Selecting and Coaching Speakers to Deliver Quality Digital Presentations

Selecting and Coaching Speakers to Deliver Quality Digital Presentations
This week’s blog post on association marketing is re-posted with permission from Aaron D. Wolowiec, founder and president of Event Garde, a professional development consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Website:

In a traditional call for presentations, a general invitation is released to an organization’s key constituents to submit topic ideas for a program. This call provides detailed instructions for submission of papers for assessment and selection by a review committee. Ultimately, constituent submissions are returned to the committee for review, scoring, and selection.

In a content curation process, a committee comprised of a cross-section of the organization’s key constituents first identifies the topics of greatest interest or concern to the industry. In some instances, this committee may rely on a content outline such as the one created for the Certified Association Executive (CAE) exam.

If no outline is available, the committee will consider current trends, future trends (five to 10 years or more into the future) and other hot topics likely keeping the industry up at night. Once content is reviewed, ranked and confirmed, the result is a makeshift content outline the committee can use to disseminate speaker asks.

Ultimately, staff inherent speakers from one of these two methods. Via the call for presentations approach, speakers self-represent their content expertise and speaking prowess and are selected accordingly. Via the content curation approach, speaker asks may be more deliberate (e.g., based on credentials or demonstrated know-how); however, they are limited by the committee’s network.

Regardless of the method used, there really is no guarantee speakers will be successful. Your candidate may be an experienced and skilled face-to-face presenter, a 30-year industry veteran and a world-renowned practitioner, but still may not be ready to present utilizing a digital platform.

Before selecting a speaker for your next digital presentation, consider that individual’s digital presentation experience. Additionally, request evaluation data. Where possible, it’s best if the speaker has previously presented (successfully) using the same digital platform you intend to use. Remember, not all digital platforms are created equal.

And regardless of experience, speakers should be open to furthering their presentation skills. Following are 11 challenges and possible solutions you may use when coaching speakers in delivering quality digital presentations. Of course, practice is still the best strategy for mentoring speakers who have no previous digital presentation experience.

Challenge: Attendees seem disconnected from the speaker/learning experience.
Solution: Utilize a webcam to deliver the presentation; care should be taken to look directly into the camera throughout the program.

Challenge: With no facial expressions/body language to draw from, the speaker is uncertain attendees are “getting” the content.
Solution: Consider pausing the presentation periodically to ask an assessment question via the digital platform’s poll function.

Challenge: When joining remotely, participants are constantly distracted by email and other visual cues.
Solution: Set ground rules for participants early in the program and ask attendees to follow along in a pre-printed participant guide where they can complete assignments and take notes.

Challenge: Reflection activities cause a lot of dead space/air time during the program.
Solution: Convert the reflection activity into a pre- or post-program assignment.

Challenge: Practice activities facilitated during face-to-face programs don’t seem to translate into a digital environment.
Solution: Encourage multiple registrants from the same office or gather attendees at centralized locations to participate in the program together; arm them with a supplies list, directions and plenty of activity time.

Challenge: Four or more hours of content may be required to teach a particular skill.
Solution: Segment and sequence content into smaller modules. No more than 60 minutes is suggested, though even shorter is preferred.

Challenge: Learners want to share their experiences, but this is difficult to facilitate when all of the lines are muted for optimal sound quality.
Solution: Allow attendees to demonstrate their interest in speaking and then open up only their phone lines. Alternatively, gather attendee stories in advance of the program and have the moderator read them aloud.

Challenge: Participants are easily bored by digital presentations.
Solution: Incorporate different instructional strategies into the program beyond lecture (e.g., video, poll, chat).

Challenge: The chat function is difficult to moderate so it often goes unused/is turned off.
Solution: Participants crave interaction with their peers. They also learn a lot from these conversations. Utilize a separate chat moderator who can prompt discussion with attendees, respond to questions and pose trending questions to the speaker.

Challenge: The digital platform makes it difficult for the speaker to provide personalized attendee feedback.
Solution: Allow participants the opportunity within 30 days to follow-up with the speaker directly (e.g., ask a question, gain clarification).

Challenge: It’s challenging to ensure retention and job transfer post-program.
Solution: Encourage action planning to focus learner ideas and next steps; create a job aid to guide future performance; or schedule post-session touch points (e.g., 30, 60 and 90 days).


Growing Membership by Working Smarter, Not Harder

Growing Membership by Working Smarter, Not Harder

Think about the old 80/20 rule – you get 80% of your results from 20% of your effort. As an association with limited resources, you can’t be all things to all people. So it makes sense to be strategic about where you’re investing your time, energy, and resources when working on growing membership.

If you survey your members and conduct ongoing research, you should be able to segment them by their perceived value of your organization, and then by how much they are investing on an annual basis. You’ll want to group them by:

Members who have low perceived value of their membership, but are making large investments in your organization.

