Oct 072015

Startups and non-profits under a communications cloud

There’s a huge oppressive black communications cloud hanging over many organizations.

Managers, employees, volunteers, even leaders are being smothered by this cloud.

It’s the communications cloud of

“I know I have to say something, but I have no idea how to say it!”

One of my clients gave me this metaphor of a black cloud when she was explaining how much stress she felt about being responsible for PR for a fundraising event for a non-profit. Since then I’ve seen the same communications stress at, for example, startups, schools and spinoffs.

The people affected by this cloud have a passion for their mission, and they need to tell the world about it. Otherwise, the whole enterprise could fail.

You are stuck under that cloud when you are at a startup, trying to do too many things at once, but still needing to explain what the startup does.

You experience the big black cloud when you are tasked with helping find sponsors, donors and stakeholders at a NGO or non-profit, whether you are helping settle refugees, rebuild a school or raise funds for a theater company.

You are going to get squished by this cloud when you are an intrapreneur or part of a spinoff team at a large company, and you need to find stakeholders at conferences, online and through product demonstrations.

If you are suffering from “black cloud syndrome,” you don’t have a marketing department to fall back on, there are too many people who have given you good advice about social media (or flyers or logos), and perhaps you feel that your biggest triumph in written communications was the Facebook post about your cat.

But you are the only person available, your organization is counting on you, and you are paralyzed.

Dark days

You are confronted with a website, flyers, social media, logos, taglines, photos, graphic design, calls to action, newsletters, blogs, portfolios, press releases, pitches, presentations, and network meetings.

Your organization is convinced that communications needed to happen yesterday in order to generate more stakeholders, donors and customers. This, of course, just makes the big black cloud even bigger.

Let’s face it. Because of the horrible cloud, the communication doesn’t happen (“I’ll get to it next week.”), or it happens haphazardly (“The blog post can wait, right?”), or it’s just not as great as you feel your organization deserves (“I wish I had known that fact before I sent it out.”).

The guilt is as bad as the paralysis.

Here are some ideas on how to blow that great big black cloud away and let some light in.

You eat a sandwich one bite at a time.

First, let yourself off the hook. You can’t do it all at once. It’s just you and maybe a couple of team members. The only way to keep yourself sane is to work systematically.

One thing at a time, and try to choose the right things.

Imagine what would happen if, next week, you were able to put the new website online, send a newsletter to a whole database of contacts, create a new Instagram campaign, give two interviews based on the five press releases you sent, give presentations at three industry gatherings, and have new flyers with the new logo, photos and call to action handed out on every street corner.

First, you’d be flat on your back from the Herculean effort.

Second, one of two things would happen.

Either your whole organization would be in crisis mode, flattened by the need to respond to all the attention you just generated, such that no-one could actually do their job.

Or, you would be completely overwhelmed by the silence…

Because through the mass of communication, you will have missed your audience.

Let’s find a way that gradually, step by step, determines what you need to do first and what you need to do later.

For want of a better description, let’s call it a communication plan.


A good communication plan starts with identifying your audience.

Communication is collaborative. In order for it to function, there need to be at least two parties: you and your audience. If nobody is listening, you’re just talking to yourself. If you don’t know to whom you’re talking, then you might as well be talking to yourself.

So, who are you trying to reach with your communications?

At this point many people want to take what seems like an easy way out. They say that their audience is “everyone.”

This is when an even darker cloud starts moving in.

You can’t reach everyone. The best you can do is to reach someone.

Think about Nike for a moment. I’m sure they want to sell shoes to everyone. However, the way they communicate about their shoes for women running marathons is completely different from the way they communicate about their fancy basketball shoes for teenage boys.

They define their audiences.

If they can just do it, you can just do it, too.

Which group of people is most likely to help you achieve what you need to achieve?

Are you looking for clients, donors, or investors? Are they young, old, or middle aged? Are they male or female? Executives or construction workers? What kind of language do they speak?

How educated are they? Where do they live? In what kinds of houses?

What kinds of people share your organization’s passions?

What will they gain by connecting with your organization? How will you make their life better?

What do they know about you or your type of organization already?

What is absolutely essential that they know now? Why should they care?

Often you have 2 or 3 audiences, just like in my Nike example above. Some of your communication, like the logo and the tagline, will need to work for both audiences. And some, like pictures of runners or of basketball stars, will be very, very audience specific.

That’s great. Each piece of targeted communication has a larger chance of achieving its purpose. After you’ve succeeded with this audience, you can always go back and start with another one.

