Developing Surveys to Use in Your Public Relations Efforts, Part 2

In my previous article about survey development, I described some issues relating to survey participant pool sizes and tips for developing better questionnaires to lead to more media friendly and attention-grabbing data points for public relations.

Common questions I get from clients tend toward: “Do I have to pay for a survey company? Can’t we just do our own using our own lists? Or do it on social media?” Yes, you can use a cost-effective tool like Survey Monkey if the goal of your survey is to get some fun facts. But if you are surveying your existing lists of customers, partners, and prospects — or doing a simple Twitter poll — the audience is not representative. The media won’t find your survey credible.

survey for public relations

“Surveys based on self-selected volunteers, such as opt-in online polls, do not have a grounded statistical tie to the population. Estimates from self-selected volunteers are subject to unknown errors that cannot be measured,” said the American Association for Public Opinion Research about what it calls a “credibility interval.” If you want your research to be taken seriously by mainstream media, you need a serious survey partner — professional reporters will ask the source of your data and the margin of sampling error.

Paying for what you get

Consider working with a reputable research partner that is an expert in conducting surveys. A few that Sterling Communications clients have worked with — or that have been recommended by other public relations professionals — include these U.S. and U.K.-based firms (listed in alphabetical order): Audience Audit, Cite Research, Dimensional Research, Harris Poll, OnePoll, Qualtrics, Researchscape International, Sapio Research, Toluna, Uncover Research, Vitreous World, and Wakefield Research.

Some of these companies are full-service research vendors that will help you develop the survey questionnaire, identify and recruit the participants, tabulate results, provide reports and charts and graphics in varying detail, and even assemble pitch guides for use with media. Others may focus more on just the surveying steps and data analysis. If you have your own resources for design and media relations who are already expert at your branding and messaging, then you might opt for cost-effective options that will allow you to cherry-pick the stages of the process for which you need support.

If you have deep pockets, you can also commission surveys from respected analyst firms such as Gartner, IDC, Forrester, and Frost & Sullivan; or from a customer publishing house like MIT Technology Review Insights. Their logo will give your survey project the burnished patina of serious qualitative and/or quantitative research. However, they are also highly protective of their brand reputation, so will have more restrictions over how you promote the research.

Doing survey development right

Survey projects require planning and a great deal of thought to ensure you get a useful outcome. “Garbage in, garbage out” really does apply.

Don’t forget to get buy-in from senior management, as you want someone to act as survey spokesperson for follow-on public relations activities. If you don’t have their support, then they won’t be excited to tout the survey’s output at conferences, in podcasts, and throughout the company’s marketing content.

Happy surveying!

If you’d like more help in developing a survey or you have exciting research to promote to the media, send us an email at go@sterlingpr.com.

Developing Surveys to Use in Your Public Relations Efforts, Part 1

Surveys can be powerful tools for public relations teams as well as product marketing teams. They can serve dual purposes, demonstrating thought leadership and/or collecting data to provide insight into a particular market segment or audience stance on an issue. 

surveys for public relations

But a survey developed for PR purposes — say, to elicit “fun facts” to weave into contributed articles, blog posts, and media pitches — may not produce the quantitative and qualitative insights that a product marketing team needs for refining products and services. If you simply want a data point to validate a marketing point, it may be more effective to find publicly available data or pay a third-party for reuse rights. 

Before developing a survey, it’s important to agree up front on intended purpose and hard-data-versus-soft goals, as that will guide the questions and format, and determine the necessary survey respondent pool size. Those in turn affect cost and final product — report, slides, standalone graphics, landing page, etc.

Surveys do require a lot of effort to do well. In developing PR-focused surveys for clients, I have found three key stumbling blocks:

  • Survey pool sizes (and traps)
  • Questionnaire development
  • DIY or tapping a vendor (Part 2)

How big is the pool?

For your survey to be viewed as credible, you need to be transparent regarding the survey pool size and the source of the respondents. That’s why a press release or article or slide deck about survey results will have fine print disclosing the demographics.

If your survey data is collected from a group that isn’t a good approximation of the population as a whole, then it may be biased. When a survey vendor looked at a corpus of press releases to determine common sample sizes for PR-focused surveys, the median size was about 1,000. A survey of 1,000 people in Australia (26 million in 2021) is obviously far more statistically valid for consumer sentiment than a survey of 1,000 people in the U.S. (332 million).

