To those of us who once focused our outreach efforts on in-person activities, we now live in a whole new norm. Now more than ever, outreach efforts need to be about service. Partners need to know that we seek to understand their current challenges, have empathy for their individual situations, and will respect their time. It’s a priority for us that partners know when we walk through their door, virtually or otherwise, that our goal is to be supportive. For me, the last few months have been rooted in a renewed focus on earning credibility and building relationships. I try to evaluate each new idea, hope, challenge, initiative, through a lens of service to our partners. There is no shortage of good ideas, so focusing on those that are most relevant, with attainable outcomes, is essential to doing meaningful work that people actually need.
Three Guiding Principles
Effectiveness of today’s outreach initiatives can, and should be, driven by a few key guiding principles. Values, philosophies, and ideologies are all synonyms for principles. My outreach principles are not statements, but instead three simple words, reminders really, and a few follow-up questions. For me, three guiding principles are at the forefront of what I do. If I can’t “check the box” on these principles, then I must question the value of the initiative. Here are my Three Guiding Principles of Outreach in a Virtual Norm:
1) Relevance. Is this something they need? Will this help them now? Will our partners feel this is meaningful? Are participants really missing anything if they don’t attend?
2) Impact. Is this truly attainable, measurable, and replicable? Will this help them/us build for the future? Will this help build relationships?
3) Service. Am I asking for more than I’m giving? Does this reinforce and recognize the meaningful work of others? What are the takeaways for participants? What service am I providing?
Five Essential Elements
Not surprisingly, the most successful of these initiatives exhibit similar key elements. As I navigate the virtual waters of today’s outreach, guided by the light of these principles, I can’t help but notice the recurrence of certain essential elements to the most meaningful outreach destinations. Here are my Five Essential Elements of Outreach in a Virtual Norm:
1) Virtual. You must have virtual options. The truth is that the virtual platform won’t go away, even after pandemic life subsides. You might have to fly the plane while you’re building it, which may seem counterintuitive. However, people are far more receptive to the authenticity of this than most of us are comfortable with, especially now that all virtual content is viewed through a “pandemic lens.”
2) Participation. Don’t just encourage participation, but request it. Participant engagement strategies can include simple things like chat, polls, reactions, show video (unmute), and name changes. Encourage multitasking. That’s right… ask them to get their phone out and visit webpages or text parents DURING your presentation. This is very real, and authentic. Show them how to do things. Explain, “while I’m showing you this, get your phone out and text this webpage to a parent.” As with any lecture setting, retention is directly related to participation.
3) 3-2-1. If you’re a slide reader, meaning you fill your slides with bullet points and words, you need to stop. As a best practice, every slide in a presentation should include three visuals, two statements, and one call to action. Visuals can be a movie, a photo, or a graphic. The idea of two statements is less about having a finite number of statements, and more about avoiding long lists of words. Your visuals should enhance written text, and replace it when possible. A call to action can be something motivational like a scholarship application, a simple directive “get out your phone and visit minntran.org,” or a question that will entice deeper thought, for example. The takeaway from this is that multiples connections to brain functions (reading, seeing, hearing, touching, moving, feeling) is not only the best for retention, but the most engaging.
4) Takeaways. You must provide takeaways for attendees. For a group of students this might be links to scholarship opportunities or even a voucher to an online bookstore. To a group of educators or guidance counselors this might be links to career/college pathway information, curriculum resources, reflection assignments, workforce solutions, YouTube links, etc. The bottom line here is that every participant needs to leave, even virtually, with something that helps them – a service that you provided for them. If you can’t think of a list of why attendees don’t want to miss your presentation, you might not need to give it.
5) Diminishing Returns. Most importantly, keep it short. Even the world’s most influential speakers can’t command a room for an entire hour with words alone. And, if you think about those great speakers you have heard, they all probably had some sort of audio/visual supplements or a super bowl trophy in their hand. For the rest of us humans, 30 to 45 minutes (at the most) is the sweet spot for length. Beyond that is what I consider the “unicorn zone,” and you would need to be a wizard to get high returns. Brains don’t retain information when “talked at” for a lengthy amount of time, especially with someone new. Think of your presentations as the first date – not time to meet mom and dad and set a wedding date. You need work up to that. Make yourself available for later consult. Utilize a call-to-action or shared resource that will make it easier to get a second or third date, so to speak. Most importantly, too much is too much, especially at the beginning. Which reminds me… this article has already rambled on too long!