Whittling spoons

I love working in a students’ union. I love working in communications. Sometimes though, it isn’t very satisfying.

This struck me when I went to a TEDx event in Brighton a few years ago. The theme was linked to connectedness and community so I’d hoped it would be really relevant to my work in communications. I’d booked a ticket prior to the speaker list being released and much of the content was almost completely unconnected to my work.

Instead, lots of the speakers talked about their work and passions in handcrafted and specialist fields like building wooden bikes, truffle-hunting and whittling spoons.

As I watched I felt rather dejected as I don’t make anything at work. You can’t hold a well-crafted social media post in your hand. You can’t transform a plain piece of wood into a great newsletter format. You can’t whittle your communications strategy.

I briefly considered jacking into my job and moving to a cabin in the woods to make things (until I remembered I’m really not an outdoorsy person and have no discernible crafting skills). Instead I did what I am good at: dragging out a metaphor further than it should perhaps go…

One of the talks that stuck with me was by EJ Osborne who hand whittles wooden spoons. They talked about how they loved starting with a plain piece of wood and watching a spoon emerge as they worked on it. You can whittle a spoon in an afternoon and it is something that beginners can do.

I realised that I envied the sense of tangible achievement. Of getting from nothing to something in an afternoon. Of finishing something you could hold and point at as the fruit of your labour.

In students’ unions and communications we don’t often get to whittle (metaphorical) spoons. 

Sometimes we’ll work on something like freshers week for weeks or months and whilst we can point at our banners, emails and webpages as the output of our work we’re often already too stuck into the next thing to step back and admire our handiwork. 

It’s easy to see if your wooden spoon is any good. Is the handle long enough? Does the bowl scoop up the things you need it to? Does it give you any splinters? With the work we do it is often hard to immediately gauge its success. How much did that tweet contribute to the success of that event? Is the revised strapline for your bar the reason sales have gone up or is it the new paint job or something else entirely?

I’ve found two ways to counter this occasional sense of frustration:

I look for spoons. I imagine that when you finish whittling a spoon you run your hand over it one last time and turn it over to admire your handiwork before moving onto the next spoon. I try to do this more frequently in my work (metaphorically obviously, I don’t stroke my monitor after after social media post…)

Sometimes the spoons are big things; a rebrand, an increase in student satisfaction, a new email campaign. 

Sometimes the spoons are small things; some likes on a Facebook post, a compliment from a colleague, uploading a new profile header image.

The key is to realise that metaphorical spoons are harder to spot but that they are just as valid as measures of your progress and hard work.

I recognise that my job is not to whittle spoons. Communications stuff can be measured; Facebook reach, email open rates and website pageviews. To me though that’s not usually the actual point of communicating. If I wanted to get our Facebook reach up I could just post cat videos (which I would totally love to do) but that wouldn’t help increase participation, enjoyment, empowerment or any of the other relatively intangible things we’re actually here to contribute to.

What about you? I’d be curious to know if anyone feels the same occasional disconnect between ‘doing’ and ‘making’ or how ‘knowledge workers’ can find the same sense of satisfaction when their work is largely invisible.

August 11th, 2016|Communications|0 Comments|

Induction for new communications team members

It’s been a hectic few months recently as I’ve been doing three jobs at once after two members of my team relocated to London for great new jobs.

After recruiting to fill their vacant posts and with an expansion of my team on the horizon I wanted to organise a coherent induction programme for anyone joining my team.

We have a standard induction checklist created by our HR team covering the basics but I wanted something more comprehensive and communications-focused for my team that would:

  • allow new people to work through some things at their own pace
  • give them a sense of what they’d be learning about
  • allow us both to keep track of progress
  • remind me what I need to cover
  • be easy to customise for different roles

I remembered a great article Trello had shared about how they onboard their new employees (for the record, onboarding is my new favourite communications thing to be interested in).

“Like all first impressions, you only have one shot to get it right. The first week is the time to be as thorough as possible, for both logistics as well as intangibles. Important information that falls through the cracks or isn’t conveyed properly means that employees’ knowledge bases are inconsistent.”

Trello is a super cool list/organisation system. It’s hard to explain but their website does it better than I could. We already use Trello to track work in the communications department and for various other bits and pieces so it seemed like a great option for induction.

Setting up my induction template

I borrowed some of the layout and content ideas from their new hire onboarding example board to create my induction template.

My board is divided into lists for before someone starts, their first day/week/fortnight/month and optional extras. Each card (an item on the list) has links to relevant information/documents and checklists where suitable. We can both add comments to cards if we want to make a note of something in particular.

I’ve used labels to allow cards to be filtered by things I need to do, things the new person can do themself, things we’ll discuss together and things I’ll need to show them. This means they’ve got lots of little things they can do themself during those first few days when they’re still getting to grips with things. It gives them some control rather than having to wait around for instructions and information.

