Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2019
Today, more and more funeral industry professionals are becoming “accidental” event planners due to the ever-changing nature of funeral practice. In part 1, we talk about best practices from the event industry, standardized forms used by both event planners and suppliers, ideas on how to make your events successful, examples provided by attendees for how they have made their events successful in the past, and tips for avoiding common mistakes.
Part 2 covers event trends to inspire you when planning your events.
As more millennials become consumers of your business, they aren’t wanting the traditional. They’re not thinking about that at all. What they want is experiences. Think about how Pokémon Go was able to get nerds out of their homes and running around, chasing after ridiculous phantoms. That’s what the events industry saw. Pokémon Go reached out to every generation, but millennials are going to change the way all of us have to do business.
In preparing for this presentation, we met with CANA members in Las Vegas. One member said his career has been traditional funerals followed by cremation. Now, families combine memorial and reception with island music playing with a bar and a food buffet of shrimp with a slideshow playing. Fill the chapel with silk plants and soft lighting – people love it. It’s a meaningful experience. The family then invites attendees to share words of remembrance, not a clergy member.
One member said that they had just spent a lot of money renovating their funeral home, because they want to keep families there. They offer food and families can BYOB since the business can’t have a liquor license. So they emphasize convenience – it’s all here, simplifying the decision-making for their families and keeping the service in-house.
If the other option is to lose the business, become an event coordinator. Think about your direct cremation families. Let’s say 25% aren’t using your facility. So, how can you get them to come back? Don’t think about the families you’re doing well with, think about the ones you’re gaining by planning events that mean something to the families.
Small Meeting Trends to Know
In preparing for this presentation, I spent a lot of time reading about what is coming down the pike for us. These are the trends we’re talking about in the events industry, but you can see how many they apply to the modern funeral.
This means people being involved – the talking heads, the powerpoints, that’s not what people are looking for anymore. We are talking about an experience that translates to a memory. More than anything else, events are about memories.
And a funeral shares lifelong memories. There are ways to do that through technology, but it’s really important to sit down and talk to the family about what they want to get out of this gathering.
The most fundamental question you can ask is “How does this event succeed?” No two events (including funerals) are the same, so don’t make assumptions about them or the funeral, but ask the family what they envision for the event.
Here, you can tell a story about someone’s life. Sit down with the family and ask them about the experience they want people to have and make it a personal experience for them and the people that gather.
Smaller, shorter meetings
While this one might be more obvious for the corporate event, it really means that people don’t want to sit in a chair for three hours. People prefer events that are small, shorter, and invite interaction or keep a variety of speakers talking all day.
Use of Technology
This has been around for a while, but the technology changes every year. In events, we use technology throughout the planning process from designing the space and layout, through the way that it contributes to the experience at the event. Technology enables the use of emotional memorial videos, favorite songs, and even controlled lighting to set the atmosphere of the space.
But don’t use technology just to have it, and don’t have it just to say you do. There must be a reason behind it and it must be used to make the event and the experience better. Whether it’s used to improve event planning or in the production of a keepsake video, technology can enhance the experience.
Food and beverage trends
If you’ve ever planned a big event in a special location – think a wedding at the Bellagio – there are specific rules about food and beverage. They don’t want you to bring in an outside caterer – they want to keep that revenue in-house. If your facility is large enough to add catering, this can be a great service to add to your business. If it’s not, you can work with local catering companies to develop special relationships that add value to your services.
One of the most important things we think about in events is the food. It’s one of the most common memories from an event – we congregate around food. Adding food to any of your packages is a great idea, especially if your family is not affiliated with a church group that brings food to the family. Gourmet nostalgia – a new twist to an old favorite (e.g., lobster mac-and-cheese, chocolate chili) – is really in. Growing up in Indiana, some of the best food I ever had was at funerals. What kind of foods are you seeing served at your events?
The local and sustainable “farm-to-table” has been around for a while, and people and chefs are very interested in buying locally and sharing the best that they can. The grass-fed beef raised without hormones is healthier and tastier.
We’re moving away from processed foods as the general population becomes much more interested in eating healthy. We’re seeing new cuts of meats and chefs are moving toward using the entire animal. Catering menus, and your own menus, now involve bone marrow, chicken skins, pork neck. I know that my family, in Tipton, Indiana, went to the Pork Festival every year (my mother was actually Pork Queen!), so being able to involve the foods that address the culture or the person is very important in your events.
