Moving Through Writer’s Block

At some point in our professional lives, each of us will experience some form of writer’s block – or speaker’s block, and it will be painful, fattening, and unproductive. Sometimes our block comes from being too busy as in “I’ve been too busy to even think about a blog much less write one,” or because we don’t know what to write as in “I don’t understand what they’re asking for in this RFP,” or because we just don’t want to write what we’ve been asked to write as in “Surely someone with more background in this topic can figure this out…”

So, what’s a talented, but blocked professional to do? After you’ve raided the kitchen and eaten half a package of Oreos (a tactic I’m not proud to admit trying on more than one occasion), following are some more productive, and certainly healthier, alternatives. These strategies are not designed to create a superior document, but rather to get a writer started by having content to consider and evaluate. Sometimes they result in a working draft for a document, other times in a more logical exploration of ideas I can use to frame a future document.

Just do it. This is not an attempt to parody a Nike ad, but rather the truth. In a book I just read, when faced with an epic challenge, the protagonist recognized that ‘the only way through it is through it.’ I use this a lot, recognizing that as much as I don’t want to write a document, the only way I’m going to get started is if I actually get started. Sounds simple, and in reality, it is, but it seems so hard.

Write the first line, then the second, then….and see where you are after you’ve written for a while. Don’t worry about the quality of each sentence, nor if each sentence flows seamlessly from its predecessor. Just write.

Let’s be clear, this will not transform you from blocked writer to ‘great American novelist.’ Rather, it will simply get some ideas down so you can see them. Being on paper doesn’t mean good or done; it just means you’ve got something written on paper. The result of this exercise is what we politely call a ‘visual brainstorm’ or a ‘data dump.’ You are free to fill in another metaphor more appropriate to what you actually write down.

You can also start with a topic sentence (sometimes called a ‘central claim’) that synthesizes your content into a single statement of truth as in “Because today’s employees can work from anywhere, we must design workspaces that are both flexible and accommodating.” Then, ‘draw’ content pathways from your claim to see where the content takes you. Different from traditional brainstorming, this method of breaking through writer’s block pushes you to consider different directions on a topic without investing significantly in any one path.

Conducting this exercise on the computer is fast, enabling me to quickly spew a range of ideas upon the page from which I can pick and choose. I can quickly visualize what I know–and sadly, sometimes what I don’t know –to ‘prime the pump’ for the real writing to come. I’ve also found it useful to engage in this exercise on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper, physically drawing links between ideas, crossing out those that don’t bear fruit, and expanding others. As a visual learner, I find the combination of a large board and different colors of pen spurs my creativity and enables me to see linkages and content ideas or direction that I couldn’t see on the computer screen.

Whatever method you choose, a visual brainstorm will show you a pattern of content from which you can develop a logical outline for writing better content. Or, it will help you realize that you don’t know enough to write what it is you’ve been asked to write. This either means that you’ve got a wrong topic, or that you’re the wrong person to be writing about it. For example, when recently asked to write a proposal section for a client, it took me starting a section before I realized that the client hadn’t supplied me with the information I needed to complete the assignment. I wouldn’t have realized that until I actually applied ‘pen to paper’ (or in my case, fingers to keyboard). Only by getting started can you realize what you know and what you don’t know.

Even for those of us who write for a living, writers block happens, and when it happens, it can be professionally challenging and personally frustrating. There are no surefire ways to prevent it, but there are ways to work through it.

For me, there’s a quote from one of America’s greatest writers, Maya Angelou, that pushes me forward, What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

New Year, New Commitments - You In?

In response to the ill political winds of the previous year, Communication Resources committed to donating a significant amount of staff time to charitable and community causes in 2017. When we made our commitments, I promised to write about what we did, so in the spirit of keeping that part of our 'deal', I’m reflecting on what we did last year and where we still need to go in the coming year.

Our volunteer work and giving this year focused on programs that support community and enhance family and social connections.

Interactive installation at the BattleGround Public Library: A conversation between parents and Kids.

Interactive installation at the BattleGround Public Library: A conversation between parents and Kids.

Our team donated almost 100 hours to Battle Ground’s Prevention Alliance to support a broad-based community outreach campaign designed to encourage kids and parents to talk about drug and alcohol abuse. Noah Pylvainen led our efforts for the Alliance, designing the Talking Points campaign to spur positive conversations among teens and parents. The campaign included a broad range of collateral materials and support of several of the Alliance’s community events. Research has found kids who learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol from their parents are 50% less likely to use drugs or alcohol than those who do not. Talking Points is designed to make these conversations easier and more regular.