Business-to-business (B2B) surveys of highly targeted audiences (say, IT professionals at North American companies with a minimum of 1,000 employees) do typically have lower sample sizes than surveys of general consumers, voters, or employees. The same survey vendor found the median size of a B2B survey was 377 respondents vs. 1,032 respondents for a business-to-consumer (B2C) survey.

The trap of Simpson’s paradox

Be wary of pooling survey results to get “global” or “multi-country” results. Simpson’s paradox, also known as the amalgamation paradox, is a phenomenon in probability and statistics in which a trend appears in several different groups of data but reverses or disappears when these groups are combined. 

Comparisons of results across countries is interesting for the cultural perspective, but consolidated, averaged data may not accurately represent the population sentiment of any country. 

For example, perhaps you do business in Latin America as well as the U.S. Your product marketing team wants a survey that reflects a Latin American market that is similar in size to that of the U.S. You may survey the same number of people in three countries of vastly different sizes — Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, for example. If you look at the data country-to-country, there may be significant differences among them, as well as in comparison to the United States. But when you pool the data across the three countries for an overall “Latin American” result to compare to the U.S., the combined result may give you very misleading impressions. That can lead to poor decisions related to any product aimed at those countries.

That is the question

I have learned the hard way that the more time and analysis that goes into the development of the survey questionnaire, the more useful the data will be. 

Screening questions. Decide how finely you want to slice and dice your data, depending on whether you’re using the data for general PR visibility or for true market research. You’ll want some screening questions, but do you need to know age, gender, race, geographic region, company size? Those questions “count” toward the number of questions you are asking. You don’t want the survey to be too long, as the participant may get frustrated and quit. You may also be paying for a certain number of questions.

Yes/No questions. A survey that you’re conducting for PR purposes should produce bigger extremes in responses, in order to get more headline-worthy numbers. Meanwhile, a survey designed to produce true marketing insight may need questions that will result in more nuanced responses. Yes/no, black/white questions that force people to choose a single option instead of multiple choice or carousel “choose all that apply” responses will result in bigger numbers for stronger statements. In that way, if 30% said Yes, you can accurately assume 70% said No — instead of 40% No and 15% Sometimes and 15% Frequently. It’s easier to “reverse the math” or flip statements from a negative to a positive in order to get a headline-worthy number.

Avoid negative assumptions. Try to avoid questions that will result in twisty logic and false assumptions. For example, “Which of these options do you dislike the most?” or “Which do you like the least”? assumes all are disliked. Therefore, you can’t assume reverse statements are true (that people like X most). It’s better to ask positive questions (“Which do you like the most?” or “Rank by the order you like most”) and then assume the option with the lowest ranking is most disliked/least preferred/least favorite. 

Question language and flow. Your questions should have a natural, logical order and build upon each other to help steer the thought process of the survey respondent. Sometimes new questions are added late in the development process but there’s a related question elsewhere in the survey. If you want to keep them both, it makes sense to have them appear consecutively. And be sure you’re using consistent terminology or have a reason for variance, for example, “customer support” versus “customer service” versus “customer experience.”

Second-guess yourself. Review each question in the survey and consider, “Why are we asking this? Who wants this info? What will be the resulting statement and will it be interesting or useful?” As noted above regarding screening questions, if you don’t have a good reason or know how the data will be used, then don’t bother with the question.

Intermission

Always leave your audience wanting more!  In my next blog post, I’ll provide some advice on determining when it’s appropriate to do your own survey versus getting outside help. And I’ll list some qualified survey vendors. 

In the meantime, please reach out to go@sterlingpr.com if you could use help in your PR or marketing efforts.

Company Podcasting 101: Tips and Best Practices

As explained in a previous post, company podcasting can be a great way to augment marketing and communications goals and showcase expertise in an engaging and popular format.

If you’re considering the launch of a company podcast, here are some podcasting tips and best practices to inform your efforts.

podcasting microphone

Planning a company podcast

Before you launch a new product or service, you need a plan. It’s always important to have the right strategy and track each milestone along the way. Podcasting is no different. It’s critical to have business objectives, a solid communications plan, and a content strategy before launch.

Use these three questions to frame company podcast preparations: 

  • What is your message? 
  • What are your goals?
  • How will you ensure engagement with your audience?

What you need for podcasting

A company podcast will need branding. This includes cover art (for listing on various hosting platforms and for highlighting on your own website). A written show description and a standard introduction that can be reused at the start of each episode is also important. Each individual episode will also need its own brief written description.