This can be the attrition danger zone, and there are countless reasons why these members don’t value what you are offering. Unless you want to risk losing them, you’ll need to figure out where your organization is falling short and take action quickly.

Members who have high perceived value and are making large investments.

Look at your membership survey responses to identify the benefits that are most used by this group and determine if there are any shortcomings or areas of improvement that could enhance the benefits that matter most to them. The name of the game is keeping this group engaged. Making small changes and additions – and then communicating the improvements you’ve made – can go a long way to keeping these members engaged.

Members who have high perceived value, but are making small investments.

The key for this group is to identify value-ads that could generate additional revenue streams. These kinds of members have staying power, but you’ll want to be careful not to neglect them. As you have the resources available, adding and bundling products that appeal to lower-level members can help you retain, and even upgrade these members.

Members who have low perceived value, and are making small investments.

If this is a small group in comparison to your overall membership, you can focus on these members last. They may fall off eventually, but if that happens, you stand to lose a lot less from this group than you do from your higher income generators. If this category comprises a large portion of your membership, this could signal a big problem in your membership strategies.

If you’ve come to the conclusion that certain members just aren’t a match, that’s not necessarily a negative thingIt’s better to focus on keeping and attracting the right kind of members than to stretch your resources too thin in an effort to cater to everyone.

Now that you’ve classified your members into these groups, it’s time to dive a little deeper into figuring out what makes them tick and identifying the kinds of members that will help you build your organization.

Stay tuned for our next post on creating member profiles to determine your “perfect” members.


11 Ideas for Partnering with Local Venues

11 Ideas for Partnering with Local Venues

This week’s blog is re-posted with permission from Aaron D. Wolowiec, MSA, CAE, CMP, CTA. Aaron is the founder and president of Event Garde, a professional development consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Website:

When’s the last time this happened to you? There’s a highly recommended, world-class speaker you’d like to feature at an upcoming program.

She’s perfect for your event in every way, except for the associated price tag. After much negotiation, you’re able to secure the “friends and family” discount; however, it’s still more than you’ve budgeted.

If your meeting comprises a qualified audience of planners or other decision-makers, you might consider an in-kind sponsorship with a local hotel or conference center. Following are 11 ideas for partnering with local venues:

What other ideas do you have for successful partnerships between venues and associations?


Does Your Board Dialogue?

Does Your Board Dialogue?
In today’s fast-paced world, does your board still take the time to dialogue? Yes, we engage in discussions and deliberate issues, but we rarely slow down and actual dialogue. Engaging in dialogue at board meetings can add value to an organization through the creation of new ideas, the formation of shared meaning, and the free flow of diverse perspective. Also, a practice of dialogue can contribute to strengthening trust and relationships between board members.

Dialogue is the free flow of meaning between members of a board. The goal isn’t to sell a point, idea or position; instead, it is to explore with honest curiosity and understand the meaning of what people are saying. It is exploring ideas with no endpoint in mind other than to understand. Dialogue concerns itself with truly understanding, in a non-judgmental way, what is being said. It doesn’t concern itself with what is right or wrong, or truth. In fact, it recognizes that what is said is not the whole truth, but simply part of a larger truth.

William Isaacs (1993) defines dialogue, “…as a sustained, collective inquiry, into the processes, assumptions, and certainties that compose everyday experience. Yet the experience is of a special kind–the experience of the meaning embodied in a community of people.” Dialogue is a divergent conversation where the participants suspend judgment, listen rather than react, and identify assumptions upon which they reflect for the purpose of gaining an understanding of the meaning of what is being said.

Dialogue is iterative in the sense that when something is spoken it is listened to and built on by someone else. Unlike a discussion, dialogue doesn’t seek to break down and examine the parts of what is communicated but rather seeks to understand and build upon what has been said. As those dialoguing seek to digest what others are saying and the meaning behind it and contribute to the dialogue, new thoughts and ideas surface. Shared meaning is developed as the dialogue freely floats among board members; it is a collaborative conversation where all involved come to understand the assumptions of others and recognize their own assumptions.

If your board members aren’t accustomed to engaging in dialogue, as described above, it is important that you clearly signal the beginning and end of a dialogue session. It is also imperative that the following fundamentals are reviewed with the board members at the beginning of the dialogue session.


