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Strategies for Better Communication

It used to be that all you needed to do was send a press release about your event or program to the local media outlets, and you could count on getting some coverage.

Boy, things sure have changed.

Today, news is immediate. Fewer people get their information from traditional news sources; instead, they turn to the internet, social media, and other digital sources. As a result, the news media and the public have limited attention spans. If they don’t catch your message right away, they are off to something else.

How can you make sure your information isn’t getting lost in the sea of competing messages? Here are a few tips to help get your news noticed.

• Make sure your information is newsworthy.

Help reporters cut through the clutter by providing them with information that is meaningful to their audiences.

  • Is your information timely? It should be about something that is happening now or in the future, not history.
  • Is it local? News is about people. How does your information affect your neighbors?
  • Is your information useful? For example, can something be done now that could not have been done previously?
  • Is the information interesting?

• Know your media outlets.

While sharing your message at a meeting might reach 50, 100, or even 500 people, a story in a single newspaper, magazine, or website might reach thousands. To get your information in the news, you need to know the reporter and what they are covering.

  • Make yourself media savvy: listen, watch, and read. Become familiar with the different types of media outlets in your geographic area. Learn what they cover and what regular columns and features might be the best match for your information.
  • Find out what topics are being covered so that you can offer related stories.
  • Learn the names of local reporters and the subjects they cover. If you want reporters to keep answering your calls and opening your emails, make your news relevant to individual reporters.

• Start with a Web page.

Make sure your information is online so that readers can easily find out details about your story.

  • Post your information on your website.
  • Include all of the details, photos, videos, additional resources, and contact information.
  • Include a link to this information in all of your correspondence about the story.

• Create a press release and/or a media pitch.

While a press release or pitch is no longer the go-to method of getting the word out, either method  should be one of many tools in your toolbox. The release needs to contain the basic who, what, where, when, how, and why. Make the information scannable, and be sure to include a link back to the webpage with all the supporting information.

• Develop a complementary newspaper column or blog post.

Take your topic a step further by converting your information into a column or blog post. For example, say you are promoting an educational program on how to raise bees in your backyard. Instead of writing the entire column about the program, write the column about one aspect of the program, such as selecting plants that will attract bees, and mention how readers can learn more by attending the upcoming program.

  • Be sure to reframe the information from your perspective and include a link to the webpage.
  • Keep in mind that you don’t have to have your own blog. Find bloggers who are writing about your topic, and submit your post to them for publication.

• Promote your content online.

Why rely on others to tell your story? Instead, promote your topic directly to your audience through social media.

  • Not all social media is created equal. Make sure you select the appropriate social media tool for your audience.
  • Create a campaign to promote the program before, during, and after.
  • Use active dialogue to engage your audience. Consider adding questions and polls to get your audience’s opinions.
  • Present your information in a thought-provoking way, and include photos and videos when appropriate.

Most importantly, always drive readers back to your online content. Not only will they appreciate having all the details at their fingertips, they might be interested in other content they find on your site.

- Written by Lori Greiner

If the cliché that a picture is worth 1,000 words is true, what is your picture saying?

Is it saying that someone has a telephone pole sticking out of her head? That your subject seems to have his eyes closed a lot? That your subject turns away from people when she is talking to them? Or that he doesn’t have any hands?

Chances are that none of these is the message you want to convey when you are taking photographs, but often that’s what they say. By spending just a few moments thinking of one of the most important subjects of photography — composition — we can turn even the most humdrum image into something visually appealing.

• Before you start to shoot

Look around the room and the area where you are going to shoot. What is in the image? Do you want that trashcan in your photo? Or that car? What about the water bottle? Remember that everything in a photo is another piece of information for the viewer, so select what information you do — or don’t — want to convey. Too much clutter in the background distracts viewers from the image on which you want them to focus.

• What is that coming out of his head?

Much like you look around the room to see what is in your image, make sure there are no odd-looking shapes behind your subject. These not only distract from the image, but a poorly positioned phone pole can look downright ghoulish. Simply moving a few feet to the side may solve this problem. Likewise, be sure not to cut off any body parts that make a person look odd.

• Action! Or not ...

If you are trying to show that your program is fun and engaging and hands-on, then why is everyone sitting down or just standing in a straight line looking at the camera? Activities present the opportunity to take good action shots that show your subjects doing something. A bad action shot can be more interesting than a good grip-and-grin. You have to take a lot more of them to get one that works, but the payoff is worth it.

• Bend your knees!

Look for interesting angles to shoot from: Try from down low or up high or put the camera over your head and shoot blindly. The most boring thing you can do is to take a photo from exactly the same perspective all the time.