You’ll also probably want some background music to accompany your standard introduction and to close out each podcast episode. Musical accompaniment doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. There are loads of free resources online for royalty-free and copyright-free podcast music, including the Free Music ArchivePixabay, and the YouTube Audio Library

Standard equipment for recording can include nothing more than a smartphone. However, we advise that at minimum you record using a headset with microphone or earbuds as they improve voice-capture exponentially. For even more polished recording, there are now dozens of inexpensive podcast microphones available for purchase, many with built-in noise reduction features and pop filters that supply studio-grade sound.

Speaking of studios, they’re great! But you don’t necessarily need one to record a podcast. A quiet, distraction-free room with a closed door should suffice.

Some software will be required to produce your company podcast. While you can use standard smartphone recording features or even conferencing apps like Zoom or Skype to record your sessions, we recommend exploring applications purpose-built for podcasting. In our client podcast production efforts, we’re currently using Ringr due to its remote recording clarity, same-room sound, and multiparty participation features.

You’ll also need a podcast hosting service to store and distribute your episode files and to submit them to Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or other podcast directories. There are tons of affordable podcast hosting services, and many provide extras such as analytics, scheduling tools, and social sharing features. Sterling currently uses podcast industry stalwart libsyn for our clients.

Coaching tips for first-time podcasters

Aside from using headphones and a mic and recording in a quiet space, here are a few other tips for recording company podcasts:

  • Encourage participants to start over or restate as needed – it’s fairly easy to edit and stich-together audio files. And everyone stumbles verbally sometimes. As long as you aren’t broadcasting a live audio stream, take advantage of the medium’s benefits to produce the best listening experience. On the flip side, don’t expect or aim for absolutely flawless delivery; overly scripted podcasts tend to be stilted and unappealing.
  • The tempo of speaking should be close to when you speak with someone on the phone, not too fast and not too slow. Remember to breathe.
  • Citing statistics and sources is great for credibility, but there’s a diminishing return on effectiveness in a single audio encounter. Judiciously curate your references and try to limit stats to 3–4 in any single episode.
  • Unless you’re creating a single speaker podcast, the experience is a conversation and should sound like one. Encourage authenticity, reciprocity, and interesting anecdotes; and suggest that guests pause briefly before answering questions. These qualities tend to engage listeners.

Getting the word out

Once your company podcast is recorded, edited, hosted, and live for streaming or download, you’ll want to spread the news to potential listeners. In addition to encouraging all your friends and family to listen and review where applicable, publicize your podcast on your company website. Reach out to your intended audience with links to your episodes via your organization’s social media accounts, and participate in #PodRevDay on Twitter and similar podcast-related forums.

You can also engage with podcast directories (Apple, Spotify, etc.) on social media to increase potential reach. And depending on your podcast format and amplification goals, outbound pitching for your show to appear in industry “top ten” lists and roundups relevant to your target audience might also be a good idea.

If you’d like more information or further guidance on developing a podcast or integrating podcasting with your overall PR and communications objectives, feel free to email us at go@sterlingpr.com or call (408) 395-5500.

Carli Aiona | Sterling Communications

Consider the Company Podcast

One truly under-utilized professional communications medium is the podcast. While this digital audio content delivery format has been around for about 20 years, it’s still largely neglected for brand audience development and messaging amplification.

Sure, many companies advertise on or sponsor third-party podcasts. And many thought leaders already engage with popular podcast shows as guests or contributors. That’s all great! But such avenues largely mimic the customs of traditional audio formats like radio. 

The power of podcasts

Modern companies should consider podcasts along the same lines as video. Just as with creating a company YouTube or Vimeo channel — or featuring video webinars, sizzle reels, and product or service explainers on your organization’s website — a company podcast can deliver powerful encapsulated content directly to interested individuals at scale.

The format is portable, intimate, and incredibly engaging — and podcast consumption is on the rise.

podcast headphones

According to The Infinite Dial 2020 report from Edison Research: 

  • 212 million Americans are familiar with podcasting 
  • 104 million Americans are monthly listeners 
  • 68 million Americans are weekly listeners
  • 48% of listeners are ages 12–34, 32% are 35–54, and 20% are 55+
  • 55% of listener audiences are men, 45% are women 

Podcasts and PR

Such a large and growing audience deserves attention in public relations strategies. Companies can pursue podcast development to augment marketing and communications goals, to showcase expertise, to provide self-directed learning content, or even broaden recruitment outreach. As Business.com notes:

  • Podcasts capture audience attention
  • Podcasts create a personalized experience
  • Podcasts help build and maintain important network connections

In short, podcasting presents a great opportunity for organizations to demonstrate knowledge and value through a convenient, popular, and effective medium.