 
Talking Point Logo.jpg
 

Our team also continued our long-term support of Housing Hope in Snohomish County. Housing Hope has created a successful model based on stable housing that moves families into economic sustainability. Laine Potter continued her years-long work with the organization that started with rocking babies and where she now serves on HH’s Resource Development Council. Our entire team assisted by providing time and dollars to support annual fundraising programs. Mike and I were also pleased to be a part of the original investment team for the HopeWorks Station project in Everett as it moves from concept to reality in the coming year.

In 2017, we exceeded our time and resource commitment. But, more importantly, what’s next? After this year, we learned how hard it is to sustain charitable giving and volunteering over the long haul, particularly as we serve clients and ‘feed’ our growing practice. Community giving takes a dedicated focus and team members who are willing to champion our efforts.

This year, I’m committing to continuing our efforts on behalf of local organizations and causes that support both communication and community. Internally, we’re going to talk more about charitable giving and volunteering, and we’ll make both a more regular part of staff discussions. And, I’m designating a team champion to coordinate all of our efforts. It’s not enough to make the commitment; we need to designate the time and develop the internal infrastructure to support that commitment.

At a time when corporations are given tax breaks while private citizens are hurting, all of us who own businesses need to either step up or continue to step out in front of community giving. So, here’s our commitment and (in the spirit of the week’s political tweetstorm), my challenge for 2018:

I’ve got a ‘charitable giving button’ on my desk that I’m going to push frequently to support important programs in our state and our community. It’s huge, and it works! We’ll give the value of 40 hours/ full-time employee this year to our community. I challenge each of my colleagues across the industry to do the same. Let’s see what we can do together to support the communities in which we work and live. Game on!

 

A Tale of Two Emails

I received the nicest email yesterday afternoon. The email was a form ‘letter’ from a State of Washington agency to which my team and I had submitted a proposal. The short note thanked me for submitting, acknowledged how much work the proposal had certainly taken, and apologized for a delayed decision. It provided a date when the decision would be made and let me know what to expect in the process. For some reason, this short note made me feel good, that my work mattered, and that the man at the other end of the email really did care about the impact his words and his agency’s actions have on my organization. Uncharacteristically, I actually sent a short reply thanking him for his email and letting him know his ‘nicety’ had made a difference in my day.

Compare this to the email I received this morning. This email was another mass email asking me to submit a proposal to a local county for a project that looked quite enticing. The difference is that we aren’t interested in responding for this project—or for any project with this agency. About a year ago, my team and I submitted another proposal. We’d made the requisite phone calls, researched the project, wrote a responsive proposal, and even drove out to the peninsula from our office in Mill Creek (a four-hour round-trip journey) to hand deliver it.

It wasn’t the fact that we weren’t selected that bothered me and caused me to hit delete after reading today’s email. What still ‘sticks in my craw’ is the officious and cold letter I received almost six weeks after we submitted our proposal after I’d left a voice message requesting information about project status. Despite this individual having sent me a personal email asking me to submit, having had several conversations about his agency’s interest in working with us, I received a form letter, not addressed to me nor even coming to my email but delivered to our info@ address. The letter was brief and to the point, letting ‘to whom it may concern at Communication Resources’ know that we had not been selected for the ‘aforementioned project’. I decided then and there that I’d hit ‘delete’ any time an RFP or request solicitation came from this individual or agency.

How we deliver information matters and how we make requests matters. Having served in both City and County government, I’m very aware of the time constraints on public servants. I’m also keenly aware as a consultant how much time and effort goes into the average proposal, even those when a procurement officer has tried to make the process as easy as possible. The average proposal, even a short one takes an organization 50—100 hours to analyze, write, edit, design, proofread, and produce a document that will be responsive to the prompts, reflect the character and quality of your organization, and that respects the unique nuances of the project. That’s about $10,000 for a small organization, much more for a larger organization on a more complex project.

For most of my A/E/C clients, the average cost of a proposal is between $20,000 and $50,000. For any sized organization, this does not count the cost of business development, industry outreach, collateral development, and the maintenance of an overhead function within the organization. With overworked marketing departments, principals writing into the wee hours of the morning to get proposals out between client and project requirements, and ever challenged budgets, two things must happen: our firms need to get smarter about what we pursue and our clients need to be more thoughtful about what they ask for and who they ask.

I’ve written and spoken before about making effective Go/No Go decisions as being the most important thing any organization can do to positively influence its hit rate. Today, however, my message is more direct: I think we need to augment our Go/No Go decisions to consider the ways in which our potential clients procure work and make requests for proposals or bid. We need to push our clients and potential clients to consider the cost of the pursuit and the adverse impact on businesses that their actions in the procurement process may have.

