The Illusion of Progress


Modern staircase

I was struck by a phrase from this Harvard Business Review article: “the illusion of progress.” The article itself is about things we should all stop doing, including reading annoying things and making life too complicated; it’s a good read.

Like many people, I struggle each year with making resolutions that stick. It occurred to me: maybe I’m doing it wrong. Why not apply a traditional business goal-setting model to this year’s resolutions? Take your main resolution, and try making it SMART:

Specific – If your goal is “exercise more,” that leaves a bit too much wiggle room. Instead try setting a goal, such as run 3 times per week instead of 2, or finish a race. If you want to be more productive, list some specific ways you plan to do this, whether it’s blocking time for key tasks, a “not to do” list, or reducing the number of meetings you attend.

Measurable – If you want to run any race–5k or ultramarathon–you’ll need a training plan. Lay out how you’re going to get there, and track your progress. If you want to build your business network, brainstorm a list of ideas on how you will do this, then put them on your calendar. Find a “goal buddy” and keep each other on task.

Attainable – If you don’t exercise much now, a marathon probably isn’t attainable right away. Start small, and build. If your goal is a raise and salaries are frozen company-wide, it won’t happen no matter how much you deserve it.

Realistic – If you plan to exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight, be more productive, expand your network, stay in touch with friends and spend more time with your family this year, you might find that your goals conflict (unless, of course, you’ve found a stray DeLorean). The more time you spend at the gym, the less time you’ll have to spend cooking healthy meals. If you can’t pick just one goal, find ways to make them work together. Maybe spend time cooking healthy meals with your family, or exercising with a friend.

Timely – Can you reach the goal(s) you’ve set within a few months, or a year at most? If not, maybe your goal should be broken into smaller chunks, so you can make measurable progress sooner. Run a 5k this year, and imagine how happy you’ll be if you get to the 10-miler too. Instead of setting the goal “write a book” try “write a chapter a month.” It’s a lot less intimidating goal in that form, and you’ll probably make more progress.

Be sure to think about the reasons behind your goals. If your goal is to arrive at work 30 minutes earlier, it might help to think about why. Do you want to spend more time working on important goals? Arriving half an hour earlier without a plan for how this will improve your productivity will most likely just result in spending an extra half hour at work–the illusion of progress.

Track your resolutions like business goals this year, and see what happens. And remember, the same rules apply as in business: the more strategic goals you try to tackle at once, the more likely you are to fail at all of them. If you have multiple goals for the year, try spreading out the start of each, maybe one per quarter. That way, the first becomes habit before you tackle the second.

p.s. If you’re not sure what goals to set, you could always let someone else set them for you. I did this last year, and made substantial progress with my goal of relaxing (set by my husband), by taking yoga classes most weeks (every week wouldn’t have been realistic) and spending time reading on Sunday afternoons. By simply clarifying how I was going to get there, I was able to achieve my goal of doing more nothing.


What’s next?


Series of words about goals (purpose, dreams, ambitions, etc.)

Now is a perfect time to reflect on your career goals. Not your work goals, but your personal goals. (Seriously, take advantage of the quiet time while everyone at work is distracted by sugar cookies.)

We’ve all heard that failing to plan is planning to fail. We wouldn’t dream of implementing communication tactics without a strategy, but how many of us do exactly that with our careers? I’m as guilty as anyone. I found my current organization purely by chance. I moved to a new city when my husband took a job here, and answered an ad in the newspaper.

I had never worked in biotech, and didn’t expect to like it, since I was looking for a non-profit position. But a funny thing happened. The more I learned about how biotech research is saving lives with new discoveries, the more I wanted to be part of that.

Most successful people I’ve talked with admit that their career progression involved a bit of luck. A trainer from a class I took yesterday quoted an entrepreneur friend saying, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  In the same class, he quoted a former Lockheed Martin CEO who said, “hope is not a strategy.”

