You can travel on 10,000 miles

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Road through green fields

 

 

“But you can travel on 10,000 miles, and still be where you are.”

I borrowed my husband’s iPod this weekend, and went for a long run with his eclectic mix in the background. I’d heard this song before, but never really listened intently. In Harry Chapin’s W.O.L.D., a middle-aged DJ dreams of quitting his job and starting a record store (yes, it’s an old song), or just driving across the country.

As he figured out, running away isn’t the answer. (Though just running, I’ve found, can be quite cathartic.) After college, I moved to a new city, where I knew no one and had no job prospects. I figured I’d just wait tables if things got bad; I landed a great starter job within three weeks.

Looking back, I was very lucky. It was a different time, yes, but I was also young, eager and had almost no regard for salary.

I always told myself I moved south because I hate the cold, but really, I think I was trying to make a new start, where no one knew anything about me. I’d stand on my own, or I’d fail, but it would be mine–not my family, my college, my friends–mine.

I went expecting a destination, but found a journey … and it’s still in progress. A few things I’ve learned so far:

Wherever you go, there you are. You can go halfway around the world and you’ll still be yourself. Best tackle those problems, since they’ll follow you. Get to know yourself, and be OK with who you are. Introverts take note: you can succeed in PR.

Things really do happen for a reason. You may not figure out the reason for years, if ever. And often these “things” are painful. Learn what you can from them. Let them make you a better person, and remember, they weren’t the destination, just part of the journey.

Be an optimist. Believe in your dreams–even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy–and take steps to make them happen. Being a dreamer is fun, but it’s not enough. Success takes planning, and lots of hard work. Make a career plan, and lay out how you’ll get from A to B.

Embrace the cold. It’s really not so bad, winter. When else is it acceptable to spend an entire Sunday in fuzzy slippers on the couch with a good book? Hibernate a little (and, if you’re moving north from Florida, buy some warm clothes). I even like running in the cold now; it wakes my body and mind in a way those steamy summer miles can’t touch.

Ask for help. No matter how alone you may feel at times, you’re not alone. People are rooting for you (yes, even if they do think you’re crazy), and they’ll lend an ear, a shoulder. Find them, and cherish them, and never, ever take love and friendship for granted.

These may sound familiar. I think that’s because everyone who learns these lessons has to learn them the hard way. If you were looking for  strictly business tips: Don’t trust everyone at work. Take credit for your accomplishments. Document everything. But those are for another day. Today, I’m dreaming in the clouds, and planning how I’ll fly.

 

p.s. Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Thanks for sticking around. If you have questions about communications or being a one-person shop I’ll try to answer them in future posts… just let me know in the comments.

 

 

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Internal Communications: A Quick Survival Guide

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Red Swingline stapler

Bonus points if you know why I photographed my stapler for this post.

Every good communicator does one thing: thinks about what the audience needs to know. Not what you want the audience to know, but what’s important from the other side. Master this, and people will pay attention.

This is as important for internal communications as it is for marketing. Like everyone else, employees are overloaded with information. To get their attention, you have to give them useful information, and only useful information. How? A few rules I follow:

Rule #1: Don’t assume everyone is like you. Most people are not content creators, and they don’t want to be. You think nothing of writing a blog post, tweeting some events and editing a video before lunch. Must employees stop at reading company news, and you’re lucky if they bother to do that. Even commenting on blog posts (at least at work) is beyond many employees’ comfort zones. (If participation is lagging on your new intranet, this is why.)

Rule #2: People don’t read your carefully crafted emails/fliers/intranet posts. They skim them (again, if you’re lucky). Get their attention, and fast. Think in bullets. Put the why first. (“If you don’t comply with this new time card policy, you will not receive a paycheck.”) Actions and deadlines must be absolutely clear. No matter how simple a task, include screenshots if it’s technical (preferably in a link, rather than embedded, for brevity). Put optional background information in links as well, so those few employees who want to read more can, without overwhelming those who don’t.

Rule #3: Talk to employees. Ask them what they want to read about, what they have questions about. Do a survey, but don’t expect everyone to respond, and don’t rely on this as your only source of information. Consider an email marketing system for internal communications, so you’ll know exactly what gets read and clicked, or use URL shorteners like bit.ly so you can track clicks on embedded links sent from your own email system. If a message or link is particularly popular, look at what you did differently, and repeat it next time.