  1. Sensitivity: Dialogue requires sensitivity on the part of the participants. They need to be sensitive to the process, to the way they respond and to the way others respond. It is important to recognize that one’s opinions and own assumptions can sometimes block the needed sensitivity. However, simply recognizing this possibility often enables the required sensitivity.
  1. Curiosity: A bona fide curious state of mind is required. Participants must internalize the curiosity and come to believe that their curiosity is driving them to explore ideas and seek an understanding of the meaning of what others contribute to the conversation.
  1. Listening: Listening without prejudice may be the most critical fundamental of all. It is imperative that participants listen to what is being said and reflect on it while trying to gain an understanding of the meaning behind what has been said. It is a matter of listening and reflecting as opposed to simply reacting. Listening, of course, won’t prevent misperceptions. In fact, it is ok if one misperceives the intent of another participant, as this allows for new meaning to being created in common on the spot. This, in part, is the flow of meaning that occurs in dialogue.
  1. Judgment Suspension: We have a tendency to judge what is said, based on our underlying assumptions or opinions. The objective is to recognize and acknowledge the judgments and then let the judgments go without acting on them. It isn’t about suppressing the judgments; it is about acknowledging that they exist and moving on in a non-judgmental manner. It is important to acknowledge and suspend one’s own judgments as well as the judgments of others.
  1. Commitment to not Defend: Dialogue is successful when no participants attempt to defend their point of view. It is important that people enter into dialogue with an open mind, recognizing that no point of view is right or wrong, including their own. It is important to internalize the fact that all viewpoints are part of a larger truth. As such, participants must understand that no attempt should be made to have their viewpoints prevail and be willing to let go of their ideas in search of a greater truth. In short, a dialogue is not a win-lose situation and there is no need to influence each other.

If you are interested in inserting dialogue into your next board meeting, there are two ways that you could approach it. Both require that you inform your board that you are going to engage in dialogue for a period of time and that the purpose is to dialogue, not deliberate or decide. Both options require a review of the fundamentals.

First, prior to the meeting you could identify a “big” strategic issue that confronts your organization. In this scenario, the objective would be to simply explore the issue. The advantage to this approach is that no decisions regarding the issue would be taken at the meeting. If interested in this approach, you might want to read about and engage in the generative mode of governance.

A second approach would be to identify an item on the agenda that requires action at the meeting. When taking this approach, you would engage in dialogue around the options that are being presented at the meeting. Of course, it is important that you clearly delineate between the dialogue period and the subsequent deliberation period.

As a result of the dialogue void that exists in the lives of most, your board members may be uncomfortable when they first engage in the practice of dialogue. However, this will dissipate over time. When introducing the concept, you may find it helpful to discuss how dialogue can raise your governance performance to the next level.

Keep in mind that what is important is to engage in relaxed dialogue with a curiosity to understand the meaning of what is said and the assumptions that are behind the meaning. Doing so and seeing things as clearly as possible without judgment will produce shared meaning, create new ideas, and strengthen board relationships, as a result of understanding and accepting the assumptions of others as part of a larger truth.

About the Author

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.

Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at


Why Perfectionism is a Big Time Waster

Why Perfectionism is a Big Time Waster

There’s a rule known as the Pareto Principle. It teaches us that 20% of our efforts produce 80% of our results. The additional 80% of our efforts will only yield an additional 20% of results. The first thrust of effort then is the most productive use of our time. The latter thrust is very costly.

For example, let’s say you allocate 2 hours (which we’ll represent as 20% of your time) to clean a room, a basement, or a garage. Let’s say that will you will be able to get it to be 80% clean. It won’t be perfect, but it will be acceptable and a job well done. However, to squeeze out an additional 20% of results, to make it “perfectly clean,” will require an additional 80% of your time, or 8 hours. The additional results are sixteen times more costly than the initial results from 20% of the effort, not to mention that while you’re trying to squeeze out those additional results, you are kept from doing a lot of other more productive things.

Looking for ways to boost your productivity? 123Signup will save you tons of time managing your events and members.

This rule has a lot of application to you as a time manager. Ever notice if you’re in sales how 20% of your customers give you 80% of your sales and the other 80% of your customers give you the remaining 20% of your business? Where then should you be spending 80% of your time? With the 20% of the customers who are giving you 80% of your business.

Ever notice how 20% of your relatives give your 80% of your headaches?

It may not always work with exact mathematical precision, but, typically, the small chunk of input yields the biggest chunk of output or results.

Most of us benefit from this rule intuitively. When you and I approach a task (clean a room, prepare a term paper, write up a project, etc.) we decide to put in a reasonable amount of time and effort to achieve a reasonable result. The result may not be perfect but it will be acceptable and this will release us to devote our time to tackling other endeavors.

We put in a reasonable amount of time and produce a pretty decent report. It may not be perfect, but putting in a whole lot more time to make it a little better is not cost-effective and therefore not worth the effort.

Those who suffer from the Curse of Perfectionism do not understand this principle. Their goal is always perfection, which, realistically, is unattainable. For example, you cannot clean a room perfectly. As you clean it, it’s getting dirty as the dust settles. Any written report can be polished and improved upon with more time and effort. Striving for perfection is then always stressful and frustrating.

Their overall productivity suffers as they spend an inordinate amount of time on a few things, trying to make them perfect, rather than a lesser amount of time on a lot of things that will multiply their results.