I have three requests to potential clients, particularly those in the public sector:

  1. Take time to write your RFP document in a way that is clear, concise, and direct. Only request information that you need to make a good decision. Read your document and ask yourself how much time it would take your agency—and you in particular—to respond to this request. Read it again to make sure the requested information is not redundant and that the prompts are clear to the reader as to what exactly you request. Align your page limitations to the realities of the questions you’ve asked. Simply asking for a ten-page proposal is not enough; you have to limit the questions to enable a writer to fit what you’ve asked for in that space.
  2. Only short-list firms you really would consider for the work. And prior to that, don’t lead a marketer or firm principal on who calls you for information, wanting to know if their firm or team might be competitive. I know there are procurement rules that limit what you can say. But, make sure the RFP and your comments about the RFP make it really clear what you will and what you won’t accept as minimum qualifications.
    For example, I’ve worked with smaller construction firms struggling to get noticed in my state’s relatively new GC/CM procurement environment (Washington State’s version of construction management at risk procurement). They’d been encouraged by friendly procurement representatives to throw their hat in the ring, told that indeed their negotiated work portfolio would be enough, only to find out in the debrief that their lack of specific GC/CM experience kept them from being awarded the work. This after spending tens of thousands on the proposal and another huge sum on the interview.
  3. And, when you must write the inevitable letter or email telling a firm they have not been awarded the work, be specific, gracious, and kind. Thank the firm for taking the time and making the investment in the pursuit. Address the individual who signed the proposal letter directly and make sure the firm’s name is spelled correctly. Acknowledge the significant effort of the people who wrote the response and participated in the interview. Remember, you may not have selected this team or firm for the current project, but you want them, and their colleagues from other firms, to consider your agency for future pursuits.

If agencies really do support small business, and business in general, they will think carefully about the incredible expense it takes to compete for their work. And, they will align their practices to truly be supportive of those businesses. While my requests may not make a difference, I hope they get read by an owner or procurement officer or two. I think it’s time for agencies and organizations to recognize that it is in their best interests to rethink their procurement practices, returning to a more intentional way of asking for proposals or presentations and a more gracious way of doing business.

My clients and colleagues, and my own team, need to remember that the way we are treated in the procurement phase is likely a good predictor of how we will be treated when working on the project. For example, my team and I are working for a wonderful client in the Seattle area, one who values our team’s work and who reminds me on a regular basis that we are a valued part of their team. I think back to what happened in the procurement process. What sticks out is when my team delivered the proposal to the front desk, the security guard called up to the main office and the Director of Operations came down personally to thank my team for submitting. He was charming and gracious. In the interview process, the selection committee was welcoming and interested, and they had carefully read our proposal. How they were in the selection process paralleled exactly how they are to work with on projects.

I’m certain most agencies and organizations want highly qualified teams and firms to compete for their work. So, as teams, we need to be more selective, not just for the project for which we complete but the people who make the request who are the first and most visible representative of the culture of the organization. I’m advising my clients, and my own organization, to make the procurement practices of the agencies with which we work matter a great deal in our business development and marketing decisions.

So, let me send an anonymous shout out to the representative who sent me the nice email about the status of your agency’s procurement process—and who is very likely not reading this blog. (I’ll send it to you after you make a decision.) Thank you for being gracious. Thank you for writing an incredibly clear RFP document, one that minimized our time and maximized our ability to think creatively about your work. Thank you for keeping us informed. As of this writing, I don’t know if we’ll get the chance to work together, but I do know that my team really wants to work with you and your team—as much for how you treated us in the marketing process as for the scope of your project.

A Celebration of Friendship: Barbara Falconer 1954-2017

Yesterday morning, the AEC community lost a marketing star, and I have lost a dear friend. Barbara Falconer and I met each other many years ago at a two-day marketing workshop at SmithGroup. With children of the same age and an affinity for all things dramatic, Barbara and I became instant friends, and we sustained a long-distance friendship for more than 20 years. We shared space under a desk during the 1998 Seattle earthquake, and we coached each other through raising children as working moms, career shifts, project recovery, and more proposals than any two marketers should admit to writing.

Barbara reminds me of the importance of the relationships we build with each other in this field. We stay up late together writing, drawing, collating, and editing. We celebrate when our teams win, and we cry when they don’t. We share our work stress, and we advise each other through the inevitable challenges in each of our lives and careers. For those of us who are lucky, our friendships are deep and permanent. We come in and out of each other’s lives, and we share our dreams, our insecurities, and our aspirations in intense spurts of activity and more sustained periods of support.

Barbara was the calm voice on the other end of the phone, my work wife, and my partner in crime. She taught me how to make chocolate chili, and she shared her incredible family in Chicago with me. As recently as two months ago, Barbara and I were planning a spa weekend and looking forward to catching up in person. We thought we’d have more time.