One of the trends is do-it-yourself cocktails and mocktails, and some funeral homes have even acquired a liquor license. I don’t know about you, but I think liquor would make a celebration of life a lot more fun. I can imagine mine being my favorite drink – vodka tonic – and my favorite foods, and everybody just has a great celebration. Do-it-yourself cocktails and mocktails – if you don’t have a liquor license cocktails are hard, but mocktails are easy.
Try it out
What can you do to help make memories for attendees?
Get them involved in the planning process. This is a way they can feel like they’re contributing to the legacy of the deceased. Solicit input from the larger family to make it special. Music, photos, fragrance – these can raise memories for attendees and make a lasting impression.
Much of the direction of the event is determined by tone. We talk a lot in the event industry about tone and theme. They’re related, but not the same. Tone is how people feel when they’re in the room, the atmosphere of the event. Tone can be defined by lighting, ritual, language, and the design of the event is defined by and reinforces the tone.
I haven’t been to a lot of funerals, but, at the best ones, I learned a lot I didn’t know about the person who died. Finding ways to bring that out, to show different sides, is valuable and what I think the person would have wanted. Themes can be defined by the interests and hobbies of the deceased – fishing, motorcycles, and related mementos.
Participation in planning and the event
This is not only a great way to be inclusive, but also a great way to increase attendance and make memories that are long-lasting. Since funerals have tight timelines, it can be difficult to get many people participating – in some cases, waiting for families to get back to us can slow us down – this is where technology is key. An event planning portal, or even a private chat on Facebook, can keep everyone informed and attuned to the schedule. The benefit of their participation will out-weigh the inconvenience of the family being involved if you can manage them. And be up-front. Ask if these tools will help gather the key voices that should be heard.
Select unique and interesting venues if possible.
This is a trend in every industry, and funerals are no exception. For team-building events and corporate conferences, planners are looking for interesting places (and it’s not just physical challenges – cooking a meal can be a great team activity.) Similarly, destination weddings and funerals are growing. Developing a relationship with venues in your area and they will become your partner in making memorable events. Get to know them, their space, and preferences and they will bend over backwards for you when you need them.
Looking to the future
Immersive Sensory Experiences
Today, 3D Mapping is possible for most events and venues. This technology combines the use of fabrics used as screens with projected imagery. It may seem out of financial reach, but it will only continue to drop in price and rise in popularity. Imagine how powerful it could be to create this for your families and embody the tone and theme of your event.
The Holograms are Coming!
Some of you are going to think this is too out there, but I still want to mention holograms. People are still talking about Tupac performing at Coachella in 2012, years after his death. More and more deceased celebrities are performing at events. Now, it’s still very expensive – you can’t set up shop and do this now – but it too will come down in price. There’s already technology where you can open a book and enjoy a hologram.
It’s going to happen. I can see a day where the decedent could eulogize her own funeral or perform her favorite song. Maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s their favorite companion, or another person, but it’s out there.
I’ve been fascinated with your industry ever since HBO’s series Six Feet Under. I thought it did a wonderful job, and I don’t know if it’s realistic, but it took away the fear about this experience for me and everyone I knew. I know I’m going to be cremated and I’ve got it in my trust that I’m going to fly my closest family and friends to the Four Seasons in Wailea and have my cremated remains scattered there. It’s going to be an event. I’ll need an event coordinator to do that for me – or, do you want to do that in-house? Have you done something like that? That’s a package. That’s an opportunity.
This post is part 2 of our two-part event planner series excerpted from the 2017 Cremation Symposium presentation “Best Practices for the ‘Accidental’ Event Planners” by Dr. Rhonda Montgomery and Todd Uglow of William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Read part 1 here.
You can learn more about event planning and access useful resources from the Event Industry Council:
See what CANA has planned for the 2020 Cremation Symposium: goCANA.org/cgt
Rhonda Montgomery, Ph.D. is the Department Chair of the Food & Beverage and Event Management Department in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. She conducts research and has written articles on the social psychology of purchasing decisions and customer loyalty for meetings, conventions and festivals. She has also written numerous books in the areas of meetings and conventions, private club management and the first-year experience.