Sterling Communications recently worked with a client to develop, launch, and produce a monthly podcast focused on highlighting key mission objectives and exploring pertinent issues within a specific sector. Discussions about the concept began in July 2020, development and production officially kicked off in September, and the first episode went live in November. That’s a pretty speedy process for mastering a new medium and establishing a new brand communications vehicle!

While there was definitely a learning curve, moving from podcast idea to actualization was neither inordinately complex nor cost prohibitive. The barriers to podcasting are pretty low — anyone can make one, and some amateur efforts are great.

Podcast prep

That being said, as with all professional communications, developing a brand podcast requires clear strategy and forethought. Not every company’s communication needs are the same, so not every podcast will be the same. Here are three research and preparation tips if you’re considering a podcast for your organization:

  1. Podcast exploration: Browse and listen to a variety of freely available podcasts for inspiration. Make sure your research includes podcasts with single speakers, one-on-one interviews or conversations, and group panels. Sample podcasts devoted to diverse topics, not just those covering your organization’s area of focus. Gauge your preferences (and those of your intended audience) for different episode lengths (5 minute, 20 minute, or about an hour).
  2. Podcast software and hardware: Learn a bit about the tools you’ll need to make it all happen. While pretty much every device these days comes with microphone and recording capabilities, there is a vast assortment of equipment, apps, and services that can impact quality and either ease or complicate your podcasting efforts. We’ll discuss a few recording/editing/hosting/distribution options in our next post.
  3. Podcast branding: Spend some time thinking about your podcast’s “personality.” You’ll need to consider what you’ll call it, who will host it, how it will be described, what kinds of images and collateral will accompany it for listing and sharing.

Other deliberations will include cadence (episode posting yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily); whether there’ll be guests, mapping out a content calendar to plan episodes by theme and/or topic, and budgeting investment (in both dollars and time).

Keep in mind that very few podcasts achieve the popularity of The Tim Ferris Show or TED Talks Daily, and that’s OK. A company podcast shouldn’t aim to be the next Serial

Building any podcast audience is gradual and takes time. And the ultimate aim of a company podcast should be to supply engaging content for a pretty specific audience (say, your desired customers, potential partners, industry influencers, and future recruits).

Envisioning a company podcast that’s tailored to add communications value specific to your organization is the best place to start. We’ll devote our next post to detailing “Company Podcasting 101: Tips and Best Practices.” In the meantime, you can email us at go@sterlingpr.com or call (408) 395-5500 to learn more or further discuss podcasting and PR.

Communicating effectively on sustainability

The diesel cheating affair of 2015 nearly destroyed Volkswagen. The company sat at the center of one of the largest scandals in auto history after employees wrote software to make Volkswagen diesel car emissions appear cleaner than they were. Volkswagen’s long-standing reputation for engineering excellence and sustainability innovation was destroyed overnight. $30 billion in compensation, years in court appearances, and reams of repair costs followed. 

This crisis forced Volkswagen to take a hard look at its strategy, operations, and culture. It had to fight for its existence. Only then could it formulate a recovery strategy. 

The company is lucky to have survived.

BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010 was the environmental mega-crisis of the decade, which proved a cautionary tale. On a business and communications footing, there was a path for Volkswagen to follow after BP’s travails. News trends also gave Volkswagen some air cover in the U.S., as Donald Trump’s presidential run and a visit from Pope Francis were making headlines at the time. But there are savvy methods for rebounding from a crisis no matter the scenario.

In Political Risk, a book on how organizations anticipate risk and insecurity, Condoleeza Rice and Amy Zegart outlined the method for how companies can tackle crises effectively. They take them seriously, approach with humility, and they lead from the top. Fast application of these principles can help companies find a path forward. Clear communications play an important role in such endeavors.


