Yesterday I facilitated a board retreat for Gaston Day School. Liz Minor, the director of development, gave me a lot of leeway in structuring the agenda. She told me that she had a great board that was very willing to help with marketing the school, but that they felt like they didn’t know how to do that exactly, including knowing what to say, and when, and to whom.
Here are six of the principles I used in structuring the agenda for the day:
1. Focus on what they already know.
People get anxious when they think you want them to memorize something, like a mission statement. Instead, focus on what they already know by heart, because it’s already in their heart! We spent most of the morning talking about two ways to think of their messages as board members. The first was simply “sharing the love” about Gaston Day. We practiced talking to each other about “why I love Gaston Day” and then discussed what they said and heard from each other as a group.
The second was storytelling. Everyone in the room had at least one story to share about how Gaston Day had changed their own life or their child’s. I asked volunteers to share stories, to increase the overall story repertoire of the board.
2. Give what they know a little more structure.
I asked them to pair off three times, sharing why they loved Gaston Day, so they explained it to three people, and heard three people’s explanations. (I picked up this exercise from Gail Perry.) This allowed board members not only to practice, but to refine their statements by adding points or rephrasing their own based on better phrasing they might have heard from someone else.
On the storytelling exercises, I shared the three classic story plots, including the various elements within those plots. By making sure their stories have all of the essential elements, they can turn an otherwise ho-hum story into one with lots of emotional staying power.
3. Keep the concepts simple.
You aren’t going to turn people into marketing experts during a one-day retreat. You have to pick and choose, and you have to simplify. I wanted the board to get a general grasp on what I meant by marketing, but not to get overwhelmed by it. So I didn’t present the 10-part marketing plan outline I sometimes use.
Instead I focused on the quick and dirty version: who’s the audience, what do you want them to do, what’s the message to get them to do it, and how do you deliver that message? I simplified it even further by saying that they, the board, were the messengers. After a quick brainstorm on audiences and calls to action, we were able to spend the rest of our time on the message (in this case, the personal testimonials and stories).
4. Connect the concepts to the real world.
Board members are busy people. When you take up a good chunk of their day, you need to ensure that they see how it is relevant to them outside the retreat. The final hour of the four-hour retreat was dedicated to this. We started with a discussion of situations where they could use the “why I love Gaston Day” message and specific stories to work Gaston Day into a natural conversation, e.g., if a friend is complaining about the state of public education, or a co-worker is talking about relocating his family to the area.
5. Address their practical concerns.
I also left a half-hour open on the schedule for “Sticky Situations” where as a group, we were able to troubleshoot some scenarios that board members had faced, e.g. “What do you say when someone complains about a particular thing?” This was also a great chance for board members to provide staff with some input on concerns that had been raised with them as board members.
6. Make it highly interactive.
I saw my job as providing a framework for the board members to fill in with their own ideas and experiences. While setting up the framework did include some training that required me to speak for a few minutes at a time, most of the day was participatory and interactive. We did solo exercises, share pairs, and whole group brainstorming and discussion. Several board members thanked me specifically for making the retreat so interactive. This is so important with adult learners. If they can practice something, they are much more likely to really learn it.