The curse is cured when they abandon the need to do their tasks perfectly when they understand that excellence in performance is attaining a degree of perfection, not absolute perfection. This does not compromise one’s standard of excellence in performance. It enhances excellent performance with increased results.


10 Tips for Board Meeting Breakouts

10 Tips for Board Meeting Breakouts
Breakout sessions can be highly beneficial at board meetings as a technique to increase board member engagement and reduce the likelihood of groupthink. They also introduce a different dynamic into the typical board meeting, which can increase the value perception held by board members, enhance relationship building and develop a team spirit. Depending on the issue at hand, all groups can be asked to work on the identical problem or each group can be asked to focus on a different aspect of the issue.

As you consider the use of breakouts, keep in mind that you want to vary meeting formats from time to time. If you use breakouts at every meeting, your board my experience “breakout fatigue.”

In order to enhance breakout effectiveness, keep the following considerations in mind:

  1. Seek optimal diversity: Don’t allow the members to self-select their groups. Groups should either be designed before the meeting or determined by random selection techniques at the meeting. Also, make sure the groups are different from meeting to meeting. If you predetermine the groups, in order to ensure optimal diversity, take into consideration factors such as: industry sector, size of company, gender, experience levels, time served on board, expertise, level and style of typical engagement and personality. Also keep in mind that, ideally, you will want a good facilitator in each group. There are a number of techniques that can be used to “randomly” select groups at the meeting. A common approach is to have the board members go around the room and “count off” up to the desired number of groups. For example, count 1, 2, 3 – 1,2,3, etc., until everyone around the room has a number. Another spin on this is to have the board members form a line standing in alphabetical order based on the city they were born in. This protects against having the same groups every meeting if members often sit in the same order.
  1. Identify predetermined space: Anticipate how much space you will need. If possible, a separate room should be set aside for each breakout group. Of course, one group can use the main boardroom. Although it can be done, putting more than one group in a room is not advisable. When choosing rooms, try to find rooms with plenty of wall or window space where flip chart pages can be posted. Wifi access is also helpful if you expect the group to bring in outside information.
  1. Identify a facilitator for each group: The quality of output is often dependent of having a great facilitator. Facilitators should be chosen and identified before the day of the meeting. A good facilitator will keep the discussion on target with the end goal in mind, engage all of the group members in the dialogue and ensure that the contributions of all are considered. Most likely, you will find that you have a few outstanding facilitators on the board, some that are ok and some that just don’t work to well. If this is the case, try not to always rely on the great facilitator(s) from meeting to meeting. Rotation is important; just stay away from the not so good ones.
  1. Provide the facilitator instructions: Prior to the day of the meeting, facilitators should receive a written document that contains a list of their responsibilities and instructions. Instructions might include information such as: at the beginning of the breakout, identify a time keeper and a presenter to report back the groups findings to the larger group; begin the dialogue with a discussion about the problem statement to gain buy in for the problem or to restate the problem statement; lead the session standing in from the front of the room and capture major items on the flipchart; use a separate flipchart page to capture ideas that are brought up, but not relevant to the discussion at hand; and, encourage everyone to participate, directly calling on those that are not engaging in the dialogue.
  1. Clearly review the assignment: Before breaking into small groups, provided each group is addressing the same question, clearly define for the large group the assignment and what outcome you expect from each group. Also, provide the larger group with an explanation of what you expect to take place in the individual groups. Encourage questions to ensure clarity.
  1. Provide a written problem statement: Each group should be given a written copy of any instructions regarding format, the objective(s) for the session and, most importantly, a written problem statement / question. Depending on the problem / issue to be discussed, a one-half to one page backgrounder may be helpful to frame the issue. Of course, if you intend to use the small groups to frame issues, you will want to refrain from using the background paper to frame the issue; instead you may want to provide some data or information.
  1. Room set up: For small groups a conference table set up works fine and a “U” set up is generally not needed. Make sure each room has an ample supply of a variety of colored flipchart markers and masking tape to hang the sheets as they are filled. Of course, you will need flip charts in each room; if possible provide two so one can be used as a “parking lot” to capture ideas that are surfaced but not relevant to the conversation. So much the better if you can get “post it note” flip chart pads which have self-adhesive on each page.
  1. Reporting back: Each group will report back their results to the whole board. In order to be efficient with time, you might ask the presenters to only report back “new information” that was not mentioned by previously reporting groups. The board members should be encouraged to ask questions and challenge the presentations. In fact, you may want to assign people to play devil’s advocates.
  1. Transcribe the results: After the meeting, don’t just roll up the flip charts and put them in a corner. First, prior to leaving the board meeting location, make sure you have pictures of them all. Then, when back at the office, transcribe the sheets / document the findings. Often, the information and knowledge surfaced during the breakout sessions will be very useful as input into your strategy development process.

Breakout sessions have been around for a long time. But, to capture real advantage from sessions, thought must go into the design and execution of breakouts. Of course, notwithstanding pre planning and design, there will be times that breakout groups will engage in a dialogue or process that is entirely different than planned; when this happens, just accept it and reflect on their work.