Rule #4: Be an optimist. Assume people want to follow the rules, and that they’ll read useful information. Make your messages engaging. Corporate newsletters don’t have to be “grip and grin” photos and overly cheerful executive notes. They don’t even have to be totally about your company. Consider covering industry trends, news and conferences. If one person goes to a conference, ask him for highlights to share with those who couldn’t be there. Have silly contests. The executives won’t participate, but a small percentage of your employees will really engage with these (and it’s usually not executives who need motivation to stay engaged anyway).

Do you have any rules for internal communication? Would love to hear what works for you.

Management: Trial by Fire

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Burning match on black background

Yes! You’ve finally gotten some help (buh-bye one-person shop!), or been invited to the coveted ranks of management. You got there because you’re good at what you do, and someone saw your potential to do more (go you!). Here’s what they won’t tell you about management before you accept that promotion.

1. Management is trial by fire

No training course–no matter how carefully simulated–can totally prepare you to manage people. I can say this with some certainty, after earning an MBA and surviving countless management seminars. Why? People have emotions, and they don’t check them at the door (with the possible exception of prison guards–I gave a speech to such a group once, and could swear they were carved from stone).

You never know what’s going on in someone’s personal life unless they tell you. And, believe it or not, some of them will tell you. More than you wanted to know.  Some employees want to talk about illnesses (in graphic detail), family problems and relationships with you, their boss. As a manager, you have to listen, whether or not you have time. (And you usually won’t.)

No two employees are the same.They all need things from you, but different things. The new college grad may want mentoring, or some help as he adjusts to life after State U. The experienced professional may just want someone to listen as she vents, and support her professional decisions.

2. You’ll learn stuff you don’t want to know

Communications needs a seat at the table early, to head off potential communication problems. Be glad you work at an organization that recognizes this. But at that table you’ll hear things that make you uncomfortable. You might realize that your company’s “people first” motto is complete B.S. (see Pam Slim’s excellent letter for more on this). You can bet if you work for a public company that shareholders (and thus earnings) come first, middle and last; that’s the first thing they teach you in business school.

You might become aware of major issues affecting your company’s future. It’s exciting to help solve big business problems, but you have to grow a thick skin, and have more than a little confidence that your company is on the right path to push through both large and small issues. Because there will always be issues.

You might also learn that simply being in Communications puts a big “Overhead Expense Here!” target on your back. Speak up in meetings. Share that great idea, or angle no one has mentioned. It might be uncomfortable at first to speak up. Do it anyway. Prove that you deserve your seat at that table–that your organization needs you–then do it again. Every single day.

3. No one wants to hear you complain

You’re required to be there for employees who need to vent, but it doesn’t work in reverse. You’re not allowed to vent to your employees. You’ll never convince them that your struggles are greater than theirs, so don’t even try. With the privilege of sitting at the management table comes a degree of isolation. Keep your gripes among your management peers, or grouse to your spouse. And remember: before you complain to your boss, be sure it’s a real issue, and you’ve thought through several alternatives.

4. Giving feedback is harder than it looks

Praise in public, correct in private. Feedback works best when it is specific and in close proximity to the event. For example, if your employee did a great job preparing for an upcoming trade show, tell her exactly what you appreciated about that while you’re there, or shortly after you return. It’s easy to let your stars go on autopilot–they’ll do a great job regardless. Resist the temptation, and make a point to regularly remind them how awesome they are (specifically, of course).

5. You don’t get to do the cool stuff any more

If you’re great at what you do, and work in a big enough organization, you’ll likely end up promoted to management. This is great, of course, until you realize you don’t get to do the things that got you there any more. You have to spend much more time on paperwork and people management (which takes longer than you would think), and delegate the cool stuff. You can’t just delegate busy work. It is now your job to help your employees grow and learn new skills. So no matter how much you want to do that video editing project yourself, let it go.

Delegating is especially hard if you’re used to not just running but being the show. No one will do it exactly as you would. Bite your tongue and let it go. Give your employees the freedom to figure out how to do things (lest you become the dreaded micromanager). They might find a quicker or better way to do something, but only if you let them try. Correct only on the important things, like strategy, and stay out of the details.

Have your own lessons from becoming a manager? I’d love to hear them.

Do Your Shoes Fit?

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Peep-toe heels with black, white and silver pattern

The Shoes

A couple birthdays ago, I went shoe shopping. (Free advice: don’t buy shoes on a milestone birthday.) I was feeling a bit rebellious, which led to stilettos-that-shall-not-be-named. I was pumped (pun intended), and ready to start my new, more glamorous life.

But here’s the thing. I’m much happier in my Friday shoes.