Todd Uglow is an assistant professor, faculty in residence of event management in the UNLV Harrah Hotel College. He has been a member of the UNLV faculty for over 10 years and focuses on event management & marketing, having expertise in festival design and entertainment management. Former clients of Mr. Uglow include the NFL, Professional Bull Riders and Major League Baseball. He is certified by the courts to testify on matters of celebrity and brand valuation. He holds an undergraduate degree in Business Management, with a marketing emphasis from Cal State San Bernardino and a Juris Doctor degree from Western State University College of Law.
tips and tools
Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2019
John Cassavetes once said “Film is, to me, just unimportant. But people are very important.” Gail Rubin’s article, first appearing in The Cremationist in 2015, shows us how we can use movies to get a glimpse into the human experience in all of its variety. The chance to see peoples’ journeys and the many ways they express grief provides us all useful perspective long before they sit at an arrangement table.
Lights! Camera! Action! Movies are a great way to teach, learn and tell stories that people remember. Studies indicate most humans are visual learners, so movies are a powerful medium to make a memorable educational impression – especially on touchy topics like death and grief.
Movies can be a great way to introduce funeral directors and cremationists, especially those new to the industry, to the diverse reactions that families may exhibit after a loved one dies.
When you look at examples from movies, coupled with background information from thanatology – the study of death, dying and bereavement – you can learn about the different ways people express or repress their grief. You can better understand grief responses without fear of offending a client family.
Consider these movie scenes and the types of grief they illustrate.
Elizabethtown — Instrumental Grief
Drew, a young man who lives in Oregon (Top 5 in cremation rate), has come to his father’s home town of Elizabethtown, Kentucky (Bottom 5 in cremation rate). Dad had unexpectedly died of a heart attack while visiting family there. Mom instructs Drew to have Dad’s body cremated and return with the remains to Oregon. The family in Kentucky wants to bury Dad in the centuries-old family plot.
In one scene, he’s having a phone conversation with Mom in Oregon about the cremation choice. She says, “Honey, I don’t know when I’m going to crash, but as of right now, we are learning about the car, and I’m learning organic cooking, I’m going to tap dance, and later on today, I am going to fix the toilet. It is five minutes at a time.”
Drew says, “Mom, I think you need to slow down.” She replies, “Look, everybody tells me that I should take sedatives, but hey, I am out here and I am making things happen. All forward motion counts.”
The instrumental grieving style focuses on practical matters and problem solving.
Mom is busy, busy, busy – that’s her way to deal with grief. This reaction is not determined by gender, as reported in the book Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn by Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin (2010).
You might think men are more inclined toward the practical approach, but Doka and Martin found it’s a pretty even split for men and women to experience an instrumental grief reaction. If you see a family member working a list of things to do prior to the funeral, understand that person is likely an instrumental griever.
A Single Man — Intuitive Grief
At the opening of A Single Man, George, a gay man mired in grief over the death of his partner, wakes up and gets ready for his day. He gets out of bed, showers, shaves, gets dressed, and goes into the kitchen. He narrates his thoughts in this monologue:
For the past eight months, waking up has actually hurt. The cold realization that I’m still here sets in. I was never terribly fond of waking up. I was never one to jump out of bed and greet the day with a smile like Jim was…. It takes time in the morning for me to become George…. Looking in the mirror, staring back at me, isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament. (Aloud) ‘Just get through the goddamn day.’ A bit melodramatic I guess. But then again, my heart has been broken. I feel as if I’m sinking, drowning, can’t breathe.
An intuitive grieving style emphasizes experiencing and expressing emotion. Rather than getting busy with activities that may distract or channel emotional pain and sadness, the intuitive griever is immersed in mourning. While we may think of women as emotional, men are just as likely to embrace this style of grieving, although they may retreat to the privacy of a “man cave” to mourn.
Overt sadness, tears and withdrawal in the arrangement conference or at the funeral/memorial service are signs of an intuitive griever.
In the film, George is experiencing profound sadness eight months after his partner’s death. While there is no timeline for grieving, at this point, he may be experiencing complicated grief – when deep mourning is unremitting. Addressing complicated grief is best handled by working with a trained grief therapist.