How have you improved the effectiveness of breakouts at your board meetings? What has and has not worked?

About the Author

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.

Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at


Overcoming Misperceptions About Your Association

Overcoming Misperceptions About Your Association
Whether negative perceptions about your organization are accurate or not, they can get in the way of executing on your mission. In other words, misperceptions can be as damaging to your organization as are accurate, but negative, perceptions. As the old adage goes, perception is reality. As such, misperceptions must be taken seriously and often dealt with in the same way as accurate, negative perceptions.

Overcoming negative perceptions starts with identifying stakeholder perceptions, determining whether or not you are committed to overcoming the perception and then, if committed, taking real, substantive and often visible action to change the perception. If you are not serious about changing a negative perception or committed to real change, then it may be better to ignore the perception, knowing what the consequences might be. In other words, if you are only going to engage “window dressing” your efforts may likely backfire.

If you are intentional about it, your organization can overcome negative perceptions, whether or not they are accurate. Here are 10 steps to alter perceptions.


  1. Listen for the kernel of truth. Don’t be defensive. Be careful not to reject misperceptions. Rather than outright reject misperceptions, seek the kernel of truth in what stakeholders are saying. Give the stakeholders the benefit of the doubt.
  1. Be willing to admit and accept there is an issue. There is no need to place blame. If your survey confirms that there are negative perceptions, accept the results as simply being a truth. For that matter, even if you don’t conduct a survey but are receiving feedback from multiple parties that has a common thread of negative perception running through it, accept that there is an issue.
  1. Evaluate the perceptions. Some negative perceptions may bring more harm to you than others. Consider to what degree the various negative perceptions impede your mission or the execution of your strategy. In doing so, recognize that a group of different negative perceptions may all have the same root cause. On the other hand, take note of and celebrate the positive perceptions that you identify. Ask yourself if there is some way to exploit the positive perceptions in overcoming some of the negatives. Evaluating and prioritizing negative perceptions will inform your next steps.
  1. Determine if you and your organization are willing to do what it takes to change the negatives. You only get one chance to start the journey of changing perceptions; a halfhearted attempt or a strategy that deploys “window dressing” could backfire. It comes down to whether you are committed to or just interested in changing perceptions. If you are committed, the perceived value of changing the perceptions is greater than the perceived difficulty of doing so; if you are interested, the perceived difficulty is greater than the perceived value. If you are committed, you act no matter what; if you are interested, you act if the circumstances permit. If you are committed, you will have results; if you are interested, you will have a bunch of reasons why you should act.
  1. Determine the root cause. Put simply, this means figure out why those with negative perceptions think the way they do. Start by identifying some people that hold the negative perception and engage in a dialogue with them to find out why they hold the perception. Remember, don’t challenge them or be defensive, just listen and accept what they are saying. In fact, consider usingToyoda’s Five Whys root problem identification methodology. This step is probably the most important one; it is absolutely critical that you identify the right and real problem before you embark on developing a problem solving strategy.
  1. Develop a strategy to change the perception. You may need different strategies for different stakeholder groups. Don’t develop your strategy in a vacuum; key to a sound strategy is diverse perspective. In this case, you will want to include those with negative perceptions in the strategy development process. There are many strategy development and problem solving models out there. One you might consider for this task is a force field problem-solving model. Make sure that your strategy contains sound metrics for evaluating / measuring success.
  1. Take visible action. As you execute your strategy, seek some tactics that are visible and then promote the action being taken. But remember, changing perceptions requires more than those with negative perceptions seeing what is different. It is equally or more important that they feel the change as well. As you are considering tactics, always keep the root problem in mind and ask yourself if the tactic will truly attack the root problem. If the tactic doesn’t meet this test, it may very well be “window dressing.”
  1. Be patient. Perceptions don’t change overnight. You need to have an ongoing strategy and a set of tactics that are rolled out and repeated over time. As you begin the journey of change, the goal is progress not perfection. Part of your job is building trust in those that held the negative perceptions; this takes time.
  1. Measure progress. In addition to fielding follow up attitudinal surveys, it is important that you regularly check in with some of the initial critics. By engaging some of the critics in the strategy development process and then seeking their input as the changes progress you may very well end up with some of your organization’s best promoters.

About the Author

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.

Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at


The Public is Listening, and Associations Are Spending

The Public is Listening, and Associations Are Spending
This week’s blog is re-posted with permission from Aaron D. Wolowiec, MSA, CAE, CMP, CTA. Aaron is the founder and president of Event Garde, a professional development consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Website:

As a public relations professional, imagine my excitement when I stumbled across a new report that found associations are spending an unprecedented amount of money to sway public opinion.

No, I’m not excited that associations are shelling out big bucks, but it’s validation.