Pink hiking shoes

Friday shoes

I’ve never actually worn the aforementioned heels because they just don’t feel right. They technically fit, and I like them, but more in a “wow, those shoes look awesome on her” kind of way. Kind of like when I see a super-confident extrovert at a networking event, with people lining up to shake her hand. I admire that, but it’ll never be me.

Sure, I could teeter around in those shoes for a while, but at the end of the day, I’ll probably have sore feet and blisters–not the glamorous persona I was striving for.

In one of my first jobs (before we used email for everything), I had to cold call nonprofit donors and ask them to buy our special holiday donation cards instead of sending gifts to their clients. It was a great program, and I actually sold some cards… but it was probably because the poor souls felt sorry for the awkward, stammering mess (me). I could not be worse at cold call sales, and it’ll be a cold day in you-know-where before I willingly do it again.

Cold-calling and willingly being the center of attention are like my stilettos–I can’t get out of there fast enough. Mercifully, we now have better ways to build relationships (thank you, social media).

The point of all this clodhopper clamor is that you can build your skills and learn new things to a point, but some things you just can’t fake. And even if you can, you’re probably not going to be very happy for the duration. Instead, embrace what you are good at.

If you’ve ever felt bad because you’re just “not a people person,” read Quiet by Susan Cain. While exploring inborn differences in personalities, she gives practical advice for not just surviving, but thriving in your work.

A good closet-cleaning also works wonders. Get rid of the “if I just lose 5 pounds” pants already, and fill your closet with things you feel awesome in right now. Look at your work to-do list. What do you put off? Chances are, it’s something that doesn’t quite fit, but it has to be done. Maybe it’s calling members of your organization. Is there someone outgoing who might like a change of pace? Maybe a receptionist, intern or recent college grad would welcome a task that allows them to talk with new people.

Instead of envying someone else’s shoes (read: talents), spend that energy improving your mind. Read. Learn new things. Try a new approach to your dreaded task(s), or just stop doing them. Would anyone notice or care? Some of my previous to-do list offenders were self-inflicted. When I stopped doing them, you know what happened? Absolutely nothing.

p.s. If you’d like a lovely pair of never-been-worn peep-toe heels, size 9, they’re free to the first taker. Seriously. (Will deliver in Frederick, MD, or ship to continental U.S.) The only condition? You have to feel awesome in The Shoes. And maybe send me a photo.

The hidden costs of trade shows

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Trade show attendees walking on a red carpet, carrying bags

This week, I’ve been working on one of my least favorite things: the budget. Specifically, next year’s trade show exhibit budget. I’ve got this activity down to an hour or two, but when I was just starting out it took me days to create the first trade show budget. Why? Trade shows have hidden costs–things you never know about until you start the paperwork.

If you’ve exhibited at a few conventions, you could write this post. This is for those who haven’t been there yet; it’s the post I desperately wished for while drafting my first trade show budget.

This list assumes a few things. You’ve already talked with your sales people and management, and you have an exhibit strategy–a reason you are going to these shows, and the “go-ahead” to dig into the pricing. You have a booth, or at least the hardware to put your graphics on. You have a plan for following up on the leads you collect (if you don’t have this, don’t bother going).

Read the fine print for every show. Some shows include a table and chairs with your booth rental fee; others include nothing. Electricity is rarely included. You might be required to provide proof of liability insurance. You will probably be prohibited from hand-carrying anything into the exhibit hall or using tools to build your booth.

I am providing the numbers below from memory, and nearly a decade of experience with exhibit paperwork. The numbers are estimates. Your best guide to planning next year’s expenses is this year’s actual costs. But if you’re just getting started with trade shows, you’ll have to estimate. At the least, you can probably find the booth rental costs on the show websites, and use the current year’s as a placeholder.

Trade show expenses fall into a few categories: services, giveaways, the booth itself and staffing. The cost to rent your booth space is just the beginning of your trade show budget. This post will cover services, things you will need to purchase in addition to renting your booth space.

Services

In the exhibitor kit, look for the forms with these names. (Trade shows require lots of paperwork.)

