Getting a head start

“We can’t direct the wind. But we can adjust the sails.” Dolly Parton

I’ve had a tricky few months. I lost a family member in January, so everything’s been on hold, and my mind’s been on lots of other things. My creative mojo took a bit of a hit too. I was having restless nights, eating and drinking all the wrong things, and I needed a bit of direction. So I turned to Headspace.

If you’ve not heard of it, Headspace is a guided meditation led by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe that you do for just ten minutes a day. Ten minutes! What else can you do in that time? I’m willing to bet you spend more time than that just scrolling through your social media feed, channel hopping in front of the TV, or having a tea break. So if you’d like to get some balance back in your life, I’d really recommend analysing that dead time in your day, and making it your Headspace slot. For me, it’s after I’ve had my dinner, while my husband’s loading the dishwasher (he’s well trained like that). I pop my PJs on, close the bedroom door and have some quiet time – just me and Andy.

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When I started my Headspace journey, hearing Andy’s voice was a pivotal moment. I’d tried and failed with various other meditation apps in the past, but I could never really relax with what I was hearing. Other people’s voices grated, but like Goldilocks’ porridge, Andy’s is just right. Calm and measured, it washes over you and makes it possible to listen to all the other stuff that’s going on inside you (this is quite a lot, as it turns out). As a comms geek, the branding of Headspace was also massively appealing. They know just how to get a message across succinctly in a really charming way. Watch this adorable animation to see what I mean. I should say at this point that Headspace offer a free ‘Take 10’ trial, so you can give it a go for ten days and it won’t cost you a penny.

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When you first sit down to meditate, you might find it tricky. That’s because you’re learning a new skill, and you need to actually train your brain. I found my mind was like a naughty monkey – despite what I was trying to achieve, it kept jumping from one thought to another. But Andy has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly when this is happening, and he’ll remind you to keep focussed. Day five was a challenge. I got very itchy. FOR THE WHOLE TEN MINUTES. But I kept with it and resisted the urge to scratch, letting the thoughts come and go, and it was actually very liberating. On days six and seven, I had a bit of a moment where everything clicked into place. I had a lovely peaceful session somewhere in between wakefulness and sleep, and felt massively refreshed afterwards.

I’m finding it much easier to drift off to sleep since I started Headspace and I’m much more focussed doing everyday tasks. It’s also affecting me in ways I didn’t expect. I’ve stopped flitting around and multitasking at work, preferring instead to fully tackle the job at hand and move on to another only when I’m ready. Yesterday, during a train journey, I listened to the whole of Ed Sheeran’s new album, getting really absorbed in the lyrics and the musical styles of each song. It was a revelation not to treat music as just background noise while I mindlessly whizzed through the notifications on my phone. On the way home, I managed to bag a seat so I did my ten-minute session on a crowded Metropolitan Line train. I was amazed at the separation it gave me from the hustle and bustle. I felt protected and calm in an otherwise manic environment. Like I had a little force field around me. Finding some Headspace gave me a sense of stillness.

Twelve days in and I’ve paid upfront for a whole glorious year of meditation. I’ve now got access to the ‘singles’ meditations for things like sleeping, commuting and fear of flying, and I’m excited to take my new-found awareness to a whole new level, and build it into everyday life. I really look forward to my ten minutes with Headspace in the evening. And so, as spring approaches, the days get longer and the daffodils and blossom emerge, I feel like I’m also starting to bloom again – and it’s all thanks to Headspace.

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A decade of song & life lessons learnt

“If I cannot fly, let me sing.” Stephen Sondheim

Nearly ten years ago, I decided to join a choir (before they were cool).

I was in my early twenties, watching the first series of The Choir, hosted by a fresh-faced, floppy-haired Gareth Malone. Watching the pupils discover the world of choral music, I remembered the buzz I used to get from working as a team, and performing to an audience. I missed those days and without any real hobbies, I felt like there was a bit of a gap in my life – and thought that maybe joining a choir could fill it.