Because A Single Man illustrates mourning for a partner in a homosexual relationship, it’s the perfect segue to discuss disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is “the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” (Kenneth Doka, 1989)
While people may be more understanding of mourning the death of a same sex partner now, A Single Man is set in 1962, well before homosexual relationships gained acceptance. Other examples of disenfranchised grief: a mistress unable to publicly mourn the death of or breakup with an illicit lover, mourning other losses, such as jobs, health or friends, or pet owners who are devastated by the loss of a beloved companion animal.
The Jane Austen Book Club — Disenfranchised Grief
At the opening of the film, friends gather for a graveside funeral, complete with a celebrant, flowers and a photo of the deceased. It turns out the funeral is for a woman’s dog. One attendee checks her watch. Others roll their eyes.
At the reception afterward, a man says, “Let’s get some perspective here. I mean, do you think if Jocelyn was married with kids she’d be giving her dog a state funeral? This whole thing is warped.”
The love of a pet is intense, and with the loss, there is intense grief. Yet, grief over the loss of a pet often does not get the same level of public recognition given for the loss of a person. Mourners may turn to social media sites like Facebook to receive supportive comments from friends.
Savvy funeral homes are expanding their services to include sensitive death care to help pet parents. Such services can provide an opening and connection with families that leads to human death care business later on.
Other films cover the many faces of grief, including Grief and Past Trauma (The Big Lebowski), Grief and Talking and Repressed Grief (This Is Where I Leave You), Processing Grief (Walk The Line), You Can’t Tell Someone How To Grieve (Six Feet Under), Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages (All That Jazz), and Moving Beyond Grief (Gravity). I have a presentation called The Many Faces of Grief: Mourning in the Movies which offers two CEUs through the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice and looks into all of these films in-depth to help funeral professionals see different forms of grief on display.
Join Gail and CANA in Albuquerque on October 2-4, 2019 to discuss consumer insights she’s gleaned from the increasingly popular Death Cafes and consumer oriented Before I Die Festivals at the first-ever Green Funeral Conference. Learn more and register: goCANA.org/gfc2019
Gail Rubin is a Certified Thanatologist (a death educator) who teaches about pre-need funeral planning and end-of-life issues, using humor and funny films to reduce resistance to discussing death. An award-winning speaker, she “knocked ‘em dead” with A Good Goodbye, a TEDxABQ talk which provides a compelling online video supporting pre-need funeral planning. She’s the author of three books on end-of-life issues, one of the first people to hold a Death Café in the United States, and the coordinator of the Before I Die New Mexico Festival. Her website is www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Many funeral directors are facing more and more direct cremations with no services. They are at a loss as to how to overcome that trend. There are many ideas, theories, notions and educated guesses as to why families choose cremation. Cost. Environmental footprint. Control. Convenience. Lack of information. Religious affiliation, or lack thereof. All of those certainly are factors and can play a part in any one person’s decision. So we are going to look at the three Big C’s in Cremation.
I would like to go back in time to the early ‘60s when cremation first came on the profession’s radar, and find that first funeral director who said, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t charge as much for this since I’m not embalming or casketing” and take him out. I’m not a violent person by nature, but really?? That idea got started somewhere and we all just went along with it. Sure, let’s charge less for something that takes just as much time to accomplish, has much more liability, and requires just as much staff involvement. That makes perfect business sense.
Within that nonsense also was created the message to families that they were somehow lesser-thans or 2nd class funeral customers. I actually worked for an owner who said to families, “We bury our dead, we burn our trash.”
Because we didn’t take these families seriously and did not take their needs for a meaningful funeral service to heart, they left. Why would I pay $8,000 to someone who thinks I’m not as important as the people who buy the box? I can be ignored at the $695 box-and-burn immediate disposer who is more than willing to take my money and do nothing else for me.
Families are hiring us to perform a service. If I hire an orthopedist to perform surgery on my shoulder, his price is for the surgery. He doesn’t talk about which instruments he might have to use or the amount of time it might take or how many nurses will have to be in the room. He says, “This is my price to fix your shoulder.” Why can’t we have a price for body preparation? Yes, we’d have to figure out the correct GPL language but we could certainly have more productive conversations with our client families if we didn’t have an if/then/or approach to pricing.