  • Material handling – Whether your show is in a convention center or a hotel ballroom, you will almost certainly not be allowed to bring in your own supplies. Don’t expect to back your car up to the loading dock to get your booth there. Due to union labor restrictions, you’ll have to pay material handling fees for your shipment. Overtime is extra, and many shows require set-up on evenings or weekends. “Special handling” is extra too–if you send shipments via FedEx or UPS, you’ll have to pay this. If you carry a box to the exhibit hall door, you’ll have to pay it too, because they’ll have to call someone to carry it in for you. Material handling charges are by the pound, in 100-pound increments (called CWT). If you have a small booth and a few boxes of giveaways, budget for about 200 pounds of freight. Remember that the charges will be in both directions–to the show, and home again. Budget ~$300 each way for a small, basic booth (and be thrilled if your actuals are lower).
  • Shipping – You don’t have to use the show carrier. You can pick a carrier (I’ve used Distribution by Air for years), and request actual quotes for future shipping from their websites. I use the same carrier for all of my shows, so I can use a blanket purchase order; if your company requires purchase requisitions/orders for every expense, this will help you cut down the paperwork. Like material handling, shipping is by the pound. Be sure to budget for driver waiting time for large shows; you’ll be charged by the hour for the driver’s time while he queues up at the loading dock. Budget varies widely depending on locations of your shows. Get actual estimates from a shipping company, and ask them about any extra fees/time for clearing customs for international shows.
  • Furniture – If your booth doesn’t include a table, chairs and wastebasket, you’ll need to rent those. You’ll need to choose the color for your table draping (included), or bring your own tablecloth (I recommend this–you can get one with your logo for a relatively small investment). Costs are per day, anywhere from $25/day for a trash can to a couple hundred for a table. Budget $350/day for a basic table, two chairs and trash can, but note that fees vary widely depending on the exhibit service company. Sofas and fancy furniture cost more.
  • Cleaning – Want that trash can you rented emptied? That’s extra, as is daily vacuuming of your booth carpet. Add a couple hundred dollars for these services, charged by day, for the length of your show.
  • Carpet – If your show is in a hotel ballroom, you can probably skip the carpet (but read the fine print to be sure). If it’s in a convention center, you’ll have to rent carpet. And padding. I cannot stress this enough: pay for the best possible carpet padding you can rent. It’s the only thing standing between concrete floors and your increasingly tired feet for 8-to-10-hour stretches. If you have good carpet padding, people will come talk to you just to stand on it. Budget $250/day for carpet.
  • Electricity – Power is not usually included in your booth rental fee. Don’t assume you’ll be near an outlet; even if you are, you can’t just plug in your booth light (union rules again). Budget $125/day for one power outlet.
Those are the basics. Be sure to fill out the “method of payment” form from the exhibit services company; this form recaps all the services you are ordering, and provides your credit card information to the vendor. Note that electricity, AV, internet and floral vendors are usually separate companies/forms.
Now, the extras.
  • Internet – If you require web access for your booth, you’ll pay dearly for it. My last major convention in DC charged $1,000 for in-booth internet. If you can live without it, do. Cost varies widely by venue; haven’t seen one yet that offers free wi-fi. 
  • Lead retrieval – Electronic lead retrieval (badge scanners) are a good investment for large shows. They will save you a lot of time after the show on data entry, and make follow-up much easier. Budget $1000/show to rent one. (And be sure to install any software before the show.)
  • AV rentals – If you need monitors, TVs, microphones or other AV equipment, you’ll need to rent them separately. Cost varies widely based on what you need. 
  • Flowers – If you want to dress up your booth, you can rent flower arrangements by the day. Budget $100/day to rent a couple basic mums. (And be sure no one walks off with them–I had to stop a show attendee once from absconding with my potted plant.)
  • Labor – If building your booth requires tools, you’ll have to pay for union labor. Cost varies widely depending on your setup; you won’t need this if you have a basic, small pop-up booth.
More on the giveaways, booth and staffing later. In the meantime, you might find these 6 Trade Show Marketing Tips from Siobhan Connellan or the Skyline Trade Show Tips site helpful.
Have you encountered other “hidden” trade show fees?

Other duties as assigned

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Orange riding lawn mower

We really should be more prepared for the real world after college, but some things you just can’t prepare for. Those would be the “other duties as assigned”–the loophole in your job description.

A few things I did for my first “real” job after college (the first was actually waiting tables at Dry Dock Seafood #2 in Carrboro, NC). This was an event marketing position, working for Kmart’s Kids Race Against Drugs. It was a cause I could get behind, and I didn’t want to be slinging popcorn shrimp my whole life–in fact, never waiting tables again was my main motivation for graduating. (It was not to be, but that’s another story.)