Once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s time to ask another important question.

What do you want them to do?

Every successful piece of communication exists for a reason. It has a goal.

What do you want to achieve with the thing that you are about to work on?

Is your aim to inform?

Are you letting your specific audience know about a new product, new research, new ideas?

Do you have instructions for them or something you think they should know?

Are you going to help them do something better or stop them from doing something harmful?

Do you want to engage?

Are you trying to increase your interaction with your audience? Build a community?

Do you want them to start to ask questions that you can answer later?

Do you want to make them active partners in a dialogue?

Would you like to persuade your audience?

Do you have a point of view that you want them to think about?

Are you trying to get them to doubt something that they think they know?

What kind of arguments, data and stories will convince them?

Is your goal to motivate your audience to do something?

Do you need action?

Do you want them to buy something, donate money or time, support your initiative?

Why would they do that? How does it benefit them?

5 questions that blow away the cloud and let you get to work.

You might be feeling that I just made your life more complicated rather than easier.

(Believe me, I didn’t. I’m no stranger to wasting money and effort because of inadequate planning. I once painted my entire kitchen 3 times in one week, each time with a different color.)

Yes, planning is a lot of thinking work. But it will make the difference between working smart and overworking. And we can boil it down to 5 questions.

Here’s how you begin to make a communications plan:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What essentials do they need to know?
  • What do you want them to do because of your communication?
  • Why should they care?
  • What are you going to use to reach them?

Now that you know who your audience is, what you need to tell them, and what you want to achieve by it, you can choose how you would like to spend your energy and your resources.


Different media do different jobs for different audiences.

You now know that printing flyers would be a waste if your whole contact list is tech-savvy people who want to be reached by email. But printed flyers could be great for giving to a different audience, perhaps at a concert. (And that emailed PDF flyer, really? What are the odds that your audience will look at it?)

You now know that a multi-page, text heavy website isn’t appropriate for people using their smartphones to find the address of your venue. But that kind of website could be ideal for potential donors or investors who want to know every detail.

You now know that designing and printing 100 posters is crazy if there are really only 3 places where your target audience will see them. What are you going to do with the other 97?

Startups and non-profits removing a communications cloudConsider your audience, your goals, your message and the resources you have. You will probably come to realize that the communications approach that everyone else does might not be appropriate for your organization. The one-size-fits-all website, facebook page, and business card approach just might not do what you need.

Think about what’s necessary. Then do that.

Once you’ve made sure your audience has gotten your message, enjoy moving on to the next step in your plan.

Now, how does it feel to be cloudless?

Why did I write this post?

Non-profits, startups and intrapreneurs regularly call me when they’re experiencing communications stress. Sometimes they call me after they’ve had an important event, which did not achieve the expected results. (For example, a big fundraiser, a new product launch, or setting up a stand at a conference.)

Most of the time the solution to the problems can be found in a mismatch between the target audience, the goals, and the kind of communication.

Most of the time a calm and reasonably intelligent person can take care of this part of the process without outside help. You just have to know which questions to ask.

And now you do.

Jonathan Talbott is a communications consultant for small and multinational companies, non-profits, start-ups and political parties. He founded TIP (Talbott International Presentations) in 2012 with the ambition to make the world more interesting, one presentation at a time. Since then he has helped hundreds of people and companies improve their pitches (small presentations), which has led to a direct increase in their bottom line. He advises these same clients on communications strategy.  Based in The Hague in the Netherlands, Jonathan Talbott is also the head speakers’ coach for TEDxDelft.

  2 Responses to “Startup stress, Spinoff stress, and Non-profit stress”

  1. Very informative blog. I am really in a similar situation of developing the best message for my audience. Most often my audience is not very familiar with the problem I am trying to address and so makes it a bit difficult to stress home the solution. Although I have made several efforts, it has not changed so much. A few however, have come to identify with the problem for which we are looking for a solution.

    I find this piece really helpful in redesigning my communication strategy.

    Good job Jonathan

  2. Jonathan is my biggest fan :-). And this is sooo important: feeling at ease and comfortable when you are stressed out by the fact you need to Say Something….Get on Stage…. for the good of the cause you are working for.

    Allowing Jonathan to coach you, support you and make you feel comfortable and give you tips and advice in giving that Presentation, Talk or Pitch. For me it is a gift. Allow yourself this gift and feel strong and be prepared for that Black Cloud 🙂

    Yes you Can!
    Thank you Jonathan…..

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>