Time and Tide and Sustainability

Now, industry analysts say Volkswagen is reborn. It is the leading global seller of cars, and has lofty electric car goals for market share and driving emissions down. It has pledged to spend $25 billion to develop battery-powered or hybrid versions of every one of its models by 2030. It wants to flood the electric vehicle market with affordable cars — “mainstream” it away from the Tesla market perception of EVs as the preserve of the few, not the many. Electric vehicles are expected to account for as much as 25 percent of global sales by 2025. Volkswagen is hungry for a large slice of the pie. Damaged reputation still hinders that effort to a degree.


While companies such as Volkswagen were guilty of misleading behavior, others have pragmatically tried to plot the journey from being the very emblem of the environmental degradation, to standing at the forefront of sustainable changes driving the low-carbon economy. 

sustainability communications
Image by Gerd Altmann

A decade ago, I advised a client called Drax on effectively communicating its necessary shift toward sustainability. Drax is a biomass and coal-fired power station in England that, at the time, was aiming to diversify to low carbon fuels. It had a visionary chief executive who wasn’t afraid of what the move from coal to biomass would send to the market. To her, the business case was compelling and the environmental benefits profound — and she was able to win over institutional investors. Drax also chose to work with Imperial College London, a world-class research university, and with leading NGO, WWF. Working with third-party stakeholders meant concepts were challenged and road tested, and gave Drax’s transformation greater credibility in the market. 

The sustainable case was made to transition from coal to biomass, and the company was able to change with the times. Now, Drax is planning to become the world’s first carbon-negative business within 10 years, furthering their sustainability credentials. 

Brave Green World 

With 2021’s new administration in the US, we are likely to see renewed private sector investment in the clean-tech and clean energy sectors. Ambitious climate targets, a reversal of the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and more investment in solar, wind, and sustainable energy projects are on the table. The attention and commitment to sustainability will ratchet up again across sectors. 

The competing stories of Volkswagen and Drax demonstrate how leadership and communicating effectively with all stakeholders can allow you to rebuild after a crisis, but also that pivoting boldly to face the realities of a new landscape and setting the right communications strategy up-front can have real impact on success.

One created a crisis and handled it badly initially, before finding a path to restore its image and embrace technology that would allow millions of people to drive electric cars. The other didn’t waver when it saw that renewable energy, and driving down emissions, was compatible with business performance. 

There is long-term opportunity in risk, crisis, and transition stemming from the convergence of profit, people, and planet. And there are ample techniques for communicating those issues to the world professionally.

But they all start with a simple step. In short, doing the right thing.

The Glory of Good Grammar

Grammar gets a bad rap. 

Maybe the tedium of rote lessons in grade school induced grammar aversion. Or maybe it has something to do with the way grammar correction is so often employed to scold or ridicule. Who hasn’t been on both the giving and receiving end of such grammatical slights from time to time?

Nevertheless, grammar is important. It definitely colors perception in professional settings. According to the National Law Review, grammar actually played a role in a federal court case this year. The defendant’s motion was not only denied, but the counsel was chided for submitting a brief “riddled with spelling mistakes and ungrammatical sentences.” A sample of text from the offending brief reads: “PURSUANT TO FEDERAL RULES OF CIVILE PROCEDURES RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDUE 12(b) (2), (3), and (6) FIRST STANADFINANCIAL COMPANY MUST BE DISMISSED.” Is it any wonder the District Court was not impressed?

Grammar neglect

There’s rarely cause to make a federal case out of grammar. Most folks probably prefer to avoid the subject altogether. Consider the emergence of automated writing aids in all the apps you use these days. There has been an awful lot of effort employed to free people from worrying whether the “i” comes before the “e.” 

And it’s not just spellcheckers: Grammarly, the company responsible for an AI-powered tool that also scrutinizes sentence structure and word choice in real time, closed a $90 million funding round last year. That’s a mighty big investment in the ability to offload grammatical dexterity.

When we do pause to consciously consider grammar, it’s generally with vexation at someone’s poor usage or anxiety about our own.

But grammar isn’t meant to be avoided or weaponized or feared. It’s meant to reinforce logic, clarify meaning, and help us to communicate with each other. We should think about grammar. It doesn’t confine us. Instead, grammar guides us through the abundant and ever-evolving capabilities of language. That’s a noble journey.

And besides, grammar can be a lot of fun. 

Pleasures of grammar

We’re big fans of Mignon Fogarty’s popular Grammar Girl podcast — a decade-deep treasure trove of interesting instruction on all things grammatical. What’s a comma splice? Why is “Worcester” pronounced “Wooster”? Where did daylight saving time come from? How do you punctuate an indirect question? Did you know “gravy” is a ghost word*? 