Once a card has been completed they can drag it to the ‘done’ list – always a satisfying feeling! By subscribing to the board I get notifications when they’ve done each bit so I can keep an eye on how things are going.

I created an induction board as a template that I can easily copy for new members of staff then customise by adding, amending or removing cards depending on their role.

My communications induction checklist

I thought I’d share the items on my list as I couldn’t find a similar list. I’d love to hear your ideas for anything I should add.

Before their first day

  • Contact the new person – get paperwork and payroll information organised, give them information about dress code and arrangements for their first day
  • Get things ready – name badge, IT accounts, desk (including an excuse to buy new stationery!), notify HR and other colleagues who need to know about new starters, office key etc
  • Set up a Trello account and share their induction board
  • Set up accounts on other systems we use such as Basecamp

On their first day

  • Have lunch with the team – a nice gesture not to abandon someone on campus on their first day and give everyone a chance to chat
  • Update email signature
  • Complete basic HR induction checklist of key policies etc

In their first week

  • Read the staff handbook
  • Complete our basic IT training and induction
  • Create accounts on relevant services such as our website CMS, Slack and Hootsuite
  • Talk through our communication channels
  • Learn about our communications procedures
  • Go through the Union strategy, department action plan and personal objectives looking at how they are interlinked
  • Have a one to one meeting with me to check in at the end of their first week
  • Learn how to use our phone system (a high point of which is me doing impressions of the different ring tones we have for internal and external calls)
  • Look through key shared folders on our network
  • Learn why we love great customer service
  • Gain access to our social media accounts

In their first fortnight

  • Get their HR and payroll paperwork done
  • Get added to our website and our office door
  • look through the job description with me to talk about training needs and induction plans
  • Subscribe to useful mailing lists
  • Learn about our communications strategy
  • Agree our expectations of them for their first few months and discuss what they’d like from the role
  • Go through our department’s budget
  • Learn how to use the tools we use such as Hootsuite, Slack and Google Analytics
  • Learn about our visual style, tone and brand

In their first month

  • Further IT skills
  • Wellbeing activities such as completing a wellness action plan (this is optional)
  • A few personality quizzes to help us understand how the new person works – 16Personalities & True Colours
  • Learn about our finance procedures
  • Confirm preferred working hours (as we offer a degree of flexibility)
  • Cover defamation and copyright basics
  • Further Google Analytics training (as I’m keen for everyone in my team to be comfortable with it regardless of their specific role)
  • Learn about more tools and techniques we use such as Mailchimp, Bootstrap, agile development and link tracking
  • HTML and CSS (again, something I like everyone to have at least a basic understanding of regardless of their role)

Another benefit of this system is that it is easy to add things to the template as I think of them and copy them to any relevant team members’ boards. I quite often use the Trello app to add things from my phone as they occur to me.

Next on my do to list is building up a library of books and links for people to learn more about particular concepts and topics (and to give me an excuse to reread some of my favourites!)

I’d love to hear about how you approach induction and what I’ve forgotten to add to my list



Comms by the Coast 2016 is coming…

I’m taking on Comms by the Coast as a freelance project outside of my day job. Don’t worry, the speakers, chance to chat to other students’ Union communications people and the pastries will still be there!

This year we’re going to two full days of speakers and sharing ideas.

Sign up for more information at commsbythecoast.com to help decide this year’s date and to receive updates about the event.


Whose Students’ Union?

Oh hi, I’m back! I spend a lot of time mentally composing blog posts but forget that it is harder to share them when they’re just in my head…

So something I’ve been thinking about recently is whose students’ union it is.

NUS have been doing some really interesting work on talking to students like they’re selfish (as in don’t do that), part of which talks about using our/you/we and who is included/excluded from those.

The one I’m particularly interested in at the moment is the use of ‘your students’ union’ because I don’t think I like it.

I’ve used it loads in the past – hey it looks inclusive, hey we want you to know you’re part of this too, hey if we say it enough times maybe people will start to believe it. Our email newsletter used to come from ‘Your Students’ Union’, we refer to ‘Your Officers’ and it crops up all over the place. I thought it was familiar and would indoctrinate people into thinking they truly were ‘Their Officers’.

Now I’m not so sure.

Like, if someone tells me they’re my something and I don’t feel like they really are then I instantly feel annoyed by their presumptiveness. Who are you to tell me that you’re my anything?!

What if we’re alienating people at the very times we’re trying to make them feel included?

If I like you and we have some sort of prior connection then maybe but even then isn’t it a bit weird?

Isn’t it a bit like someone you meet on a train telling you they’re your stranger on a train? No mate, you’re just a stranger talking to me on a train. Don’t do that. I’m terribly British about that.