• Be in control

If you are setting up a shot to illustrate a program, you have complete artistic license to manipulate the shot. If you don’t like the way someone is sitting, ask him or her to move! Think the photo will turn out better in a different part of the room? Ask the subjects to move! The key is that you are the artistic director, which means that you have to direct people to get the result you want.

• Back of your head

It is difficult to connect emotionally to the back of someone’s head. Get in front of the people, and make sure you can see their eyes and faces; doing so will make for a much more engaging, interactive shot.

• Take lots of shots

The beauty of digital photography is that you can take an inordinate number of images, so don’t be shy with your shutter finger. You can literally take 100 shots and only get one or two good ones. That said, always, always, always review your shots at the moment to see if you have what you are looking for.

• Have fun!

Photography is an art, and a very approachable one at that. Have fun with it, mix it up, and try new things. You’ll like what you see!

- Written by Zeke Barlow

If you're looking for an expert to flesh out a story or article, world-renowned scientists and researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are working on issues ranging from agricultural productivity to animal welfare, bioengineering to bioluminescence, diabetes to drought, and climate change to community viability — some of the biggest challenges facing the planet.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Experts Directory contains detailed descriptions of some 300 authoritative sources within the college and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

By entering keywords, departments, subject areas, or names, users of the directory can easily find the expert they need.

In addition, CALS's Newsroom site compiles the college's latest news stories, events, publications, videos, and more.

The stock answer is that good design is generally a combination of different qualities — what it does, what it looks like, and so on. But as our expectations of design change, so do those qualities and the relationship among them.

Designs should be complete, but not cluttered. Good design should tell a story at a glance without the viewer getting lost in the overall look. Some designers like less detail; others like more.

But what really works on a broader scale?

Look at different images of products around you. Most are simple, thought-out designs. They tell a story at a glance or give a feeling with just a look. As such, simplicity is a great goal when trying to create a design. Corporate elements and product icons carry a lot of weight to get their point across easily. Everyone knows the Facebook icon, for example, even though it is simple in both detail and color.

Some designs can be more complex, especially when reaching out to a large audience and needing to express many possibilities for a particular product or image. Those types of designs are usually full of color and ideas, but not so much to overwhelm the viewer.

When designing an icon, use less color and less distraction. Remember the acronym KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. If you’re designing an event poster for many uses, complementary colors and interesting design elements are the best options to express your ideas.

In this digital age of design, everyone has the ability to be a designer if she has a laptop and some software. And while opinions may differ on what constitutes good or bad design, remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Good design looks good today and will still look good 20 years from now.

The following sources offer more information and tips:

- Written by Mark Chorba

Which websites do you like reading? Which ones do you glance at once and never revisit? Have you ever considered that your favorite websites might be preferred because of how the content is presented?

One of the biggest challenges facing academic and educational websites is to inform without bogging down their visitors. When they’re looking at a screen, web users are accustomed to quickly digesting little snippets of information, rather than reading long paragraphs of prose.

Tailored to be concise and descriptive, carefully expressed content also increases your website's accessibility and search engine optimization (SEO).  

Usability.gov states this concept well:

When writing for the web, using plain language allows users to find what they need, understand what they have found, and then use it to meet their needs. It should also be actionable, findable, and shareable.

It’s important to understand how what you are writing fits into the overall content strategy, what the content life cycle entails, and who is involved in the process.

• How to help people find information on your website:

  • Break text up into chunks;
  • Use bullets instead of complex sentences;
  • Use headers to separate the chunks;
  • Put the most important (or a summary of all) information at the top;
  • Use short sentences and active voice;
  • Use images and white space to give the eye a place to rest between larger chunks of text;
  • Use spell check, and proofread your text.

• What about links?

When using links on a webpage, be sure that the linked text is actually descriptive. This practice helps SEO and accessibility, as well as helps guide the visitor through the site.

Don’t overuse “Learn more” or “Read more” alone. Instead, use “Learn more about beef cattle” or “Read more about Virginia Tech’s biochemistry research.” Although the text is longer, it helps visitors know where they are headed.

• How is tone important?

People respond to pages that appear to be written for them. If your audience is a little more casual, then make the language a little more casual. If you have a broad audience, don’t be too formal or too casual because you’ll end up losing everyone. Avoid jargon, but if you must use it, be prepared to provide links to definitions or a glossary. Always write as a representative of your larger unit’s brand, not just as yourself.  

• Resources and sources

- Written by Susan Gill

Creating a Facebook page for your group or organization has many benefits: Your page will appear in Facebook searches; you can connect personally with your followers; you can reach larger groups of people; and you can gain deeper insights into your audience.