I was so fortunate to spend time with Barbara before she passed, and I got to tell her how much I love her and how much her friendship has meant to me. I am forever grateful to her husband and children for welcoming me into that sacred space and time. Even in the last week of her life, Barbara shared her irreverent sense of humor; we laughed, sang (badly), and cried. Our friendship was honest and true; she reminded me to be my best, and I hope I did the same for her.

In honor of Barbara, I celebrate the friendships in our lives, the people who make a difference in our worlds and who stick with us through thick and thin, who weather the changes in our industry and in our lives, who get older with us and who intertwine their stories with ours in so many ways. Ours is an industry of storytellers, and Barbara was the best of us.

Keep the light on for us, Barbara, and rest well.

Father’s Day: Relationship Rules from Meg’s Dad

In honor of Father’s Day this past Sunday, I’d like to share some insights about relationships, writing, and communication from my mentor and father, Robert S. Gruhn.  Dad was an attorney practicing labor law for more than 50 years in addition to volunteering legal advice and services to a variety of public agencies and museums around the Puget Sound.  He was an old-school attorney, focused on helping his clients preserve relationships and reputation.

Dad had three rules he lived by and that he taught his children and clients:

  1. Never write anything you wouldn’t want read back to you in court.  This is sound advice in any context, particularly in this age of rapid email and social media that gives little time for contemplation and the development of a cogent, well-thought-out line of reasoning.  We should all think before we hit send, avoid use of the “reply all” button, and write each email or post as if our words could come back to us in some form, some day.

    In fact, my Dad took this “rule” a bit further in reminding us that there was one reader worse than any court of law, and that was my mother.  He reminded me never to write anything I wouldn’t want my mother to read.  Oddly, this was not because of the obvious maternal consternation over content, but because my mother is a linguist.  As a result, I am more careful than most to proofread carefully, and to avoid mistakes in grammar and punctuation.
  2. Never do or say anything that might welcome the unwanted attention of the Coroner.  This piece of advice caused me no small amount of confusion when younger, but as I age, it makes perfect sense. Dad was trying to tell me to be aware of the repercussions of my behavior, even behavior that didn’t seem all that dangerous at the time.  He wanted me to think before I act, not to make me afraid of risk, but rather to consider the consequences and make sure I was willing to pay the price for my actions.  Again, sound advice. What if in business, leaders considered both the short and long-term consequences, for their organizations and employees, of the actions they take or recommend? 

    We should all take the long view, understanding how our corporate actions impact the world around us, including employees, clients, and stakeholders.  We should consider the risks, weigh them carefully, and then act with clear knowledge of risks, costs, and benefits.  In other words, we should “own” our decisions and be responsible for our actions.
  3.  Always preserve the relationship because in the end, that’s all that matters.  Dad was known as a ‘gentleman lawyer’, one who wisely advocated communication over litigation.  And, because he chose his battles wisely, when he did have to go to court, he rarely lost.  Over the years, I’ve learned that my Dad was right; relationships matter, and we can win more in business through talking and negotiating than we can through steadfastly arguing for our own point of view.

    Dad taught me how to look at conflict from different perspectives; he believed that everyone has a point of view and everyone deserves to be heard, no matter how strange or unconventional their perspectives seem at the time.  As a partnering and facilitation consultant, I’ve found this to be particularly true:  team members come to projects with a broad range of perspectives and needs.  If we take the time to listen and seek to build understanding of real needs and expectations, we can avoid conflicts and build stronger, more positive relationships across the duration of any project.

I’m a lucky daughter.  Though Dad passed away eight years ago, I get to remember him through his wise words every day (and through the 22 boxes of law books still in my garage).  By passing his advice on to teams around the Country, I’m helping him continue his goals of preserving relationships, building stronger teams, and keeping people out of the courtroom by negotiating in the boardroom.

Stop ‘Spamming’ Your Proposals!

Stop ‘Spamming’ Your Proposals!

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reviewing proposals for a number of my clients. We’re helping some write better boilerplate, and I’ve performed emergency surgery on several proposals in advance of quick-turn deadlines. After several late nights, I continue to be amazed at how generic most proposal content is, and how often we miss opportunities for grabbing our audience’s attention in most marketing documents. Most proposals in our industry are too long, uninspiring, and difficult to navigate. 

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Leaning Pursuits: A Case for Change

FACT: The average team spends about $3,500 a minute to present their qualifications and approach for a project to a selection committee. When you add up the business development, marketing, and team costs to get in front of the committee, this figure is certainly much higher for larger or more complicated pursuits. When we consider the cost of a pursuit this way, all of us in the design and construction community—both owners and design/construction professionals—should start thinking differently about how we work. Simply, it’s time to ‘Lean’ the pursuit process.

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