You may well be my city council but if you’re not taking away the recycling often enough then you signing your letters ‘Your Council’ doesn’t make me like you any more. If I couldn’t pick your officer out of a line-up and/or I don’t know what they’ve done for me then they’re not really My Officer. Telling me they are all the time doesn’t make it true.

I’ve started thinking that you only get to call yourself someone’s something if you’ve earned that and if they believe it too. I don’t think it is causal. I don’t think you can ‘I’m yours’ your way into someone’s life or heart.

It’s like when people say ‘don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh’. If we’re so busy being presumptive about our relationship with people by telling them something maybe we’re not spending enough time actually doing stuff that will make them feel like they belong.

Or maybe I’m wrong.

What do you think?

March 20th, 2016|Communications|1 Comment|

Comms by the Coast 2015

A few weeks ago I hosted our annual students’ union communication people gathering in Brighton – Comms by the Coast.

I wish I had more time to write about the things I learned and the ideas it sparked for me but the run-up to new students arriving is more hectic than ever!

After everyone had grabbed a pastry Suki and Aisling from LSE SU and Arts SU talked about how they’ve used calls to action in their email marketing and reflected on their experience working between two different unions.

>> View Suki & Aisling’s presentation

Eleanor from Ofgem talked about how they’ve shared their ‘Be An Energy Shopper‘ campaign on a limited budget.

>> View Eleanor’s presentation

Jess and Heather from the Open University Students Association showed us how they’ve been engaging their 200,000 distance learners.

>> View Jess & Heather’s presentation

Christine from Musterpoint talked about engaging with the media and the public.

>> View Christine’s presentation

Chris from The Student Room showcased some of their insight into students.

>> View Chris’s presentation

After a sunny lunch, Tom from Bristol, Emil from UEA (now at Goldsmiths) and Lucy from Sussex talked about their rebranding projects. It was really interesting to hear about three different approaches and see their final looks.

>> View Tom’s presentation

>> View Emil’s presentation

>> View Lucy’s presentation

Finally, Jamie from Swansea talked about his experience of working for a students’ union and a university.

It was so nice to see everyone and pick their brains. The discussion session the afternoon before the main event was sooooo useful and I came away with loads of ideas.

A massive thank you to everyone who came along and to everyone who contributed.

You can see presentations from Comms by the Coast 2014  on my blog too.


August 21st, 2015|Communications|0 Comments|

Organising your marketing & communications

I spoke at the annual National Union of Students (NUS) conference for students’ union officers and managers. This year my topic was ‘organising your marketing and communications’. Not a particularly sexy title but maybe next year?

To be honest, this is currently a holding page for a longer post to come which talks a bit more about my thoughts on the topic plus more info about what other communications people told me about their views too. To get an email when I do put up some more info you can sign up to my mailing list.

For anyone who is just after the slides here you go:

You can also read more about my presentations from the 2014 conference on content marketing and cheap tools.

Quick & dirty ways to measure & test

I’m a massive data nerd. I love spreadsheets. I love experimenting. MASSIVE GEEK.

One of the aspects of digital that I enjoy is being able to see what is working (or not) and tweak things.

These are some of my quick and dirty ways to measure how things are going. Some are specific to particular tools, others apply across a variety of things.

1. Use different collectors in SurveyMonkey

We often use SurveyMonkey for surveys and I try to set up different collectors for different channels, e.g. social media, email to all students, our newsletter, website homepage, url on banner.

This means I can see which promotional channels are working well (so we can focus on those) and which are not (so we can abandon those or try to boost them).

2. Use custom campaigns in Google Analytics

Google Analytics allows you to add information to the end of urls so you can track them via Google Analytics. These are custom campaigns.

I’ve talked before about how I use information to help make decisions including examples of using custom campaigns to track our social media activity.

This works offline too. You can create a long link with the tracking information in it then use a link shortener like bit.ly or your own tools to create shorter, more attractive links to put on printed materials.

3. Track links using tools like bit.ly

Bit.ly and other tools like Hootsuite’s ow.ly shorten your links so they aren’t so long and rambly. They also allow you to track how many people have clicked them.

This is useful as it is, you can see how popular what you’re sharing is.

You can step it up a notch though and use it as a form of split-testing on social media. Try posting tweets on the same topic at different times of the day, with and without images, long and short text or any other combination of factors. If your aim is to get clickthroughs you can use bit.ly to see which format(s) work best.

4. Make use of split-testing where available

If your tools allow for split-testing DO IT! I’ve used it a few times for our email newsletter to test sign-up forms, email bodies and subject lines.

Changing the subject line of our ‘vote now’ elections email resulted in twice as many votes at one point (though over time the gap between the two fell a little). You can see the tests I ran towards the end of my ‘data driven decision-making’ slide deck.


What else have I forgotten? What have you tried? Please let me know. Like I said, I’m a massive nerd for this sort of stuff


August 9th, 2014|Digital|0 Comments|