Possessing the answers to these questions can make you a better communicator. (And it can make you a more engaging companion at a dinner party!)


Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Even schoolchildren can enjoy the way a misplaced comma results in hilarity.

Most importantly, the pursuit of good grammar demonstrates discernment — care for how our thoughts are understood by others. It’s a glue that helps us relate to one another.

Communication is central to our services at Sterling Communications, so we’re naturally drawn to explorations of grammar. And while we’re happy to employ digital tools to assist in our work, we also believe professional communication requires human attention. For example, the automated writing aids embedded in the application used to write this article didn’t find any errors in the offending legal brief mentioned above. (Capitalization settings are probably the culprit, but human eyes care not for such excuses.)

Like it or not, grammar is inextricably tied to conveying purpose and intent. As the prolific linguist David Crystal has explained:

“Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language. It can help foster precision, detect ambiguity, and exploit the richness of expression available in English. And it can help everyone — not only teachers of English but teachers of anything, for all teaching is ultimately a matter of getting to grips with meaning.”


*Ghost words are words that made it into the dictionary because of an error or misunderstanding.

Presenting and Pitching Remotely as a Team

Like many others in the Silicon Valley, we’ve been conducting business remotely most of the year.

By committing to more phone calls, email, messaging, and web-conferencing, we’ve been managing pretty well. But we’ve definitely noticed that 100% remote work can complicate many facets of business.

For example, we recently conducted a completely remote new business pitch and presentation.

We’ve presented to remote prospects before. And we’ve had a team member dial-in to participate in pitches in the past. But this time everything — from initial contact to opportunity assessment, team assembly, research, scheduling, creative development, pitch coordination, group presentation, and follow-up — was done at a distance.

remote presentation during COVID epidemic

Together apart

While many duties within a presentation development cycle are performed individually, the process as a whole requires group effort and layers of synchronization. In short, our entire methodology for preparation and delivery leans heavily on collaboration.

We’ve got the practice down to a fine art when we can walk across the office to ask a quick question or huddle in a conference room together to share knowledge, brainstorm, and strategize at any stage.

But take away our proximity to each other — and our conference room — and it becomes a very different experience.

Here are some things we learned about virtualizing the process.

It takes more time

You’ll need more time than usual for development when everyone is remote:

  • No tool or technology is as efficient as in-person communication. All the senses are engaged face to face. Things like body language and facial expression or changes in tone quickly impart volumes of information that just doesn’t translate well digitally. 
  • It’s harder to have quick confabs on-the-fly when everyone’s remote. You can’t just glance across the room to capture opportune moments.
  • Group banter and consensus building is more difficult via phone or web conference, where interruption causes audio glitches and background noise often makes muted microphones necessary. Remote group conversation tends to be more linear, and thus more time consuming.
  • Managing complexity via messaging and/or email is laborious. But those are often the best available tools. So a lot of communication is going to be asynchronous. And writing and reading simply eat more time than talking and listening. 
  • Unexpected delays or cancellations are harder to recover from remotely. Anyone who’s been on standby in a Zoom waiting room for 3 minutes can attest to the seemingly interminable drag of time when scheduled web meetings don’t start promptly. 
  • People are more likely to wander away mentally or leap ahead to some other phase of planning when key players are absent. That means more follow up will be required to keep everyone on the same page. 
  • Schedule padded blocks of time for team planning. Expect a few inevitable calendar conflicts. And assume there’s going to be a lot of review to stay synchronized.

Planning and preparation

Coordinating as a group involves more forethought than simply scheduling a web meeting and distributing an agenda:

  • Decide in advance how you are going to manage your shared documentation. We started with email and switched to Box Notes so the whole team could add information in a single living document. 
  • Shared notes evolve quickly. Use subheads, links, and bullets to make information easy to scan. 
  • Deleted items will have to be hunted down and retrieved from revision history if/when they become relevant again. Keep a repository of abandoned information at the end of your documentation so it’s easier to revisit.
  • Version management is essential. Designate one individual to build/manage the presentation deck. Store the most recent version on a shared database accessible to the whole team in case of emergency.
  • How and where you share material is important. If you’re using messaging apps like Slack to share news/images/research with other members of your team, create a Channel. Don’t default to direct messages — this will preserve team access and awareness. It’s also a good idea to save relevant images and resources to a shared folder online.
  • Rehearse. Just as when preparing to present as a team in person, everyone needs to know when they will have the floor and be able to anticipate cues and transitions to keep things flowing smoothly.