My mum decided she’d give it a go too, so we started searching for local groups. After spending a disastrous evening with the local choral group (average age = 70) I discovered Jubilate: an all-female choir based in Pinner. As soon as I walked into the rehearsal, I knew a love affair was about to start. The choir was made up of women from all ages, there was laughter, choreography and Sarah, the Musical Director, was wonderful (like a modern-day Julie Andrews). They performed for us to give us a flavour of their sound – Karl Jenkins’ haunting ‘Adiemus’, which I recognised from the Delta Air Lines advert – and the power of the harmonies, the dynamics and the feeling that everyone was working together moved me to tears. I knew I’d stumbled upon something very special, and asked to join. But because it was special, they wouldn’t just let anyone in. I’d have to audition first. I wanted so much to be a part of these fearless, fabulous women that I poured heart and soul into preparing for my audition. I knew exactly what piece I’d perform: Broadway-style ballad ‘Part of Your World’, from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. If you don’t know the song, it’s about Ariel’s desire to become part of the human world, and I felt it was the perfect fit for me wanting to be part of the choir (“Wandering free, wish I could be part of that worrrrrrld”). In my schooldays, when the toilets were empty, I used to pretend I was Ariel, channelling Jodi Benson and crooning into the mirror. It had sounded pretty good – but then again, everyone sounds good in the bathroom. Once I was in the audition room, would I have ‘it’? Aided by two glasses of wine, I headed off to my audition, and for a couple of minutes, I was Ariel again. I followed up with a few scales (pardon the mermaid pun) and it was all over. I was in! Mum got in too, with her faultless, unaccompanied version of The Seekers’ ‘The Carnival is Over’. We were an eclectic pair.

I haven’t looked back since. Jubilate has changed my life. It’s the most fun I can have sober (though I’ve had plenty of drunken fun too). Singing with this wonderful group of ladies has seen me through some tough times, introduced me to some of the best people I know, boosted my confidence, given me a new passion and enabled me to live some truly memorable experiences.

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A few of my favourite Jubilady memories are:

  • Standing outside Westminster Cathedral just before Christmas – before getting to actually sing inside it!
  • Getting together in our hotel after performing at the prestigious Llangollen Eisteddfod, singing everything and laughing ‘til our sides hurt. We hadn’t won the competition but this showed me it was the friendships that mattered
  • Singing with Brit award-winning vocal group (and thoroughly decent chaps) Blake
  • Meeting the Wessex Male Choir, a wonderful group of singers from Swindon who, like us, take their singing seriously but not themselves. They introduced us to the concept of an ‘afterglow’, where we get together in a drinking hole after a concert and belt out some of our favourites. Which leads me nicely to…
  • Having a meal in a Bath pub to celebrate a competition win and meeting Zoe From Wokingham who after uttering the famous words “Do you know any Les Miserables?” was rewarded with a full-on, five-minute medley. Zoe said that meeting us was like falling down a rabbit hole. This encounter subsequently made it onto a glowing TripAdvisor review, which has no doubt helped the pub’s reputation
  • Winning lots of trophies, notably the four we recently picked up at the Mid-Somerset Festival: and slurping champagne from one in Cheltenham
  • Being selected for the Adopt a Composer scheme, recording the pieces we’d learned for BBC Radio 3 – and hearing them on the actual radio
  • Two workshops with lovely choral composer legend Bob Chilcott: the first with Jubilate, where he coached us to sing his Little Jazz Mass and signed my music, and the second in Kingston, where I got a hug and a photo
  • Sarah singing at my wedding. She performed ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story and ‘All I Ask of You’ from Phantom of the Opera, and it was like a dream. The rest of the choir joined us in the evening and I sang with them in all my bridal finery.10414068_10153357938716811_7431971047777022229_n

Crucially though, I haven’t just learnt to sing properly. Joining Jubilate has also taught me loads of other lessons that I can apply throughout my life. Things like:

  • Listening. To what Sarah’s telling us, to myself and to others. It’s no good just belting out a song unless you listen to the people around you and blend in. I find this particularly tricky when it’s a show tune as it’s easy to get carried away and pretend you’re Elaine Page in Cats…but take a step back and remember that you’re part of a team
  • Patience. I sing soprano, which means we usually get the tune. Bonus! It can be trickier for other sections though as they learn their parts and ask questions, so you need to be prepared for quite a lot of waiting around
  • We all need guidance. We each have our different strengths, so while I have a photographic memory and can nail the words after a couple of practices, I don’t sight read, so I find timings difficult and often find myself holding a note for too long, or coming off too soon. It’s OK to ask for help from others – it’s not a weakness!
  • Let go and have fun. You have to let go of your inhibitions in a choir: from the crazy faces you have to pull to make the most of your voice to the choreography that goes with certain pieces (cue the penguin and sea lion impressions). You actually look more stupid if you don’t get into it, so let go, enjoy yourself and ham it up!
  • Team work. It goes without saying, but choir is all about working together, knowing what your MD wants you to do and reacting to it, in the moment. If another person in your section needs to stagger their breathing, you’ll have to cover for them so there aren’t any gaps.
  • Flexibility. MDs are pesky creatures and will sometimes spontaneously change the tempo and dynamics of a piece, especially in a competition. They’ll also change their minds about where they’d like you to breathe or the intonation they’d like on certain words. It’s their job to get the best out of you so stay on your toes and go with the flow.
  • It’s OK to mess up. You’ll often hear one of us singing when we shouldn’t be, or getting the words wrong – it happens all the time in rehearsals and sometimes in concerts and competitions too. The most important thing is to learn from it, sort it out for next time and move on. If it’s a live performance, you’ll often think everyone can hear you, but that’s rarely the case. That’s the beauty of singing with 40 other women! It’ll teach you a lesson though, so take note of whatever it is you’ve messed up on and don’t do it again.
  • Discipline. In Jubilate we sing most pieces without copies, so it’s our responsibility to do some learning in our own time throughout the week: whether it’s words, melodies or choreography. We also commit to attending rehearsals, travelling to performances and paying regular subs.
  • In the words of my singing sister Jo, ‘we like to be adored’. And there’s no shame in that. There’s nothing better than getting a laugh from the audience, or rapturous applause and cheering at the end of a piece. It means you’ve done a good job, and it gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. It’s really nice to get praise, and to make people happy through performing.
  • Leadership. I really appreciate Sarah: she’s taught me so much and helped us achieve some really amazing things together. But I’ve also been able to explore my own leadership qualities through choir, by sitting on the committee and taking the role of co-chair twice. It’s allowed me to try things out and develop different skills in a safe environment, as well as making decisions in the best interests of the group. I’ve used my professional communications skills too, redesigning the website, setting up social media pages and promoting our events in the press.

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If  you live in or around the Harrow area and want to join an awesome choir, or book us to sing at an event, get in touch on Twitter @jubilateladies.

Aside from sport, it’s pretty unusual to do group activities once we leave school, but starting a new group activity can definitely teach you a thing or two about yourself. Mine was choir – why not get out there and discover yours?

Failure is not final

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

I went to a fantastic conference this week. #CommsHero, hosted by the lovely guys at resource, is all about bringing like-minded communications professionals together to hear from influential speakers, share best practice and, crucially, to have some fun away from the office. The theme of the day was Dare To Fail. A brave, bold move because as we all know, the connotations of failure aren’t typically positive.

Comms Hero is all about looking at things from a different perspective and being innovative – something we embrace at RHP. Ironically, one of my first encounters with RHP – The Interview – was a bit of a fail. When asked what I thought of the new strategy video on their website, in my excitement I started saying how great it was, and how powerful the messages were. The sticking point was that I hadn’t actually seen it at all. I was just so enthusiastic about the job that I wanted to please people and be on their side. I was caught out of course, by my generic answer, and asked specifically what I liked about the video. At which point I had to hold my hands up and admit that I hadn’t actually seen it at all. I explained that I’d been concentrating more on reading the publications that I’d be working on, and when I checked their website, the video hadn’t been uploaded.

Then I went home, poured a glass of wine and cried for three hours. The job I’d really wanted and desperately needed was now definitely, totally, unquestionably out of my reach. And then something unexpected happened. A couple of days later while I was shopping in Poundland, the phone rang, offering me the job. They told me they really liked my honest approach. Turns out failing isn’t always bad – and crucially for me, RHP didn’t mind that I’d messed up, because I’d owned up about it and anyway, they were looking at the bigger picture, and all the other things I’d done right. I’ve now been at RHP for three years. I often look back on this experience and use it as a reminder to others that if you think you’ve failed, guess what? It might not be as bad as you think.

And so my team and I headed to #CommsHero, superhero masks in hand, to find out why we should be daring to fail more often. The coffee was great, the pastries were delicious, and there were some lovely personalised goodies waiting for us, like notebooks and business cards (because resource are awesome like that). Definitely no signs of failure so far…invite

Chloë Marsh, RHP’s Head of Engagement (and my superstar manager) was our Chair for the day. She dared to fail weeks ago by agreeing to take to the mic – we knew she’d smash it but it was definitely out of her comfort zone – and what better role model to introduce proceedings? Firstly, if we were going to fail we had to step out of our comfort zones, so on discovering little cards with ‘my comfort zone’ printed on them we were told to give them away. Relinquishing something physical was really effective (I tried to keep half but that wasn’t an option). We started the day with an introduction and ice breaker from visual communications specialist Fran O’Hara. I’d seen Fran’s work on Twitter so I was keen to see some in person, and I wasn’t disappointed. Fran sketches the day, picking out the key points from each speaker and recreating them in glorious felt tip Technicolor. Fran encouraged us to pick up our own pens and draw our very own Comms Hero. For some it was intimidating and for others liberating, but it brought everyone together as we shared our creations.