Because your page serves as an extension of your organization, ensure that it is properly set up to best represent your group or organization.

• Cover photo

This image appears at the top of your profile page as a backdrop behind your logo/profile photo. Because of its larger size, the space allows more flexibility. Your cover photo might include brand messaging, campaign promotions, or images that represent your group.

• Profile photo

This image appears at the bottom left of your cover photo and identifies you to other Facebook users. Because this small thumbnail image is attached to your every activity on Facebook, choose a photo that's easily identifiable.

• About section

The "About" section, which appears as a tab in the navigation bar under your profile and cover photos, consists of two sections. The first is page information, where details about your group or organization are shared. The second is milestones, where important events and the history of your brand can be shared.

• Timeline

Posting updates is a great way to build your followers and connect with them. These posts can be a mix of text, images, links, non-native video (e.g., a YouTube link), native video (a video posted directly to the Facebook platform), and photo albums. Photos and videos typically generate more views and engagement than strictly text posts.

Regardless of the content you post, sharing information and interacting with your followers directly impacts your reach.

• Tabs

Tabs appear in two places on your Facebook page: on the left side of the timeline and in the navigation bar under the cover photo. Tabs can be used to host apps, which can help extend the page's capabilities, such as running contests, connecting to other social accounts, and more.

To select apps to add to your page’s tabs, visit the Facebook App Center.

Using tabs instead of directing users to a landing page keeps them within the Facebook system instead of forcing users to navigate away from the page.

• Insights

Facebook pages are set with an Insights tab — visible only to the page administrators — that reveal the analytics of your activity on the page. These analytics can help you identify your audience more specifically, determine what garners the most engagement, and track the volume of your traffic and fan-building activities.

Images obviously play a significant role in publications. When used with thought and care, images can evoke emotions in the viewer. Photographer Susan McConnell said good photographs make us feel. Strong feelings create appreciation, compassion, and urgency, which mold the choices we make as individuals and as a society.

Graphics engage our imagination and heighten our creative thinking by stimulating other areas of our brain, which in turn leads to a more profound and accurate understanding of the presented material.

Choosing the right photo(s) is crucial when designing a publication or website, while the wrong photo or a poor-quality photo can easily destroy the message. For example, an image of a dimly lit classroom with the participants’ backs to the viewer would not be a good choice for a publication promoting a workshop or conference.

Writer Helen Stark says text gives our ideas a precision that we can rarely approach with images alone. As the sole data that we can say with certainty search engines understand perfectly, text plays the central role in SEO (search engine optimization). Although text can be enough to invoke imagery without the use of pictures, a compelling image will usually engage the viewer more quickly.

The following, which illustrates how text can create an emotional response much like a photograph, is excerpted from the blog “Letting go”:

Apricot season in the countryside, calls from friends in the city asking where they can buy ripe red apricots. In a fortnight, there will be water melons and honeydew melons (our “spanspek” melons) ready for stalls along the roads through farmland. High summer, abundance and fullness, the wheat harvested, white crystal grapes swelling on vines, the deep shady embrace of old oak trees.

Without graphics, an idea can be lost in a flush of words; without words, a graphic can be vague. Robert E. Horn, an award-winning scholar at Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, said, “When words and visual elements are closely entwined, we create something new, and we augment our communal intelligence ... visual language has the potential for increasing ‘human bandwidth’ — the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information.”

- Written by Nickola Dudley

Congratulations! You have a website to promote your business, school, event, or other organization or activity. But what should you put on it? How should you organize the content so that people can easily find what they need?

One of the most important facts you need to know about visitors to your website is that they stay for only 10 to 20 seconds, unless given a reason to stay longer. As a result, the site's most important information must be placed up front and must be expressed as concisely as possible.

Make sure that the purpose of your site is prominent and positioned at the top of the page. The text can be bold or larger, near or atop a high-quality image, or rendered in some eye-catching fashion. If visitors can’t determine the usefulness of your webpage in some 10 seconds, they’re likely going to leave.

If your website contains multiple pages (and it should if you include a great deal of information), make sure that you add navigation either horizontally across the top of the page or vertically down the left side of the page. Also, ensure that navigation labels are as clear and concise as possible. Users should be given a clear indication of where that link will take them.

Pages should be as self-contained as possible. If you’re holding an event, create a page for registration information, such as how to register, the costs, the registration deadline, and so on. If there is a schedule available, place that on its own page.

Although there are always exceptions, a user should be able to look at a page and think, “Okay, I want the schedule, and this is the page where the schedule is,” instead of thinking, “Where is the schedule information on this long page with a lot of information?” Users should be able to find what they need and not leave your page in frustration.