Presenting remotely together

Presenting as a team remotely requires attention to choreography and technical issues that might not ordinarily cross your mind. Here are a few considerations and tips:

  • Make sure your computer position, microphone, and camera adhere to web meeting best practices.
  • Remember that everything is being viewed on a screen (often a small one). Participants will spend most of their time visually focused on a slide deck. Don’t bore your viewers by just reading the text aloud (unless you’re presenting to kindergarteners). Instead, interpret what is written, supply context, guide participants through the information that’s being put before them.
  • Within the confines of a web meeting, participants will usually appear as tiny heads on a grid (à la The Brady Bunch) or as highlighted faces in the margin depending on the speaker. At such small scale, you cannot easily make eye contact or signal with a gesture. Verbalize transitions to pass attention to another participant and address each other by name (“My colleague is the expert on this. Pal, can you jump in?”)
  • Similarly, scan faces for signs someone wants to interject/ask a question. Pause often, look for raised hands, circle back when you’re finished speaking (“Joe, it looked like you wanted to comment on the timeline, did you have a question?”).
  • Tools don’t always play well with other tools. Test your conferencing environment and presentation materials for compatibility and display issues ahead of time (missing fonts, unsupported image or animation formats, etc.). For example, we found that Keynote slide decks just don’t work properly in Microsoft Teams environments, so PowerPoint is the better option for such venues.
  • Try not to move around a lot or walk away from your webcam even if you’re not the speaker — it’s distracting. Turn off your webcam if you have to step out of view for any reason.
  • Don’t start real-time side-conversations in other channels (such as Slack, chat apps, or DMs). Give the meeting your full attention.
  • Fill awkward delays or technical glitches with congenial conversation. Ask a question. Engage. Sometimes a participant gets bumped offline, or a software application needs to be restarted. These things happen, but you don’t have to leave everyone silently staring at a screen until the issue is fixed.
  • Be considerate of everyone’s time. If you promised a pitch that would take half an hour, make sure it’s completed in 30 minutes. You may have to truncate parts of your presentation to adjust for conversation that organically develops around particular points. If post-presentation discussion naturally extends beyond the appointed time, that’s perfectly OK (in fact, it’s probably a great sign that you made an impact).

It can be done — and done well

Our all-remote team pitch ultimately came off remarkably well. Even with a few technical issues, we managed to learn a lot in the process and pull together a unified, cogent, and visually appealing presentation highlighting a host of relevant expertise from each member of the team.

More importantly, the remote presentation experience was energizing and fun. It delivered lively conversation with engaged and appreciative participants — and prospective future clients.

Should you be mind mapping?

“Brain fog” is a common complaint these days. But there are techniques that can help organize thoughts and tasks to cut through the haze. Have you ever tried mind mapping?

The Sterling team recently experimented with collective mind mapping to exercise our mental muscles and recharge our creative batteries.

Basically, a mind map is a way to work with information that is more experiential and less linear than simply jotting down notes.

The term “mind map” was coined by the late BBC personality and author Tony Buzan in the 1970s. Buzan’s mind maps were based on the “abstracting” principles of general semantics developed by Alfred Korzybski.

The principal involves crafting diagrams representing ideas, tasks, actions, and relationships around a central concept by using lines and shapes and images and colors — instead of relying on text alone.

The process forms a more communicative, memorable, and impactful exploration of information. 

Mind Maps are fun

Mind Mapping Sterling Communications
Sterling interactive mind map exercise.

To create a mind map, start with a single idea or topic. Then “grow” relational branches radiating from it to create a graphical data visualization.

Mind maps can be created with online tools. (We used Miro for our remote interactive exercise, but there are a variety of others available.) They can also be drawn by hand on paper or a whiteboard.  

They’re engaging

Simple Mind Map Diagram
Image credit: Safety Professionals Chennai / CC BY-SA

Depending on the depth of exploration desired, a mind map can be a sophisticated and highly detailed study or a quick and rudimentary sketch.

They’re practical

Simple mind map doodle.

Regardless of scale, mind maps are more intuitive than outlines and more informative than lists.

They are great for brainstorming and tend to spark creativity, so they form an excellent framework for collaborative documentation.

They’re also handy for personal use in simplifying complex processes, uncovering buried insight, or establishing clear structure for ideas that seem unwieldy. 