notesNext up was Grant Leboff, who delivered a powerful and thought-provoking speech on ‘growth hacking’ – the process of experimenting across marketing channels to identify the most effective, ways to grow a business and engage its users. I’d go as far as saying that a lot of what Grant said was life changing for me and will make me re-evaluate the way I communicate and advise others. Having worked in comms for 10 years, across a pivotal time for the sector, I’ve seen a lot of change, noticeably in how we consume news and share content, and I’ve had to shift my focus away from print and towards social – which is now the biggest news source. Grant explained how failure is inevitable in marketing, because we’ll never achieve a 100% response rate. Surveys are no good, because people will often tell us what they think we want to hear. The way around this is to use predictive analytics: behavioural data that allows us to anticipate what our customers will want and create content they’ll want to share. We need to stop producing marketing that’s about what we do: we need to understand who we do it for, and be elegantly simple in our execution. To do this we can fail fast in small ways: trying out lots of different approaches until we find what works. So as soon as I’ve finished writing this, I’m going to take a look at our e-newsletter numbers and listen to what they might be telling us, as I have a sneaky suspicion they’re not as audience-focussed as we’d like to think.

Next was Helen Reynolds, who encouraged us all to embrace our work blunders and learn from them. I want to be just like her when I grow up – she was funny, relatable and really honest. With sparkly shoes! Helen shared a couple of her own mistakes with us that she’s made throughout her career, as well as the lessons she’s learnt. It’s thanks to her that I decided to write this blog after a couple of months of not producing content, because she told us all to find ourselves and do what we believe in. I’ve always felt that blogging is a natural progression for me but have been held back by the fear that no one will read my stuff. Well guess what? I’m going to feel the fear and do it anyway, because like Helen says, done is better than perfect. Making your failures a story is also important because they’re defining moments. Your failure story makes your success story even stronger! Hence the reason for sharing my interview fib fiasco.

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After lunch Innovation Coach Paul Taylor (he invented his own job title, how cool is that?!) introduced us to Bromford’s Innovation Lab, and dared us to be different. The Innovation Lab is a way of helping colleagues try out their ideas in a safe environment, creating user-centred design. When they started the Lab, Bromford allowed themselves a 70% failure rate, because it’s only by failing that we can learn and move forward. Paul firmly believes a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings – music to my ears! – so whatever your job role, create stuff, experiment, be wrong as fast as you can and create innovation envy. Innovation doesn’t have to be rocket science either: it’s just about spotting opportunities and solving problems.

The final talk of the day came from Tim Scott, HR and social media consultant, who shed light on some of the reasons why HR teams can be reluctant to embrace social media and how we as comms professionals can help them overcome this fear and bring our corporate and social brands closer together. He explained that by just being you, diving in and sharing stuff you can maximise on its potential to find new ideas and ways to share information. I’ll definitely be sharing the benefits of Twitter with our L&D and HR teams as it’s a mine of information where I’ve learnt so much and connected with fellow grammar geeks.

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And then it was over. My team and I took so much away from the day that we’re just dying to try out at RHP. There were oodles of practical tips and tricks that we can use right now to support the rest of the organisation, create engaging comms and deliver excellent customer service. There were others we’ll try later along the line, and if they don’t work, we’ll capture the learning. In the spirit of #CommsHero, we’ll #DareToFail. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

 

 

 

Storytelling: why I’m all ears

“In order to win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.” ­– Abraham Lincoln

Last week work were kind enough to send me to ‘Being the Story‘: an event celebrating the power of storytelling. I’d been inspired by a talk from Steve Nestor at the NHF comms conference, where he introduced us to the greatest short story of all time, by Ernest Hemingway. And it’s just 33 characters long. Eat your heart out, Twitter:

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Isn’t it incredible? Inspired by Hemingway, Steve taught me that we should talk less, and say more. He highlighted the importance of using personal stories to empower change. So when I found out about Being the Story, I jumped at the chance to find out more about storytelling: the very oldest art form.

I knew I was in for a good day as I shook the rain from my brolly, grabbed a seat and looked up:

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See it? The organisers of this event must’ve been super chuffed to find this venue. It’s like it was meant to be. And as the day I progressed, with its connotations of authenticity, self-awareness and individuality, this Shakespeare quote became more and more relevant.

