How to get engaged (with your stakeholders)

What better day than 14th February to think about getting engaged? Last week I came across the kind of document I love to see: a short, snappy, practical summary of some tools for analysing stakeholders from IDS. The authors explain four key tools; some are pretty familiar to marketing folk e.g. Alignment Interest Matrix (AIM), while others are less commonly seen outside of development, such as Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis.

It got me thinking about some of the ways people working in fields such as marketing, organisational change, etc. look at stakeholders and whether these might be of relevance to people wanting to engage research stakeholders.

One tool that I think is under-used is Peter Block’s matrix which positions stakeholders in term of level of Trust and Agreement with you. It takes the AIM tool a step further to factor in relationships between people and I’ve found it really helpful when I’m in situations where how much people like me is my only source of power. I often use it when I’m teaching project management (given that project managers often have to cajole people to contribute when they have no hierarchical mandate). I imagine it could be useful for think tanks who are trying to influence stakeholders with whom they have some level of existing relationships (negative or positive).

The Block matrix is explained nicely by the TeamSTAR Project with some advice on how to work with each group e.g. with Opponents (where there’s trust but disagreement) are people you can have a constructive discussion with because you already have an established relationship and may end up reviewing your viewpoint or reframing it. Sticking with Peter Block and the power of personal connections (this post is fast becoming a Valentine’s card to his work…) his “six conversations” methodology for civic engagement is really worth a read.

Finally, a shameless plug for something I wrote for IDS. The Organisational Decision Making Unit (or the buying centre) is a nifty piece of marketing thinking that people working in research uptake might consider to identify who your stakeholders might be influenced by. I’ve tried to find a development-friendly summary online but am stumped (please tell me if you find one) so meanwhile check out p.17 of Who Are We Aiming To Reach?

 

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What is it I do again? How to talk to strangers about our work.

As Charlie used to say, you should “never go anywhere with men and ladies that you don’t know” and that’s good advice. But sometimes we do have to talk to strangers about our work, often at short notice and even answer the dreaded question “so what’s your project all about?”. What’s the wise thing to do in those situations?

I recently ran a workshop with some of the lovely folk at the British Library for Development Studies where we shared our experiences of talking about what we do or want to do, to people who we want to get to know better (donors, potential partners, people who might be able to help us with our work).

We quickly ditched the idea of developing an “elevator pitch”, those short speeches we’re meant to deliver to a captive audience. Of course it’s handy to have a standard statement or two and there’s lots of advice out there on how to develop them. But it’s not very considerate of the person riding in the elevator with you (or stuck in the queue for the coffee or loo). We were looking for some good advice on how to get conversations going with people, who we don’t know well, and get them interested in our work while still being ourselves.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Turns out that between us we had quite a few ideas including:

Ask questions – the anti-elevator pitch approach is to get to know the person as quickly as possible, and then explain your idea or project or odd-sounding job title in a way that speaks to what you’ve found out about them.

Have something in common – look for a connection between the two of you, where you are, who you know, what you’re wearing.

Use examples and stories – especially if your work involves a lot of jargon or theory, remember to bring in real people and situations to make it accessible.

Be rigorous – you don’t need a prepared speech, but it is worth learning some facts that support what you’re saying; maybe something an expert has said in a recent publication, or some firm numbers from evaluations that back up your case.

Be a lovely person – you’re talking to another person, who might be tired, away from home, fed up with being pitched at. If it’s your style, by all means be charming, or cheeky, or funny, but try to make them feel better for having spent time talking to you.

Have no more than three messages – those core points to get across which could be your values, objectives, what you’re doing that’s different. If you work in a team then you need to establish these together. They’re the things you’d like the other person to go away associating with you and your work but how you communicate them is up to you.

Make sure you can contact them – ask for their card, or their email and send them something useful and relevant afterwards (maybe a link to that expert’s paper you were talking about or the name of a great B&B in NYC).

Knowing all this is great, and pinning down the facts and messages in advance is better, but best of all is practising it. For which I have two recommendations: get into the habit of practising scenarios with your colleagues (with another team member around to give feedback and support if needed), and go speed-dating.

Be interested in other people: the golden rule for freelancers?

When I talk to fellow freelancers who do a lot of work from home, a couple of challenges seem to come up again and again: staying solvent and staying sane.

We know we have to keep the pipeline of assignments flowing, to avoid the ghastly feast or famine syndrome, but how do we get enough (but not too much) new work lined up when we’re busy getting our current work done? And while we’re managing that balancing act, how do we keep ourselves motivated, up-to-date and avoid turning into people who talk to their furniture having spent so much time in our own company?

Here’s something that I’ve observed seems to help: being interested in other people. I’m a nosy so-and-so, a chatterbox and a bit of an approval-seeker (Do you like my new website? Do you? Do you?). But it turns out that these qualities come in pretty handy now I’m self-employed. I’ll admit, I went a bit bonkers when I first started out as a freelancer. It was January. I was snowed in. And I went from having about 50 face to face bits of friendly useful office chitchat a day to asking my cat how her weekend was. So I realised early on that I needed to plan to have at least one cheery phonecall or coffee date every day in order to keep myself going. Sometimes with a former colleague, other times a new contact. Just keeping in touch, exchanging advice, sharing know-how and news. Getting feedback, advice or just letting off steam.

Some really great things happened as a result. I didn’t have to look for new clients – they found me. My lovely network would mention me when asked for a recommendation and as a marketer, I know that a lot of this was to do with me being “top-of-mind” thanks to our recent chats. When thinking of a brand (or person) we tend to remember those we spoke to or heard from not long ago. I was accidentally doing Relationship Marketing.

I also came away from most encounters feeling inspired to get on and do something I’d put off, or more confident about tackling something new and a bit scary, or knowing more about something I’d almost certainly find useful at some point.

So getting back to the two challenges. If you find yourself worried about either or both, I recommend making more time to befriend and be a friend. Schedule some “Let’s catch up” calls for next week. Email your contacts and tell them what you’re up to, and find out their news. Take time to have lunch with an old colleague. Trust that you won’t have to spend time looking for work; work will find you. And your marbles will stay put.

Your cat will be grateful for the extra peace and quiet too.

PS: I wrote a paper on Making and Keeping Friends (advice for my colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies on how to build and maintain strategic relationships) so you may find some of the tips there useful if you’re looking to grow your network.