them. If we are willing to love them and stand with them, as Boyle suggests, we can’t help but nudge them closer to their potential.

A big part of leadership and management is influencing and changing behavior. We know that a leader’s job is to create expectations. We know from psychology, management science and experience that when you expect more, you generally get more. When you expect less, you get less. You treat people the way you want to be treated.

Boyle illustrates this principle over and over in his book. Between the poignant stories of life and death are the truly human and funny incidents he relates—taking a homie to a clothing store to buy a suit, treating homies to a nice restaurant meal or flying them to Washington to meet the president. He accepts these homeboys and girls for who they are, but he also says, in effect, “When you’re with me, you can expect to be treated as an equal, as a member of my family. You are my kin.”

I think we can rewrite Goethe for modern times (à la Boyle) as: “If I accept you as others see you, I will make you worse; however, if I validate you and treat you as one of my own, I will help you become the person you are capable of becoming.”

Boyle shows us that it takes courage and faith to change our perceptions and behavior towards those who are on the margins, but it is possible. I think the lessons from Tattoos on the Heart are also transferable to our everyday lives. We can’t expect employees, family members or friends to change if we don’t first meet them where they are—then move forward together in the realization that we must remove the barriers between “us” and “them” before we can help someone become the person they are capable of becoming.

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