It was a roller coaster of emotions. We opened up with a fun, energetic boxing session from Richard (and Richard) from Dwaynamics: an organisation founded in memory of the late Dwayne Simpson, who lost his life to knife crime. His mother Lorraine spoke eloquently about her work supporting vulnerable people in her community and how she turned pain into power after Dwayne’s death, harnessing her grief to continue the work he’d started with young people. You could have heard a pin drop.

All the stories we heard moved me in some way. The theme was finding strength and creating change through adversity. Mandy Thomas shared her harrowing story of domestic abuse (“The police just drove me back to the hell I couldn’t escape from”) and explained how she’s become a voice for fellow victims. Sequinned songstress Brigitte Aphrodite challenged the stigma of mental health through poetry and song (“There’ll be sunshine after the rain. It will rain again, but I’ll be wearing a raincoat”). And Naveed and Samiya Parvez explained how they turned anger into innovation and developed a revolutionary new medical product, in conjunction with families (“Empathy creates radical disruption”). It was an honour and a privilege to be in the same room as these wonderful, inspirational people.

So what did I learn from Being the Story? Well, apart from the fact I should definitely take tissues with me next time (and I hope there’ll be a next time), here’s what I took away:

  • Listen more. People have such wonderful stories to tell, if we’d just find more time to hear them. Person to person is best. Stories are only powerful if people listen.
  • Look for new angles to find solutions. The Parvez family explained how anger doesn’t always have to be a negative emotion. It often reveals solutions to problems and gives you the power to make a difference.
  • Label jars, not people. People are amazing and everyone’s capable of achieving wonderful things, regardless of their circumstances
  • Challenge the status quo. Be brave. Be a disruptor. If you’ve got an idea, believe in it and don’t give up. As Giles Duley explained,”Each one of us can create ripples of change”
  • Develop your empathy skills. Seeing things through someone else’s eyes can change your own perception of the world. Check out the Empathy Museum for a wonderful, creative example of this.

Working at not-for-profit organisations for most of my life, I’ve seen first-hand how vital emotional connections can be to great storytelling. The flicker of recognition on a dog’s face as he’s reunited with his owners at Battersea after years apart. The words of a customer as she explains how RHP‘s employment experts helped her get a job and the confidence to pursue new challenges after doubting herself for six years. Real stories are powerful, memorable and tangible and far more powerful than anything I could ever create myself.

This week is #HousingWeek, where RHP will be joining with other housing associations on social media to demonstrate how we’re leading through change. But more than that, we’ll be highlighting our customers’ stories because as Steve Nestor explained, we’re just the supporting actors. The stage. The set. It’s our customers who are the main characters. And as well as telling these stories, I’ll be listening to what other HAs are doing, because to create lasting change and come up with solutions, we need to listen to people with experience, and learn from it.

Why not give listening a go? You’ll be surprised at what you can hear.

For more on #BeingTheStory check out Madeleine Sugden’s post here.

Hello from the other side.

“A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it”
Roald Dahl

Ah – the tricky first blog post.

Working in comms, I’ve been aware of blogs and read plenty of other people’s but never thought of starting my own until my manager suggested it might be a good idea. The other day my mum told me I should write for a living (which, considering I spend my days crafting marketing messages and advising on tone and language, was somewhat worrying). Alongside my day job, I’ve recently been testing the online waters by writing for ReallyRee, the UK’s biggest beauty blog.

They told me I was doing a good job and I thought it might be nice to have my own space so I set this page up. But ever since, my mind’s been in turmoil (“Who cares what I have to say?” What if no one reads it?” “What if someone reads it?” etc).

Then I thought if I want to blog, and enjoy it, I should probably just get on with it and sod the consequences, so here I am. Let me introduce myself (it’s only polite).

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I’m a 30-something comms professional living near the foodie village of Bray with my husband Mike and our rescue dog, Leonard. That’s us on our wedding cake. Leonard was once on a Royal Mail stamp. More about that another time.

I’ve worked in the charity and housing sector for nine years. My specialities include editing, proofreading and writing in plain English. I get a kick out of turning people’s technical content into clear and succinct copy. Plain English is my best friend.

When I’m not working, I can usually be found binge-watching Lily Pebbbles on YouTube, road testing beauty and lifestyle products for ReallyRee or singing in Jubilate: an award-winning ladies’ choir. We take our singing seriously but not ourselves.

I’m aiming to blog once a week about anything that pops into my head: which is usually a combination of work-related, communications stuff, beauty reviews, places to eat and explore and a good dose of realism thrown in, because all work and no play and all that.

What are your favourite blogs?

C x