Monday, November 10, 2014

Storytelling Plain and Simple

By: Aubrey McMahan, Internal Communications Specialist, U.S. Geological Survey, Office of Communications and Publishing 

This is not the first sentence I wrote when I sat down to write this blog post. For me, the beginning started with the bullet points below. Getting the “meat” of this post down on paper helped me form this introduction, which is exactly what Kathryn Sosbe from the U.S. Forest Service’s Office of Communications suggests when you’re struggling to write anything: you don’t always have to start at the beginning. With 30 years of writing/editing experience, Kathryn has helpful tips like this one for making writing easier; she shared a lot of these not-so-secret secrets, such as those below, with 71 other writer editors at the Federal Communicators Network October event Storytelling Plain and Simple.

Read. Then read some more - hard copies are best so you avoid the tendency to skim.
Write. And write and write - something -- anything -- that really requires your concentration and focus.

Be purposeful - read to discover what you like and don’t like. Write with a reason--what do you want the reader to take away from what you’ve written?
Be logical - organize your notes to fit your style. Organize your writing so it’s clear, interesting and reader-driven.
Be careful - consider how you address a topic. Proofread x2. If you’re editing others’ writing, kindly offer direct and specific advice, not criticisms or questions.

If you couldn’t hear from Kathryn in person, you can view a copy of her presentation here and, even if you did, make sure to check out her extra slides on effective email etiquette--these small changes could have a huge impact!

The FCN’s discussion about great writing would not have been complete without another great presentation on -- and practice of -- plain language. Writing that is purposeful and logically organized is of very little value if it doesn’t make sense to your audience. Even us federal employees who read and write for a living can agree with that:

Because a lot of the writing we do is to communicate to the American public what their tax dollars are paying for (or to inform them of Federal policy), we especially owe it to them that we provide clear and straightforward language they can understand and use. If this isn’t enough to persuade you to adopt a simpler writing style, how about it’s the law? The Plain Writing Act (2010) established that many new documents, whether on paper or electronically, which are related to Federal benefits, services, tax-filing, and compliance with Federal requirements, must be written in plain language. As the Plain Language Launcher for the General Services Administration and Co-Chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network, Katherine Spivey had some useful advice on writing more simply, such as taking advantage of:

Familiar, everyday words - people shouldn’t need to consult a thesaurus or dictionary when they visit your website.
Short, simple sentences and paragraphs - aim for one subject and 20 words per sentence. Aim for one subject (or step) and 7 lines per paragraph.
Pronouns and active voice - if you’re addressing your readers, speak directly to them, using active voice’s clarity and directness.

Verbs in place of nouns - so you came to a conclusion? Then you concluded.
Headers, lists, tables, and bullets - these styles all make your information more simplistic and navigable for your audience.
Reader-driven organization - organize your writing to answer questions in the order your reader is likely to ask them.

Avoiding bureaucratese (unnecessarily complex and confusing writing :)) by applying these writing styles will help not only the public better understand the information we are trying to communicate out to them and any actions we require of them. It will also help us Federal communicators reduce questions, complaints, and the time and resources we spend on addressing them. What’s not appealing about that?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Upcoming Event - Storytelling Plain and Simple - Thursday, October 30

Posted: October 17, 2014 by FCN Leadership Team

Think you can't be a creative government writer? Think again. Writing is challenging, whether it is for a 140-character Twitter message, a 400-word blog or a 500-page report. You want to catch a reader and keep their attention. We are saturated with communications from every direction. Don’t let your message get lost in the headlines. Find out how to make sure your words can help your readers understand what you mean and do what you need them to do.

A no cost training event hosted by the Federal Communicators Network.