While we can all hope for luck, a strategy is never a bad idea. Make a career plan right now. Write it on your grocery list or the back of an envelope if you’re afraid to commit, but put something in writing. Answer these questions:

  1. How many more years will you be working? Assume you’ll be in each new job roughly 5 years, then figure out how many more jobs that is until you turn 65 (or whatever age you expect to retire).
  2. What is the last job you want? This is your dream job–the one you’ve worked your whole career to have. Write it down. If you can’t pick just one, list two or three options.
  3. What’s missing? What skills do you still need to master? What industry do you need experience in? Who do you need to connect with in your network now to make the dream job a possibility?
  4. How will you get there? Make a bulleted list of next jobs/positions (referring to #1 for how many) that could help you get there. For example, if you wanted to transition from nonprofit communications to biotech, you might target a nonprofit research organization supporting biotech research as your next job, to help you learn the industry. The job after that might be managing communications for a small biotech company, and so on, with the ultimate goal of leading global communications for a big pharmaceutical company before you retire.

Think about what you want to be known for, and look for opportunities to share your knowledge. Volunteer to speak at conferences or mentor young professionals. Chair a committee for PRSA, or your professional organization of choice.

What makes you different? Think about your unique experience and skills and what those offer to your employer (current or future). Figure out now what training you’ll need for the next step–or the last one–and learn those things as soon as you can.

Find a trusted friend who will keep you on track and give you honest feedback on your plan–maybe even do this exercise together. Meet periodically to track your progress (this is a great excuse to set standing coffee or lunch dates). Set small goals to accomplish before each meeting, maybe attend one networking event, write a blog post about a certain topic or sign up for a class. Anything that gets you closer to your goal is fair game.

It might be a good idea to talk about what success means to you as well. Not everyone wants a 50-foot-yacht and three vacation homes, so don’t assume your friends understand your ultimate goal. Talk them through it. If nothing else, talking about it will help you understand your own perspective.

And if you do happen upon an opportunity that doesn’t exactly fit your plan but sounds intriguing and pays the bills, take it. Your career plan should be flexible, if nothing else. The older I get, the more certain I am that few of us ever really figure out the answer to the question “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Maybe “what do I want to do for the next 5 years?” is the question we should ask instead.

Note: I made a career plan based on the above questions a couple years ago. (I’ve since changed my mind about the ending, and made it more of a choose-your-own adventure of possible choices. But it still helps to have a plan.) I wish I could remember where I got this excellent advice. If you happen to know where to find the original article posing these questions, please let me know so I can credit the author (and thank him/her for the tips!).

A Perspective on Perspectives (and Sparkly Vampires)


Railway switches and sun spots, close-up

A couple words have been stuck in my head for a while: perspective and confidence. I thought they would be separate posts, but the more I ponder, the more it seems one feeds the other.

Perspective is tricky. You almost never have all the facts and, as my boss likes to say, there are at least three sides to every story. It was easy to dismiss the wildly popular “sparkly vampire” novels as ridiculous teenage drivel. But then–possibly after a bit too much Thanksgiving revelry–I started reading one. And I couldn’t put it down. Perspective: changed.

If you’re just starting out, you probably haven’t managed others. Maybe you were a supervisor at a restaurant or pool, but managing in a professional setting is a lot more nebulous. Your boss might know things she can’t tell you. And–trust me–when you get there too, you’ll sometimes wish for the days when you didn’t know the dirty details.

Businesses exist to make money. Period. Yes, the good ones look toward the future. They are considerate of their employees, communities and the planet … because it helps the bottom line.

“Work is about business, not you” (more where that came from). Especially early in your career, when work is a huge part of your life, it’s easy to take things personally. Work issues are rarely personal. Maybe your manager said no when you asked to attend a training class. What you didn’t know is that there were (more) budget cuts, she saved your job from being eliminated, and now no one has a training budget. This is an extreme–and entirely hypothetical–example of perspective.