Yes, for a small group of people the cremation choice is made based upon cost. But the large majority are choosing cremation based upon control. These people have attended bad services in their past and are determined that they are not going to go to another one. If I have a burial, then I’m beholden to the funeral director to get the casket from point A to point B and so I’m stuck with whatever service is offered to me. I can’t throw the casket in the back of my car and drive off and arrange a service that fits me. But I can walk out with an urn in my hand and have control over the type of service that I hold.
We’ve all been to “bad” services. The cookie-cutter, insert name here, hope someone says the name correctly, impersonal ritual that offers nothing about the person and what his death will mean to those mourning his loss. Every time one of these boring, hurtful or meaningless services occurs, another immediate disposition/no service is created. People say “When I die, don’t do that!”
Cremation offers a choice, a sense of control over what happens in a memorial service. Does that mean that most are held at someone’s house or at a bar or a restaurant with toasts and stories? Probably. Does that mean that the value of having a gathering that celebrates the life and explores the grief and provides a guidepost for mourning the loss is lost? Definitely.
Once I served as a Celebrant for an 80 year-old-man who died of suicide. It was a difficult service, but we honored his life and talked about the depression over health issues that caused him to make such a choice. We discussed what the grief journey was going to look like for those who were trying to make sense of the death. We encouraged the standing room only crowd to be an integral part of the family’s next steps as they turned tears into memories. It was a pretty good service.
That afternoon I received an email from a woman who was in attendance begging me for a copy of the service. This lady tracked me down and said she needed a copy of my words. So, I asked the family for permission and I sent her a copy.
Her backstory was this—her son died of a heroin overdose and her daughter, his twin, died of suicide four years before. They did not have funerals either time. They cremated, then met at a restaurant and told stories. They did not trust that someone could handle such delicate and hard situations, so they just avoided. She needed those words to help her on her own grief journey. This happens hundreds of times across the country to our Celebrants.
Because the celebrant is a ceremony expert, focused solely on the ceremony and often devoting much more time to the ceremony than funeral directors and clergy can, the celebrant can be a tremendous resource. What celebrants offer can even be attractive to those who initially think they don’t want a ceremony at all.
—Diane Gansauer, Director of Celebrant Services, SCI Colorado Funeral Services in Metro Denver
Until we change the service experience for those families, they will continue to walk away. Our pricing, our lovely chapels, our offers of assistance—they’ve been there and done that and don’t trust us to be able to do something that is meaningful.
Which brings us to the final C:
My bedrock message is “Celebrants can change your business, Celebrants can change your families, Celebrants can bring your cremation families back to your firm.”
The religious landscape of our country is changing. The percentage of people who identify as a “None”—not religiously affiliated, not engaged with a church—is rapidly growing. Statistics from the Pew Research report show that almost 25% of the overall population now considers themselves “nones” and over 35% of millennials are disenfranchised with religious experiences.
This has incredible implications for funeral service. Some funerals homes have stained glass windows, Bibles in the foyer, hymns on the speakers and scriptures on their websites. There is nothing wrong with having an ability to serve your religious families, but today anywhere from 25% to 80% of your community does not identify or resonate with those representations. If all you have to offer is a minister and a religious experience, they are going elsewhere.
High “nones” equal high cremation rates. It’s just that simple.
The greatest impact a Celebrant can have with a family is the one on one interview time, an opportunity to sit down and become part of the decedent’s family, by hearing and learning first-hand about the life of their loved one, and sharing a personal glimpse into the life of the decedent with friends and family at the funeral service. That is one of the greatest gifts you can ever give to the family. Out of that experience comes the most gracious of compliments that you will ever receive, which is to hear at the conclusion of the service how well you knew the loved one. The Celebrant experience gives you that opportunity to serve the family in ways you may have never dreamed possible.
—Kevin Hull, Vice President and Location Manager, Cook-Walden Davis Funeral Home
Celebrants are the answer for a majority of your cremation families. So many of them are not offered any options by their funeral professional. So, they either opt for the rent-a-minister or do nothing. Another immediate disposition walks out of the door.
When someone attends a service where every word of the service is focused on the life, on the family, and on the grief experience, their decisions can change significantly. “Oh. . .we can have this kind of service? Then I’m willing to talk to the funeral director about paying for THAT” Over 50% of the services I perform through referrals from funeral homes in my city come from someone who attended another service and came back and asked for that Celebrant. People pay for value. People pay for meaning. People pay for gatherings that heal.