It’s true that we’re spin doctors, but we’re there when you need us. It’s our job to help you sort through the clutter of public confusion, misinformation and media madness.

Last month, the Center for Public Integrity released a report on the PR spending of Washington, D.C.-based trade associations.

“It’s been well-publicized how much industry spends on lobbying the government, but little is known about how much money goes toward influencing the public,” the center says. “In an effort to find out more, Center for Public Integrity reporters examined the tax returns for trade associations that spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2012. The IRS requires the groups to report their top five contractors.”

The report found that from 2008 to 2012, 144 trade groups spent $1.2 billion – 37 percent of the total amount spent on contracts – on PR and marketing. By industry sector, energy and natural resources associations were the big spenders. Business associations came in second, spending more than $200 million on public relations, marketing and ad services. And, perhaps of special interest to our readers: The food and beverage association ranked No. 4 in PR spending.

At one time, associations earmarked thousands of dollars for lobbyists. But that’s slowly shrinking, thanks to the advent of social media, blogs and citizen journalism. Whereas lobbying engages policy makers, public relations engages a public platform devoid of class, gender, race and socioeconomic divisions.

So why the shift to public relations?

“They certainly want to influence the general public because the general public will then influence the politicians, the lawmakers or the regulators in that particular industry,” said Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of trade magazine PR Week.

And it seems Edelman is thriving. The nation’s largest public relations firm, which employs 5,000 people, netted the most revenue. According to the report, associations paid Edelman nearly $350 million, with the American Petroleum Institute carrying most of the load.

It’s important to note that the report measured only the most politically active associations in Washington, D.C., so some key players could have been left out of the analysis.

However, “the contractor information provides an inside look at the way trade associations use PR and advertising to ply the American mind,” the Center for Public Integrity says. “Trade groups determined to fight regulations and boost profits of their members have spent heavily to influence how the public perceives policies that affect everything from the air we breathe to the beverages we drink.”

A word of caution: Transparency is important. If you budget for public relations efforts, make sure your members know where your association stands.

So, all this said….what do we do?

Essentially, PR pros are message makers. In a sticky situation, it’s our job to help clients maintain their integrity. But we’re also storytellers. Earned media (or non-paid media coverage) is key to reputation building, especially in a market in which PR pros outnumber journalists.

Is your association setting a trend? Does your association have an awesome success story to share, i.e. outreach or community service? Do you have a member organization that’s doing something incredible? That’s where PR can help. For starters, check outPublic Relations Society of America, which includes a directory of PR firms and service providers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].


Social Media Associations’ Top Strategy for Member Engagement

Social Media Associations’ Top Strategy for Member Engagement

Member engagement doesn’t happen randomly. Associations with increases in overall membership are “also more likely to have a strategic initiative in place for increasing engagement,” according to the 2015 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General.

Those that have been most successful – according to this study – cite participation in public social networking as the engagement strategy that has been most effective for driving engagement – more than young professionals programs, webinar attendance, and members-only website areas.

This makes sense. You can offer all the value-adding programs and services you want, but you won’t get very far unless you aggressively promote them, and social media has become a go-to tool for doing just that.

According to the study, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are the most-used platforms by hopeful associations looking to find new ways of connecting with members. Most of them have learned that the saying “if you build it they will come” doesn’t apply in the realm of social media. You have to actively build and nurture your social media page with timely, relevant content that’s helpful to your audience in order to increase exposure.

Association executives shared some of their best practices from their social media experience, including:

One thing to add … don’t make your content all about you. People get tired of seeing promotional content constantly – and eventually, Facebook won’t even show your posts in your fans’ newsfeeds. Try to make the majority of your posts serve your members’ and prospective members’ interests – it’ll make them more likely to read the occasional post promoting your next event.


The Six Stages of Brainstorming

The power of brainstorming as a creative thinking technique is enhanced by engaging the six stages of brainstorming during a brainstorming session. Although brainstorming has been used since the 1930’s and many, if not most, people have engaged in informal brainstorming, few have led formal brainstorming sessions. To get maximum benefit from a brainstorming session, it is important that brainstorming session leaders understand the six stages. The stages were originally identified by J. Geoffrey Rawlinson in the book he published for the British Institute of Management in 1971.

State the Problem and Discuss

Either the leader or the person who requested the session states the problem. If optimal diversity is present in the room, there will be varying degrees of familiarity with the problem. Therefore, time (usually not more than five minutes) is given to discussing the problem. It is important that the discussion not get into too much detail about the problem, as you don’t want to get into a discussion of solutions at this point and it is helpful that some in the diverse group are not overly familiar with the problem.