You have a couple options as an employee in this situation. 1) You can take it personally and complain to anyone who will listen, or 2) you can take it in stride, and find a way to learn whatever it was on your own.

If you decide to be a victim, you’ll always be a victim. Find creative solutions to your challenges instead of complaining about them. (Note: occasional venting to trusted friends is fine, and a healthy way to deal with things you can’t control. Incessant whining is not, if for no other reason than it urges others toward violent impulses when you’re around.)

I believe one difference between employees who choose option 1 and 2 is confidence. The complainers are constantly seeking validation from others. They assume the boss said no to the training because “she hates me,” “she likes Joe better,” or “I did something wrong.”

The person who chooses option 2 has confidence. She doesn’t know everything–far from it. But when presented with something new, maybe a software program or a new business problem, she has the confidence that she can (eventually) master it with creative thinking and hard work. And, maybe in the case of software, liberal use of Ctrl-Z.

If you’re a one-person shop, you have no choice; option 2 is the only way. You wouldn’t be trusted to run an organization’s communications if you couldn’t do it. It will rarely be easy, but you can meet the challenge. And, after a while, dispatching everyday business challenges will become second nature. It gets easier with time, perspective and confidence.

p.s. Please forgive the longer-than-usual pause between posts. I’ve been trying to decide between Team Edward and Team Jake. You know, as an experiment on perspective…

What’s in your pantry?

Leave a comment

A shelf in April's pantry

Any cook needs a well-stocked pantry. From a few basic staples added to fresh ingredients, an imaginative cook can create dozens of dishes, using a variety of techniques and spices.

If you’re constantly struggling to find content to feed your various outlets–and who isn’t?–try looking in your pantry, your “shelf” of long-lasting content. The best way to do this is a communications audit.

A basic communications audit is an inventory of all your communication vehicles–print, web, social, intranets, email–anything you use to communicate with your various publics. It doesn’t have to be fancy; a simple spreadsheet works fine for small organizations.

An audit will help you identify that ancient can of sardines that needs to be tossed, and perhaps produce some unexpected treasures.

Some questions to ask once you have your list:

  1. Are these communications still reaching your audience? Or has the audience moved to another preferred method of communication? Look at open rates, page views, followers, likes, even how many people pick up that print brochure at a trade show. (For the latter, it’s not nearly as many as it was a few years ago. How else can you reach them?)
  2. What’s past the expiration date? You’ll probably find some content that’s a bit stale, or you might be spending time and resources supporting an effort that just isn’t getting eyeballs. Be honest with yourself, even if it’s your pet project. Know when to move on.
  3. What can be re-used? Often, you can repurpose content, even if it isn’t new. They key here is it isn’t new to you. For example, you might include a “featured question” in your newsletter, with a link to frequently asked questions on your website. If people are still asking the question, they aren’t looking on your website. Help them find the answer. Have great content people just aren’t seeing? Try cross-posting it.
  4. Are we consistent? Do your communications reflect the same voice, tone and messages? Are they the right ones? This is one area where small and one-person shops have an advantage. If only one person is writing most of your content, chances are it’s more consistent.
  5. What is my audience looking for? Look at your most popular web pages and most-liked content over time. Use the numbers to guide new content development. For example, if 25% of your website visitors consistently look at the Careers page, beef up that section, and publish your job openings in other communications as well.
Sometimes just making a list helps you view things differently. If you’re stuck for content, take the time to do a communications audit. You’ll probably find enough “new” content (or things you can stop doing) to more than make up the time, and spice up your communications.
p.s. For more on social media audits, check out Marketing Roadhouse.

Who Can Inspire Me?


White sign saying "Your Purpose Awaits" with an arrow pointing right

I saw a tweet this morning: “who can inspire me?” It stopped me in my tracks. The tweeter was looking for motivation to go to the gym, on a day when she really didn’t feel like it.*

Of course, we’ve all had those days. When the gym is less-than-appealing. When work seems like a long, slow trudge of meaningless, thankless busy work. When the family has, yet again, completely obliterated any evidence of the hours you spent cleaning.