My friend, Ernie Heffner from York, PA, ran numbers on his Celebrant services and found that cremation families who used a Celebrant spent 36% more on other goods and services. It’s not about the money. It’s about the value, the experience, the assurance that someone is going to hear their stories, to honor the life and work with them to put together a service that fits them. People pay for meaning.
I did a service for a man in his 40’s who drank himself to death. He left an estranged wife, a 19 year old daughter, 18 year old son, and a brother who was a recovering alcoholic himself. This meant two hours of slogging through a lot of baggage and feelings to get to the stories and to give them permission to say what was needed. But we put together a service that honored his life while being honest about his struggles and his demons.
After the service, the brother handed me a thank you card with $300 in it. The funeral home had already given me a check for my Celebrant fee of $400. I said, “Oh, you’ve already paid me.” He said, “Please just take it.” The card read “Thank you for performing J’s service and I especially thank you for the time you spent with us Sunday evening. I’m hoping it provided as much healing to the others as it did for me. Thank you.” People pay for healing gatherings.
In today’s world, the most crucial element in helping a family lies in the ability of the Celebrant to actively listen and recreate what they have heard into something with meaning and value. Celebrant Training is funeral service’s best option to develop the skills to become an outstanding funeral professional. At our firm, all of our funeral directors must go through the Celebrant Training so they can understand the importance and value of working with our Celebrants to help the families have a truly outstanding experience. This is especially important for cremation families that are looking for something other than traditional services. Celebrant Services play a major role in making Krause Funeral Homes a place of exceptional funerals.
—Mark Krause, President
Krause Funeral Homes & Cremation Service
We’ve been saying this since 1999: Families need a service to begin their grief journey in a healthy and honest way. Unless we are willing to provide the professionals and the services that they are looking for, they are going to walk away. When families have options, funeral homes are going to lose every time unless their option is better, more appealing and soul touching.
Looking at everything we do when it comes to serving the cremation family—pricing, style of service, presentation of choices, availability to Celebrants who can do exactly what the family wants and needs – is the only way that full-service funeral professionals are going to stay in business. How we deal with all of the C words will determine how much farther down the road we get to travel.
CANA is partnering with Glenda Stansbury and the InSight Institute for the second time this July to offer Celebrant Training. Limited to 40 attendees, this course packs a lot of information, emotion, and training into three days but is increasingly considered a must for the most successful businesses in the US.
Learn more about this class coming to Louisville, Kentucky from July 29-31 and register online.
Glenda Stansbury joined InSight in 1996 as Marketing & Development Director. She has worked as an educator, teacher trainer, and seminar developer. She is a practicing Celebrant, adjunct professor at the University of Central Oklahoma Funeral Department and is a licensed funeral director/embalmer. Glenda is available for speaking to funeral professionals at state and national conventions or for private staff training. For more information, contact Glenda at email@example.com.
Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, April 10, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 9, 2019
Conflict. Confusion. Controversy. Crisis.
Those are NOT the 4 C’s of effective messaging. Instead, those often are the negative ramifications of poor key message development. Think about nearly any life situation where there is conflict, confusion, controversy or crisis. Nearly every time, one root of the problem is failure to communicate important information.
We’ve all seen the results of bad messaging. People misunderstand a public policy because the explanation is laced with complex jargon understood only inside the Capitol building. Or, the reputation of a person or institution becomes woefully out of date because no one has made time to refresh the words they use to describe themselves. Often, bad messaging thwarts success when it comes to public awareness and reputation management.
A fundamental component of any communications campaign is crafting effective key messages that support the organization’s overall goals and accurately convey information to the most important audiences. Simple, but far from easy to do.
The four C’s of effective messaging are:
Simple, non-ambiguous terms are best. The faster you make the main point, the better. And, if you can inspire the listener to imagine a mental picture of exactly what you have in mind, that’s fantastic.
Consider President John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress on May 25, 1961:
“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The immediate reaction to most must have been, “Wow!” And, to this day, Americans remember that it was Kennedy who proclaimed the United States would put an astronaut on the moon… and then in 1969 we did.
Think about how scientific jargon and bureaucratic language could have killed the inspiration of the moment if they’d crept in. What if the President’s speech had led with a recitation of complicated technological advances that would make space travel better? What if he’d talked for five minutes about metals, plastics, thermodynamics and aerodynamics? What if he’d waited until the end to mention that a human being would walk on the moon – and then come back to Earth?