What: Storytelling Plain and Simple
When: 1pm-4:30pm on Thursday, October 30, 2014

Where: the Department of Defense Mark Center in Alexandria, easily accessible from Pentagon Metro via the 7M shuttle bus

Register today!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Thanks for joining us at Accessibility for Government Communicators event

Posted By: Britt Ehrhardt, Federal Communicators Network Co-Chair

Exciting to see the huge turnout at the Federal Communicators Network event earlier this week. More than 630 people joined us for Accessibility for Gov Communicators: Tactics and Techniques You Can Use Today to Keep Your Projects on the Right Side of Section 508 Rules. This was our first event in collaboration with the U.S. Access Board and the Federal CIO Council Accessibility Community of Practice. And to my knowledge, it was FCN's most widely attended event EVER. What a win for everyone involved!

If you were online with us--thanks for joining, and thanks for all of your great questions. If you missed out, you can catch up by watching the archived webinar. The event description and materials are available here.

The amazing Bernetta Reese from FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority, kicked things off with some key lessons from her experience as a 508 Coordinator at USDA and now with FirstNet, starting up a new agency.

Matt Harmon of DHS HQ described where communications projects often encounter 508 issues, with this helpful slide, and also discussed DHS's extraordinary Trusted Tester program, a model for in-depth training of web authors and communicators on Section 508 best practices.

Slide reads, Images: Provide a meaningful text equivalent for every image (alt text); descriptions that explain what the image is conveying or adding to the page content (not just describing what is seen on the image).  Multimedia Presentations: Audio only: provide transcript Video only: provide a synchronized text description of the action taking place in the video, including any text that appears Audio + Video: both synchronized captioning and audio description of action required  Color: Color should not be the only way that information is conveyed; contrast between foreground and background is sufficient  Data Tables: Define a table’s row and column headers.  Use tables only for data and not for layout  Text-only equivalents: Do not create text-only pages as an alternative to non-compliant pages.  Make your pages compliant from the start.

Dick Stapleton gave a great overview of how HHS is achieving compliance on 2 million webpages.

And, Don Barrett wrapped things up by discussing the Accessible Documents community of practice that he helps to lead, along with many useful resources. Others shared great resources too.

Moderator Tim Creagan of the U.S. Access Board did an excellent job managing the session and sifting through the many, many questions submitted by attendees. Great job, and thanks, Tim! Along with HHS's Debby Kaplan and myself, Tim co-organized the session and greatly contributed to its success.

And our live sign language interpreters, including the amazing Rachel Kuch, were also critical to the success of the event.

So communicators, be sure you know who your 508 coordinator is, and loop that person in early on your communications projects.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

FCN Leadership Team Plans Fall Line Up

Posted by: Debra Harris, FCN Leadership Team and Public Affairs Specialist at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service

Cori Bassett (ICE), Dave Hebert (USGS) , Debra Harris (DFAS) and Britt Ehrhardt (NIH) meet for lunch, provided by each individual, at a restaurant on Pennsylvania Ave in D.C. to plan upcoming FCN events. 
Four of the eight FCN leaders discuss training events scheduled for September, October and November. As always, the events don't cost a dime, just your time. From attendees of past events, we hear it's "time well spent." Open your calendars and save these dates!

Sep 30 webinar on accessibility with the Federal CIO Council Accessibility Community of Practice and the U.S. Access Board to teach tactics and techniques to keep your projects on the right side of section 508 rules. 

Storytelling Plain and Simple comes to the Mark Center in Alexandria, VA Oct. 30. Presenters Katherine Spivey and Kathryn Sosbe share best practices on writing and editing. Save the date to attend in person that afternoon.

We're putting together something with the Partnership for Public Service on Nov 19 that we'll livestream.

Watch our "Events" page for details and registration information. You'll find resources from past training here too.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Makeup of the Federal Communicators Network: Tap into a Wealth of Knowledge and Experience

Posted by: Debra Harris, FCN Leadership Team and Public Affairs Specialist at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service

Digital content management, that’s what 25% of FCN members do as their primary job function. Publishing website content, social media posts and email marketing are tasks that require members to stay abreast of the latest trends in the digital world. FCN regularly hosts training events and socials as a means to help individuals grow in these areas.

We also have members writing and editing, working with media and creating both internal and external communications for their agency. Earlier this year, 115 members answered survey questions aimed at providing the leadership team insight into the demographics of the group.