How do you find your motivation on those days? If you’re a self-starter, you won’t ask anyone else to inspire you. You might read a few of your favorite blogs or newsletters (my new favorite: Snarketing), or make a list of what matters. Why do you do those things?

I go to the gym to stay healthy. I go to work because I believe the end result of my efforts–combined with those of my colleagues–lead to a safer world. I clean my house because my in-laws are visiting soon. (OK, maybe that last one isn’t the best example of intrinsic motivation.)

You can’t fake self-motivation. If you take a job just for the money, it will wear on you. Sometimes you don’t have a choice–I have been there, and completely understand. That’s when you have to find some other way to express your passion to keep from getting discouraged. It may not happen immediately, but keep plugging away at your passions and you’ll perk up eventually. (I had to wait a week before posting this, to make sure that was true. It is; be patient.)

I keep a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson on my bulletin board. “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” 

What have you done today to stay true to who you are?

*Note: Sometimes, you should listen to the devil on your shoulder saying “skip the gym and stay home with this delicious novel instead.” When your body is tired, inspire your mind.

The hidden costs of trade shows


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.


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?

Social media lessons from health care


Heart, stethoscope and EKG

Yesterday I attended the Ragan Health Care Social Media Summit, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN (albeit virtually, as I have no travel budget). This conference was attended primarily by hospital and health care marketing and PR types, but some of these take-aways can be applied anywhere.

  1. Social media is giving patients power. We’ve known for years that it gives consumers power by magnifying their voices (read: complaints). Patients with rare diseases are now using that power to band together to fight rare diseases, and that is a wonderful thing. This story about spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) from the Wall Street Journal is just one example. Doctors were dismissing the concerns of patients because they’d never seen their condition before; the patients went online and banded together, resulting in new clinical research about their condition. Lesson to marketers in health care: social media isn’t about you. It’s about your patients.
  2. Don’t underestimate the power of humor and whimsy. And video. (Noted in a tweet from @MeredithGould ) We’re all human. It can be risky to use humor in a conversation about serious diseases. But when it’s done well, no press release, newsletter or Facebook post could possibly compare. Case in point: the Mayo Clinic Know Your Numbers music video parody of 867-5309, educating patients about preventing heart attacks by knowing the numbers for blood pressure, lipids and BMI. Lesson to marketers: don’t forget your audience is human. Tell a story, and have some fun.
  3. Content is what people are looking for online. And content is what they need to change their behavior. Not marketing. Patient communities are powerful, and they’re something hospitals have always done. The next step is extending those support groups online, to help more people. In marketing we call this reaching a broader audience, but we should never forget it’s about helping people. Across all age groups, 80% of us look for health information online. Health care communications reach people often in their darkest hours; we have a responsibility to make it as easy on our patients as we can, and truly help them. @chrisboyer created a community for expectant mothers ( because patients weren’t looking on the hospital website for answers to their questions. Lesson to marketers: Communicate with people in the way they prefer, and seek to truly help them.
  4. Set aside an hour a week to think strategically. Both Chris Boyer and Julie Norris of @kptotalhealth mentioned this. Chris said—I believe in all seriousness—that if you don’t know how to measure your results, your successor will. You can’t measure without a strategy. And you can’t create a strategy or figure out how well it’s going if you never come up for air. We’re all busy, but this is one of those things you just have to make time for. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing with social media; the best way to learn is by doing. But you should have some goals in mind. Talk to your clinicians (doctors, or in other industries your operations people) and find out what their frustrations are. Can you address some of them using social media channels? Lesson to marketers: Keep track of both the forest and the trees; know your value to the organization, and share your results.

You can follow along for the final day of the conference (October 19, 2011) on Twitter #mayoragan. Attending? What are your take-aways?

Addendum: books recommended or mentioned by speakers at this conference. (Please comment if I missed one!)

Older Entries Newer Entries