Lastly, images are good — if they are high quality and of actual people. Users will likely pay less attention to stock photos or to images that feature a model. Larger and higher-quality photos are better than smaller and/or low-quality photos. However, always make sure that photos don’t push important information too far down the page.

Never include text as part of an image. Instead, style your website so that text is placed on top of an already existing image. This practice not only looks better, but also assures that the image and text are more accessible to visitors with sight disabilities.

Following these simple steps can guide you to create a website that will both attract visitor’s attention and quickly and easily present them with the information they are seeking.

• Additional resources  

- Written by Josh Chambers

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Although there is disagreement as to its author — it has been attributed to Will Rogers, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain —  this quote has been used to sell everything from men’s suits to dandruff shampoo. Regardless of who said it first, its truth is not disputed. The adage can be applied to job interviews, sales calls, and first dates, among other situations.

The quote also applies to our writing. Whether it’s website text, a press release, a newsletter, or an email about an upcoming event, our written words are often the first way others learn about our college, our programs, and our people.

What first impression do we make if our material has typos or other errors?

• Errors can be costly

According to Professor William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, errors can cause concerns over whether a website or communication — and the people or organization behind it — is credible and trustworthy.

If those reading your content find reason to doubt your credibility or competence, the result could be fewer people attending your event, learning about your research, or buying your product.

For example, Charles Duncombe, an online marketer in the United Kingdom, found that fixing a simple spelling mistake on a website accounted for a 100 percent increase in sales.

• Put fresh eyes to work

We all make mistakes, but it’s often difficult to detect our own errors. One reason is because we’ve already looked countless times at what we’ve written, and we know what the sentences are supposed to say. As a result, our eyes skip over mistakes and instead see what we know should be there.

Psychologist Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield, quoted in a summer 2014 edition of Wired, says that writers don’t see their own typos because “When you are writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high-level task.” In other words, when the brain is focused on the complex task of conveying ideas, seeing the individual letters, commas, and sentences is difficult.

That’s why it’s so important to have someone who is not familiar with the material — a fresh pair of eyes — review it for misspellings, factual errors, and grammatical issues.

• Proofreading your own work

If you have to proof your own work, here are some ideas for helping you pinpoint errors:

  • Print the text. For most people, it’s easier to proof on paper than on a computer screen. Before printing, double-space the text.
  • Use a ruler, which helps stop the eyes from jumping ahead; clear plastic rulers will not work for this purpose. Another option is to slide a piece of paper in a contrasting color (a bright or dark color works best) down the page as you read line by line.
  • Read aloud. Turn on the white noise or go to a quiet location and read the text out loud. Alternately, have someone else read it aloud to you.
  • Change it up. Before reviewing, try printing the text in a different font from the one you usually use. And while you’re at it, print on brightly colored paper to make the text stand out.
  • Back it up. Some people suggest reading a document from the end to the beginning. Though this trick might help with locating typos, such as an extra letter or transposed letters, it will not help with detecting grammar errors or homophone misuse (there, their, or they’re).

For more information about the science behind typos, check out Nick Stockton’s article in Wired, “What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard To Catch Your Own Typos.”

- Written by Bobbi A. Hoffman

So, you and your Extension planning committee have met many, many times to review the logistics of your upcoming event. You know who will staff the event and what time you need to be there and have even figured out what kind of potato chips you’re going to serve.

And then, the week before the event, you call the Office of Communications and Marketing to ask if we can publish a news release about the event. Sadly, that is too late. In order for our office to do the best job we can to promote your event, we need to be brought into the conversation long before said potato chips are planned.

Because our office is working on some 200 different jobs at any given time, we need time to plan ahead in order to accommodate so many different tasks. In addition, once a story is submitted to VT News, it can take a week or longer to appear in the Daily Email, which is sent to local media outlets.

To ensure that we can help you publicize your event, please follow this process:

  • Specialist or agent drafts a news release describing the event, its target audience, and its logistical information, such as time, location, registration details, etc.;
  • Draft release is submitted via the online project request system at least six to eight weeks prior to registration deadline;
  • Communications and Marketing reviews and edits the release and returns it to writer for final approval;
  • After final approval, Communications and Marketing forwards the release to the VT News Bureau for distribution and publication on the web.

If another state agency is the lead agency for an event, we will defer to that agency to take care of the release.

For other guidelines on requesting a release on awards, new programs, or research papers, visit our News and Publicity Guidelines page.

We look forward to telling the world about your good news!

- Written by Zeke Barlow