Spitfire Strategies

Never Stop Learning

Kristen Grimm

By Kristen Grimm

As I sat last week at the Aspen Institute completing a weeklong seminar as a Henry Crown Fellow, it struck me how hard it is as an adult to make time for new learning. Two years ago, I remember writing an all-staff email to Spitfire about being a learning organization (sound familiar?) and the importance of embracing opportunities to learn and try new things. But when I looked at my own learning efforts, they entailed following some smart people on Twitter. So I went about designing a new way to approach learning. I’ve decided to share highlights here with the hope of helping you with your own resolution to learn more. Since I am a communicator and campaigner by trade, I will focus on designing opportunities to learn about these topics. Hopefully by the end, you’ll be inspired to find a few open spots on your own calendar and commit to pursuing opportunities to learn how to sharpen your communication and campaigning, and usher in a slew of big successes in the year ahead.

Step One: Decide what you want or need to learn.

Here’s where it is important to go in order. Before you sign up for that “Turbocharge Your Social Media” webinar, ask yourself: do we know who our priority audiences are? What is the best way to reach them? Get the basics in place before you explore the wow tactics. To decide what kind of learning you need to start with, consider the following questions.

  • What do you hope to achieve with the new knowledge that you can’t achieve now? I’ve heard people say they want to learn more about branding because they hate their own. Valid. But, other than you loving your brand, what will learning how to do a brand refresh get you? More money? More supporters? More success? If you can’t match the learning to a specific need, you may not ever apply your new skills.
  • Do you have the time and energy needed to put your new learning into practice? Learning inevitably leads to doing things in new ways. I’ve spend the past year trying my hand at “mindful messaging,” which requires me to really consider the psychological reactions of audiences I am trying to reach in order to create compelling messaging. This is really hard. This approach takes me three times as long as the way I used to do it. You need to be sure you are willing to invest the time needed to experiment as you put your new skills into practice.
  • Will the learning solve a challenge your organization is facing? We tend to prioritize learning that is relevant to now. If you know you need to experiment with tone, move away from gloom and doom and want to try out satire à la John Oliver, but have no idea how, you’ll be motivated to take advantage of opportunities that allow you to do that.

Step Two: Make the most of the time and money you’ll spend by knowing how to learn.

Carve out time before, during and after any learning opportunity to get ready to learn, stay focused on learning and apply the learning. Prepare for the learning opportunity by approaching it with a real world challenge and think it through. Do the prework or prereading so you can fully participate. While doing the training, don’t have distractions. Don’t be preparing for a big conference call or making big decisions. This will make it hard for your brain to focus and absorb all it can. And remember: learning takes time to stick. Before you leave a training, write down three things you are going to do with the new learning and schedule the time needed to make sure those things happen.

Bringing an experimental mindset to the learning experience will help you absorb the material and improve your changes of putting the lessons learned into practice. If you find yourself wearing your skeptical hat and crossing your arms, reconsider. Learning suggests you don’t know everything (imagine!) and you may need to do things differently.

Anytime you learn something new, share what you learned with your organization. One of the best ways to make the new learning stick is to try presenting it to others. Teaching what you learn to others also ups your return on investment.

Step Three: Pick the best places and ways for you to learn.

Webinars are a convenient option. You rarely have to travel, you can stay at your desk (or in your PJs if you work from home) and they are usually short (one to two hours). But if you know you are someone who will be tempted to surf the Web, check email or take a call while the webinar is in session, you might do better in a more focused session. In-person trainings have their benefits. They tend to be more dynamic than webinars, offer peer-to-peer learning opportunities and provide more one-on-one counsel. In-person trainings are also more likely to spark inspiration to do great things than a series of webinars – especially if you only pay half attention. However, they are also a bigger time investment. You have to clear the decks to be out of the office for a day or more. While I’m not promoting Twitter alone as a learning plan, I always do the article check before I sign up for any type of learning. If I can read an article and then apply the learning on my own, I don’t go for further training. I save the webinars and in-person trainings for skills I struggle with, need to ask lots of questions about, and need to try and get instant feedback.

I cannot emphasize enough the value of learning experiences that have a peer-to-peer component. I often learn the most from people’s shared experiences. I love hearing about brag-worthy moments and cautionary tales. Those are often as valuable (or more!) than the theoretical content that might be the heart of learning. I also highly recommend learning collaboratives as a wonderful way to encourage learning. Learning sticks when you practice it, share it and learn how others are applying it. It’s comforting to know others are struggling with the same challenges you are – and feels great when you make breakthroughs together.

As you look for top-notch learning opportunities for communication and campaigns, here are a few I recommend:

  • In a bold move, I will start with the Executive Training Program. This is a 14-year-old program run by Spitfire that aims to teach leaders to lead communicating organizations. Participants gain the strategic skills to develop and execute successful communication and campaign plans while polishing personal communication skills like presentations and visionary speeches. It exposes them to the best practices they can share with their organizations to use communication to create a greater impact.
  • frank. I don’t often call out conferences as learning opportunities. I find most are more useful for networking. However, frank is the great combination of both learning and hanging with the public interest communication tribe. Last year’s speakers included Mark Little of Storyful, Jenny Lawson (http://thebloggess.com) and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Other presenters spoke about getting people to change their Facebook profile pictures to support gay marriage, how to use humor to move people on serious issues like climate change, and why sometimes our own brain is the biggest barrier to accomplishing the social change we want to see in the world (thank you, Shankar Vedantam).
  • Andy Goodman’s webinars. I may have been projecting when I talked about getting distracted on webinars. I recently started listening to Serial instead of focusing on a webinar I was supposed to pay attention to. Andy would keep my attention if he was reading Good Night Moon. His webinars on storytelling are the best there are.
  • MobLab has a plethora of online trainings. Check them out here.
  • Rockwood Leadership Institute has multi-day in-person trainings (always in beautiful locales) for social change leaders. I love these. They feed the soul while building important skills. You can learn more here.
  • It makes everyone’s heads hurt but we need to learn to measure how we are doing with communications and campaigns. The Aspen Institute runs advocacy evaluation breakfasts and brings in experts to expand thinking in this critical area. Learn more about that here.

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

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