Restate the Problem

After the problem has been stated and captured on a flip chart, the group is asked to restate the problem in as many ways as possible. Often, the problem can be restated in 20 to 100 different ways. In asking the group to restate the problem, ask them to step back and look at the problem as a huge elephant. Ask them to look at it from different angles and sides, to climb over it and identify as many different facets as possible. All of the restatements should be phrases that begin with “How to…” Each restatement is phrased in terms of “how to” do something. The “how to” statements must make sense in a literal way; otherwise, it is likely that a solution, rather than the problem, is being identified. If a restatement doesn’t make sense, the leader should ask the participant to restate the thought in a way that makes sense in the “how to” statement form.

Select a Basic Restatement

Selecting the problem restatement that will be used for brainstorming can be done in one of two ways: autocratic or democratic. Either the leader can pick the restatement that will be used or the group can pick it. It the group is asked to pick, the leader can ask can capture a few group suggestions (4 or 5) on a flip chart and then have the group narrow the list down to the top one (or two) by voting or another method. Once the top restatement is identified, it should be re-written in the following format: “in how many ways can we…” Reformatting the restatement transitions the group from the restatements to the identification of solutions.

Warm-up Session

A warm-up session is used to get the group to focus on the session and to get them used to “free-wheeling.” The leader’s objective during the warm-up session is to create some laughter and excitement in the room. Warm-up sessions are short but can last up to 5 minutes. They are based on the audience throwing out ideas to complete a key phrase that begins with “other ideas for…” For example, other ideas for rubber boots or other ideas for a dining room table or other ideas for a fan, etc.


Brainstorming begins with the leader reading the chosen restatement and calling for ideas. All of the ideas should be captured on flip chart pages, with each idea (ideally) numbered. It is important that the flip chart pages, as they are filled, are posted on the wall for all participants to see throughout the session. It is also important to keep the session moving, so the leader should be prepared to offer solutions/ideas. The leader should also encourage laughter and noise. Ultimately, noise is good during brainstorming; either the leader or participants should be saying something at all times. Unplanned silence can kill a brainstorming session. If the session slows down, the leader can ask for a moment of “silent incubation,” by asking participants to read a list near them to stimulate more ideas. Then, after about a minute, the leader repeats the current restatement and the flow of ideas begins again. Other methods to re-invigorate a session include taking an idea that was previously stated and asking the participants to state variants of the original idea, using a second or third restatement, or taking a break to do an additional, funny warm-up session.

Wildest Idea

The final stage of brainstorming is the wildest idea. After all ideas have dried up, the leader closes the session by asking the group to find the wildest and most foolish idea. The wildest ideas are captured on a fresh spreadsheet. Once they are captured, ask the group to come up with additional ideas based the wildest and foolish ideas. This will generate a few more ideas (often 10 to 15) and end the session on a high and fun note.

Ultimately, conducting brainstorming sessions effectively takes practice. Through practice, you will be able to move through the stages in a seamless manner. Of course, there are some other tricks to the trade, but these basic stages will get you started on running powerful brainstorming sessions.

How do you structure your brainstorming sessions?

About the Author

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.

Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at


Improve Your Employees’ Performance in 4 Steps

Improve Your Employees' Performance in 4 Steps
As managers and leaders, as Ken Blanchard stated if we want to “help people reach their full potential, catch them doing something right.” In fact, wouldn’t be great if we started each day with the conscious goal of catching our employees doing something right and giving them immediate positive feedback?

Unfortunately, even if our default position is to catch people doing things right, there will be times that an employee’s performance doesn’t meet our expectations. When this occurs, immediate feedback is also necessary. Of course, unlike positive feedback that is great to give in public, comments regarding negative performance are best given in private.

Most often, employee performance issues can be corrected informally. It is simply a matter of bringing the issue to the attention of the employee, clarifying the expected behavior and talking about what the employee can do to improve the performance. However, there are times when a more formal approach needs to be taken. In these cases, a performance improvement plan can be put into place prior to the need to take disciplinary action.

Performance Improvement Plan

The goals of a performance improvement plan are to identify the causes of the poor performance and to develop a solution(s) to help the employee succeed. Creating a performance improvement plan is a four-step process.

Meet with the Employee

First, one meets with the employee, preferably in their office, to discuss the issue and to let the employee know that a performance improvement plan is going to be developed. During this meeting, it is important that you inform the employee, in specific terms, what the problem behavior/performance is and clearly define what your expectations are for acceptable performance/behavior. This initial meeting is also an opportunity to listen to what the employee has to say about the poor performance and engage in a dialogue about what the employee thinks is the cause for the poor performance and what tools if any, the employee might need to improve the performance. The objective of the conversation is listening for cues from the employee about what appropriate action(s) might be useful in improving the performance. This dialogue will often provide information that you can reflect on as you develop a formal performance improvement plan.

Write the Performance Improvement Plan

The second step is to actually write up a performance improvement plan. The written plan should pinpoint the performance needing improvement, explain how that performance impacts the organization and clearly state what action steps need to be taken to get the performance up to standard.