  • Lawn mower maintenance. The kids raced riding lawn mowers (minus the blades) around a track we built in store parking lots. The lawn mowers, of course, were not designed for this. We had to keep them running, when week after week 7-year-olds ran them into every possible obstacle, including fences, foam pads, tables and me.
  • Construction/temporary labor crew management. Really wasn’t prepared for this one. My crew in every city was from a temp firm that seemed to specialize in finding the drunkest possible vagrants and sending them to me at 7 a.m. We–me and a couple other 22-year-olds–then had to convince them to help us build a race track in inner-city Kmart parking lots. Two words: manual labor.
  • Loading/unloading semi trailers, in all kinds of weather. We had two tractor trailers that followed us around the country. Everything would fit, but only if packed precisely. And since we depended on temporary help, we were always in the back of the truck shouting for the next piece. Which didn’t land on us, if we were lucky.
  • Unholy hours. Regularly rose at 4 a.m. to race the weather guy for morning news segments across the country. Sounds way more glamorous than it actually is. Plus, you have to let the weather guy win.

I learned some important lessons on this job. I found out the hard way where my strengths lie. I was a master at packing the trucks, changing tires and completing the reams of paperwork required for every weekend event. I wasn’t so good at immediately building a rapport with the store workers, volunteers and labor crews–this required more of a touchy, feely personality and I was too green to realize that and try to fake it. I suspect faking it wouldn’t have gone well because, really, when does it ever?

If the job hadn’t been temporary, I wouldn’t have stuck it out so long. I craved a creative position and stability, and this was Road Rules late 90s and manual labor. But I was determined to learn what I could, and use that knowledge to find a position that offered more of the work I liked.

What does this have to do with being a one-person shop? I was thrust into that role early in my career–the job right after this one, to be exact. It was my first desk job (though, to be fair, that one involved a lot of event and warehouse work too). There are things in every job that you’ll never love, just like there are problems in every organization.  Trust me. Every job. Every organization. The key is finding the position/organization that offers the most of what you excel at (and the problems you can tolerate).

The cool thing about one-person shops is that you can often invent the job as you go along. So even if you don’t start with a position tailor-made to your strengths, you can create one. Yes, you’ll still have to do things you’d rather not, but let’s face it. That’s just part of being a grown-up. Take the opportunity to learn from those dreaded tasks, and maybe you’ll be able to delegate them one day.

Side note: I almost named this blog Other Duties as Assigned, since that’s what I seem to spend most of my time doing. I’d love to hear the wacky things you’ve had to do in your communications adventures.

Sometimes You Can’t Afford Free Help

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Rotary phone on old desk

One of my first bosses (at a great little nonprofit) used to refer to in-kind gifts as “unkind” gifts. In-kind gifts are anything besides money that people donate to nonprofits. While there are exceptions, these gifts usually consist of things like ancient furniture or office equipment, not-so-gently worn clothing, or canned food no one else wants.

My point isn’t to discourage you from donating things to nonprofits, rather to learn a little more about what they actually need first. (Did you know a lot of the organizations that pick up clothing and household items turn them into rags, or ship them overseas? More on what happens to your donations.) This includes donating time.

I’ve worked with some fantastic volunteers–people who give everything they’ve got, and then some. And, I’ve worked with court-ordered community service volunteers.

In both cases–by necessity–your work is that person’s absolute lowest priority. The super-volunteer with the heart of gold is probably overextended, because she wants to help everyone. And while she’s a great person to have on your side, it can take a while for her to get around to you. (Give her important tasks, but ones that don’t have a hard deadline.) The court-ordered service guy is only helping you because it’s better than jail.

At one nonprofit I worked for, we agreed to take on a court-ordered volunteer to design our website. I had made a list of all the items we needed, provided marketing materials so he could design to our brand, and given him a pretty generous schedule that would still meet our needs. He was a talented designer who worked at a nice firm. (He was also convicted of DUIs three times, thus the community service.)

His firm was busy, which was great for them, but bad for my nonprofit. In the evening and weekend hours when he should have been working on our website, he was working for paying clients. And, of course, I can’t fault him for that. The project dragged on for months beyond when we really needed it done, and I had to call him every week to ask for a status (although I was really calling him to remind him we existed, and were keeping him out of jail). When he finally completed the project, the design was not what we asked for; it was something he wanted to experiment with, but couldn’t with his paying clients. And we were stuck with it.

I share this story to help you, if you’re considering taking donated help. If the project is mission-critical with a schedule that can’t slip, pay someone to do the work. Maybe they’ll give you a discount because you’re a nonprofit. Or maybe you have a long history with the person, and know they’ll deliver. Just remember, if they’re working for free, you will always come last. In the long run, sometimes you just can’t afford free help.

p.s. This is another post entirely, but pay your interns. You’ll get better work from them, and they’ll be covered by your liability insurance as employees.