Not long ago I was contacted by a representative of the U.S. Forest Service. She was looking for someone who would agree to come out to a conference for communications professionals within their agency that was to be held in Atlanta. Specifically she wanted someone to give a talk on the topic of social media.
That alone was flattering but even more so was that she had gotten my name from my longtime friend and mentor, Dr.Karen Russell, a public relations professor at the University of Georgia. It was while in Karen’s class that I started my first blog as a class assignment. She is also the teacher that honored me by telling her students years later that she considered me to be her first social media success story. I would return the compliment by saying I wouldn’t be where I am today without her guidance and I genuinely enjoy getting the opportunity to pay it forward, whether it is returning and speaking to her current students, or speaking at conferences like the one today.
For the talk I gave today I had the “sleepy slot,” you know the one I mean if you have ever been to a conference or seminar…it’s the one right after lunch. Everybody has a great morning session, then they peel out for lunch and fill up on food and good company, maybe still talking about what they learned during the morning (which in this case was another great social media presentation by Jennifer Strickland from USFWS). By the time they reassemble for the afternoon speaker, eyelids are beginning to droop and once the lights are dimmed it seems so easy to allow yourself to “rest your eyes” just for a moment…and before you know it half the room is snoozing.
Therefore, if you are ever scheduled to be the afternoon speaker you know how important it is that you jump right in and get people interested right from the get go. Today I jumped right in with some fun facts and then showed the most recent version of Eric Qualman’s Socialnomics video which was released not long ago. Even if you have read his book or seen the video before, there is always something I realize I missed. I love showing that video and watching people’s faces as they react to some of the cool social media infographs that go zooming by. Inevitably there are gasps of surprise when they see that Facebook has now surpassed one billion members or that nearly half a billion tweets are processed each day on Twitter which has become such a popular tool particularly overseas, that people in Egypt and elsewhere in that region are naming their children after Facebook and Twitter.
However even more than than these, my favorite part of the video has to be the part about Wikipedia. Basically what the video says is that if Wikipedia were a book it would be 25 million pages long. To me that really sums up a lot about what social media and what the video refers to as the social revolution is all about…which is sharing.
A large part of the talk I gave today had to do with sharing; Why we feel compelled to share, the ways we share, and how sharing, if done strategically, can be a very effective communications tool. I explain that sharing is basically the same as storytelling, which is essentially human nature. Mankind has been telling stories since time began for all kinds of reasons. Maybe we aren’t telling stories to our kids about how to find food and shelter, or the best ways to outsmart a neighboring tribe as we don’t have to rely on stories for survival so much anymore. But isn’t recounting the mistakes you made when you got your first job, or what you said on your first date a lot like modern survival lessons? The group today really seemed to get where I was going with the storytelling analogy which I kind of expected seeing how they were all communications professionals of one kind or another that when it comes right down to it, get paid to relate stories to the public. Once they realized that a huge component of social media is simply sharing your story with others albeit in 140 characters or less in some cases, I saw people having light-bulb moments all over the room.
Having said this though I’ll admit that this isn’t the first time I have talked about sharing and then compared it to storytelling. A few years back when I first started doing work as a social media consultant, I was looking for some creative ways to teach content origination and I came across a talk that was being podcasted from the South by Southwest Conference. After I heard the podcast I immediately looked up the speaker’s blog and had my own light-bulb moment when I realized I had found what I was looking for. That great speaker, blogger and author was named Michael Margolis, and he does an amazing job of teaching people about telling stories and why they are such a critical component of effective communications. I would encourage anybody who works in communications, education or outreach to visit his website and check out his blog.
After talking to the group about storytelling it was the perfect time to take a break and during that time I gave them a creative writing exercise to work on. When I was asked to give the talk I was told that most of the participants were slow in coming to social media tools like Twitter, YouTube or blogging platforms. So I tweaked my free association exercise, going outside the lines that I had created for the class I taught last semester. Rather than having to come up with an emergency management plan as my students did, the exercise was now about responding to various scenarios by creating campaigns using either Twitter, YouTube or a blog.
When we reconvened I had them discuss what they had come up with and I admit I was really impressed! There was a lot of creativity in that room and I think they liked being able to share with each other, the ideas they had come up with in only 20-30 minutes of brainstorming. Despite being new to social media they came up with incredibly innovative ideas for how they would solicit original content from the public, keep the public coming back to websites by adding count-down clocks, rotating user-submitted photos, as well as great #hashtags to make all of their ideas searchable. I think they liked the exercise for what they were able to learn from each other as much as they liked what I could tell them about doing the exercise. I love interactive activities and getting audience participation mainly because I am first and foremost a teacher and that is how I teach my students. But it is also just such a fun way to learn and considering that research shows that we retain more information when we don’t know we are being taught, it just makes sense to incorporate games and activities into my presentations.
After the activity I could tell that the creative juices were really flowing and the rest of the afternoon seemed to go by pretty quickly. I talked about Twitter, some basic terms and etiquette and then scratched the surface of blogging. I felt like I could have gone on but three hours of me was more than enough so I left them my card and a copy of the presentation and thanked them for having me.
I really enjoy getting to do these things because as anyone who has known me for even a while knows is that I don’t do consulting to make money, or make a name for myself. I do this because I want to leave the world a little better than I found it, and if I can do that by furthering the conservation of rare species and natural resources by teaching people how to share their stories via social media…then I have accomplished my goal.
They were a great group today, full of enthusiasm, questions and creativity. And to top it off as I was leaving they presented me with a certificate of appreciation! It is groups like these that remind me why I continue to blog, consult, and remain an active participant with the social media world.
Thanks to the entire group and in particular, Denise, Stephanie and Wendy who made sure I knew where I was supposed to go, what I needed to address and which topics to focus on!
And for those of you who might be looking for those Twitter Tips I went over? Click here Twitter Tips for a PDF version you can download.