When pinpointing the performance that needs improvement, it is important that specific examples are provided. For instance, if it is an issue with coming to work late, state specific dates and times that employee has arrived late. If it is an issue with deadlines not being met, list the specific assignments, the dates they were due and the actual completion dates. If it is an issue with the manner in which an employee communicates with other employees or customers, list specific examples.

Next, explain how the performance impacts the business. It is important that the employee understands how their performance impacts other employees and the business at large.

Finally, the plan should contain an action plan, with specific target dates, that pinpoints the steps to get the performance up to standard and maintained at the standard. This section should also include what the follow-up process will be for monitoring the employee’s improvement, including the frequency of follow-up meetings. If it is a performance issue that requires professional development, the should state exactly what professional development should be engaged in, be it attending certain training programs, reading certain books, registering for a particular webinar, etc. If it is a more basic issue such as arriving at work on time, the plan might require to an employee to record his / her arrival time each day on a graph and meet with you once a week to review the graph.

Review the Plan with the Employee

After the plan is written up, meet with the employee and review the entire document. It is important that you review all of the information in the plan to ensure that the employee understands what is documented therein. It is also important that the employee understands that their job could be in jeopardy if they fail to meet and maintain the expected performance standard(s).

Follow Up with the Employee

Meet with the employee at the intervals specified in the plan to provide feedback on the employee’s improvement or lack thereof. These follow-up meetings might be fairly frequent during the beginning of the performance improvement cycle with the frequency diminishing over time until the performance improvement timeframe, as defined in the plan, concludes.

At the end of the performance improvement timeframe laid out in the plan, the employee will have met the requirements of the plan in their entirety, demonstrated improvement but not fully met the requirements set forth in the plan or failed to comply with the plan. If the employee meets the requirements, it is important to give the employee positive feedback and communicate the importance of maintaining the standard going forward. If the employee should be marked improvement but didn’t fully meet the requirements set forth in the plan, you may come to the conclusion that some of the requirements were too aggressive and consider the performance improvement timeframe to be over; or, you may revise the plan to give the employee a little more time to comply. If the employee did not meet the plan requirements and made little or no progress, termination may be in order. Of course, if legal counsel has not reviewed your termination procedures, you may want to seek the advice of an employment attorney before triggering the termination process.

Click here for a Performance Improvement Plan template.

How does your performance improvement process differ from this?


The Right Questions to Ask on Your Next Membership Survey

The Right Questions to Ask on Your Next Membership Survey
You might say, “I already know my members – I am constantly talking to them and getting their feedback.” That’s a great start, and will definitely help you make an overall assessment of your members’ needs. However, there’s a danger in assuming that the select group of people you are talking to all share the same common attitudes and opinions.

You’ll need to draw on more quantitative, objective information for your analysis. The insights that come out of your analysis should form the basis of the decisions you make from then on.

So how do you get to know your members? There are a lot of different research methods you can use. A combination of formal membership surveys and informal interviews is ideal. It’s best to start with broader surveys. Once you’ve analyzed the results, you can ask a handful of members to schedule informal interviews so that you can get a better understanding of why the survey participants responded the way they did.

An effective membership survey collects all of the information you need while being as short as possible. Respondents should be able to finish it in 10 minutes or less. Anything longer can cause them to drop off before completion.

It’s a good idea to have the survey available online and as a hard copy to increase response rates. Most membership management software has built-in survey tools, which allow you to connect your members’ responses to their demographic information. This is really useful when analyzing the information.

Getting the Right Information

If you’re looking at your members only in terms of their titles, industries, or membership levels, you are likely missing vital information that will help you create more value for your target members and prospects.

The truly valuable insights are reached when you evaluate your members and prospects based on their behaviors, needs, values, interests, motivations, and attitudes. Everything you do – from building membership packages to creating marketing messages – should be based on these key elements.

Demographic & Personal Information

In order to get your members and prospects to take positive actions, you must address their personal needs.  Access to demographic and personal information can help you connect your members’ actions – attending events, purchasing subscriptions, or discontinuing memberships – to the motivations and attitudes that triggered the actions. Demographic information also assists you in identifying the characteristics your key members and prospects have in common.

Every association is different, so the types of information you choose to collect will vary according to your objectives. Some examples of demographic or personal information include:

To understand how this information is useful in practice, consider the example of two engineers belonging to an industry association. One of them is new to the field, and the other has 35 years of experience.

The young engineer joined so he could access educational resources and advance his career.  The more experienced electrician has already done all the learning he is interested in doing. To him, the value of being a member is having his interests represented through the organization’s advocacy work.

Promoting the value of advocacy to the young engineer would be totally ineffective because it doesn’t really matter to him. To attract and keep members, you need to find ways to express what matters to them. Demographic and personal data help you do that.

Be sure to check back next week, when we’ll cover what kinds of questions to ask your members to get an insight into how they perceive your organization, what kind of value they get from their membership, and the needs you should be meeting.