FCN is made up of employees from 54 federal agencies. Health and Human Services, General Services Administration, the US Geological Survey, Defense Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice and the Department of Veterans Affairs to name a few.

We have members scattered throughout the United States in Seattle, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Louisville. But it’s no surprise that the majority of our members reside in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia area.

Our listserv is the primary means for members to reach out and share knowledge, ask questions and engage in the community. 30% of our members have more than 20 years experience working in communications. Another 42% have between 10-20 years in the field. That’s a wealth of knowledge to tap into!

The leadership team learned that a majority of our members get FCN news from the weekly newsletter via the listserv. We have more than 1,500 Twitter followers and over 380 LinkedIn members getting our news also.

If you aren’t already reading our blog site, bookmark it to stay informed of upcoming events. There is never a cost to attend and membership is free. We’ll continue to bring training on social media, metrics, plain language and video producing as requested.

If you've missed our previous trainings, catch up with archived recordings and slides here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Google Hangout Tech Tips

Posted by: Britt Ehrhardt, FCN Co-Chair and Technical Writer/Editor at the National Institutes of Health

The Federal Communicators Network held its first ever Google Hangout On Air last month. Members of the media joined experienced agency public affairs staffers for a candid panel discussion of relationships between the media and government communicators.

If you missed the event, find the recording on YouTube:

Here are a few technical lessons we learned from trying out Google Hangout:

1. Event Page design - You’ll need a photo/image with the right dimensions for the Event page. Google requires an image that is at least 1200 pixels wide and 300 pixels tall to serve as the banner, or “theme,” for the page. That banner should prominently include the time of the event and the name of your organization, as Event pages do not make this information as prominent as you might like. I made our banner in Paint with an image from the internet. (If you follow suit, be sure you use an image that is copyright-free or whose copyright allows this kind of use, as I did.)

2. Audio - Rather than use any of the in-Hangout apps to control audio, I simply asked our panel to mute themselves as they listened to others, unmuting only when they wanted to speak. (In Google Hangout, of course, the video features whoever is making noise, so coughs and other noises are a visual distraction, as well as an audial one.) We were happy with how this self-muting worked out. It had the advantage of allowing for free-flowing conversation. Our panel members could jump in and out of the discussion as they wanted, rather than waiting for a cue from a producer. Participants wore headphones, to avoid feedback.

3. Testing and prep - To test connections and lighting with participants in advance, I set up separate test Hangouts. This was a great opportunity for everyone to familiarize themselves with the technology, and to practice muting and unmuting. It also ensured that the necessary browser plugin was installed on everyone’s machine. When the tests were complete, we quickly deleted the Events and the YouTube video associated with the test. Google automatically generates a YouTube video for any Hangout On Air that goes live, so be sure you delete tests you don’t want public.

4. In-Hangout apps – I used both the Chat app and the Q&A app for our Hangout On Air, and we really liked both of them.

·         The Chat app is available within all Hangouts On Air, and it allows the panelists and producer to communicate privately with each other. “Hey, let’s answer that question next,” and that sort of thing. Gives participants a lifeline in case something goes wrong, as well.
·         The Q&A app needs to be enabled from the Event page, before you start the Google Hangout. It allows viewers to write in with questions throughout the event. Both panelists and viewers could see the questions as they came in on the side of the screen. (The producer can also delete questions, if necessary.) As our panelists addressed each question in turn, I marked the question we were currently answering so that it was highlighted toward the top of the screen. This data is added to the YouTube recording as well, to help people watching there understand what we were discussing, and when.

5. Internet connection - And finally, wireless connections really are not acceptable for video broadcast. (You might say, “well, duh!” But, we had to learn this for ourselves.) Even if the wireless at the location is great and fast, it just won’t work for Google Hangout. Insist that your participants connect on a hard-wired connection only.

There were plenty of other technical details and lessons learned—far too many to include in a blog post—but these are my quick highlights.
Did you watch our Google Hangout? Should we have another training event on Google Hangout in the future? Anything we could do better or different next time? Let me know by commenting below.