And that makes them a great tool for clearing brain fog!

The next time you have to take notes or outline a project, try structuring your thoughts as a mind map.

Here are some tips:

On a large blank piece of paper or online whiteboard, write a central topic or question in the middle of the page (or select a representative image) and circle it.

  • Begin by writing down ideas or descriptions branching out from the center circle as spokes or branches that are related to the central topic. Use symbols, shorthand, acronyms, and/or drawings to capture concepts. Don’t worry if they’re obvious or silly, that’s part of the process.
  • Try to find related sub-ideas or descriptions for each spoke/branch. Some may generate a whole new cluster with its own branches and sub-ideas. Draw a shape around these satellite hubs to emphasize them. If possible, use color and line thickness for linking ideas or emphasis.
  • Keep going until you fill the page, completely run out of ideas, or your allotted time runs out.
  • When you’re finished, take a moment to assess the map. If you spot connections/similarities on separate branches, draw a dotted line or arrows connecting them.

Review what you’ve done: Did any directions surprise you? Could you explain how your thoughts moved in retrospect? Do you have greater clarity on the topic or question?

We’re betting the answers will all be yes!

We’re Suddenly All About Web Meetings

Since much of the world is working remotely at the moment and COVID-19 has put the kibosh on meeting in person, there’s been a surge in web conferencing to fill the communications void. All the tech events have gone virtual, the nightly talk show hosts now webcast from home, and Saturday Night Live even parodied the pitfalls of businesses adapting to Zoom togetherness. One startup cofounder is already publicly lamenting the uptick in meeting from home (MFH).

But like it or not, web meetings are here to stay for the duration.

We’ve always provided guidance for our clients on speaking with the media and appearing on camera, but MFH is a bit different. Taking the stress out of a now-common practice seems to be something everyone could use a few tips on these days. Here’s a brief overview on what you do and don’t need to web conference like a boss.

Equipment

Most modern PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones come with decent microphone and camera technology integrated into the device. 

Unless you’ll be broadcasting and recording for regular professional appearances on television or hosting your own podcast, you really don’t need to invest in purchasing a new webcam or XLR microphone. If you have the equipment, by all means use it, but it’s not essential for MFH. Microphone-equipped headphones or earbuds paired to your device are a nice accessory, especially if you’ll be participating from outdoors or anywhere with the potential for distracting background noise.

Setup

Make sure to test your web-conferencing app before the appointed time, and follow standard security/privacy guidelines.

Download any updates. If you’ll be screen-sharing documents, do a dry run to make sure you can launch and navigate through them in-app. Some web-meeting applications issue frequent background updates that may reset your preferences and permissions. That means you might be unable to pull up your PowerPoint slides at this week’s staff meeting without restarting, even though they worked fine last week.

Check microphone and video permissions and settings (make sure they’re enabled), and test sound and volume.

Position your computer or device so that the web camera is at eye level or slightly higher (stack your laptop on a couple of books if you have to) and make sure you aren’t backlit. Close the shades if you’re sitting in front of a window and dim any significant light sources coming from behind if you can — or position a lamp in front of you to illuminate your face.

web meeting tips
A backlit face (left) versus an illuminated face (right).

Virtual Meeting Tips

Try to look directly into the camera as much as possible. It’s the equivalent of maintaining eye-contact in person. 

If you’re in a large web conference or meeting, mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking. 

Try not to interrupt — wait until a speaker has finished before asking questions.

Unless you’re giving a presentation, don’t monopolize the conversation — give others a chance to participate.

If you are giving a presentation, make sure to pause frequently and ask if there are any questions before moving on.

Save the funny virtual backgrounds and filters for informal virtual gatherings. If you’re pitching a new client, MFH as the Cosmic Cat Head is not appropriate.

web meetings
Cosmic Cat web filter.

If your physical location is not something you want to broadcast on a web conference, a virtual standard office background is fine to use. 

web meetings
Generic office virtual background.

Be advised that virtual background function in Zoom and similar web meeting applications depends on specific bandwidth, processor, and/or green-screen requirements. But there are some free apps (like Snap Camera) that can help you workaround those limitations on many devices and operating systems.

And it may sound cliché but remember to be yourself and try to enjoy the opportunity to virtually leave your house. 

Gathering online for web meetings and conferences doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be a great way to stay engaged, connect with each other, and collectively keep our spirits up during these isolating times.