Highlight the gold nuggets of your messages distinctly and right away.
Employ well-chosen words and phrases that are unique to your organization, are memorable and distinguish you from others. You don’t want to sound like everyone else. So, identify words and phrases that are pinpoint-accurate, novel, and best describe you, yet are terms that your competition absolutely cannot use. Curate a collection of the most alluring words possible that stay true to your mission and purpose. Avoid the generic.
After facilitating countless messaging sessions for clients over the years, I can assure you that everyone is promising “high quality” products and services, “providing outstanding service,” and “excellence.” So many call themselves “the premier” organization in their field (some spell it “premiere,” but that’s a different conversation). And, it seems that every other organization will guarantee you they’re making an “impact,” helping you achieve “impact,” or even more cringe-worthy, they’re “impactful.”
Transform those overused words into bigger, aspirational ideas. Dare to be fresh and shake up the status quo.
Well-chosen words also help you build and maintain credibility. If you’ve adopted messages that are true and unique to your organization, people will understand and believe what makes you special. You want to use charismatic words in a balanced way, so they convey enthusiasm without hyperbole and support credibility at the same time.
Use fewer words. The best key message sentences are short and pithy, packed with powerful words that speak for themselves. Concise language and writing always win the day. In today’s “click, click, click” world, it’s even more imperative to speak and write in shorter, more interesting sentences.
A “No Trespassing” sign is concise and clear, and the treacherous dune cliff behind the sign is consistent with the message.
Resist the urge to use a whole paragraph to explain each key message sentence. If the key message needs explaining, it’s not an effective key message sentence. Start over. Simplify. Break it up. Go back to your mission statement. Think about what a 30,000-foot view would look like. What is the one, simple point you need to make? Re-write the key message. Repeat with other key messages.
Boiling down the essence of an organization to three to five key messages is an ideal way to start. Organizations that communicate best do this. Those three to five key messages need to stand on their own with no propping up and no footnotes. Every organization can do this. Again, it’s simple, but not easy.
To some, three to five key messages may seem too constricting. Keep in mind that once you’ve crafted those overall messages, you may choose to write supporting key messages. However, those supporting messages are reserved for use only in situations where your audience – not you – wants more detail and supplementary information. Don’t foist unwanted words on people you are trying to engage. Be ready for them to tell you that they want more. Your supporting key messages also must use clear, concise and well-chosen language.
Whether you are the leader of a corporation, a nonprofit, an association or the United States of America, it’s your responsibility to ensure consistency of message. You and everyone else who speaks or writes on behalf of your organization must use your organization’s painstakingly-crafted key messages every time.
This consistency underpins credibility and builds staying power in brand identity and reputation. Message consistency also is paramount in internal communications and is a lynchpin of healthy corporate culture. I’m not endorsing robot-like recitation of scripts. Instead, the goal is that all communications use the key words and phrases of the organization. This leaves room for each speaker to adapt the key messages to his or her speaking style. And, it allows people to write about the key messages in ways that are consistent with the overall meaning.
Organizations that communicate best ensure that all representatives know the key messages and are well-practiced in conveying them. This starts with board members who spend time internalizing key messages, so they can present them to internal and external audiences to advance the goals of the organization. It continues with rigorous training for executive leaders and communications professionals whose jobs require them to define and explain the organization every day. And, many organizations ensure that every front-line professional is well-versed in key messages, so all of them can handle workplace situations in ways that support organizational goals and culture.
We PR types always preach that consistent messages and repetition are the hallmarks of effective communications. But can being consistent and repeating a key message become tired and boring?
How do you keep messages fresh and vital while still repeating them so that your intended audiences remember your main points? How do you strike a balance between repetition that builds strong brand recognition and repetition that makes your story so stale that people say, “Oh, no, not THAT again?”
It boils down to one communications rule that may be more sacred than staying consistent with messages:
Know your audience.
It’s always about the audience first. The best communicators formulate what they’re going to say based on their audience’s needs. Why should this group care about what I want to tell them? What’s in it for them? What words and anecdotes will best resonate with them? The way I perceive the situation is less important than how the audience will receive it, so how do I immediately hook their interest in my topic? If I tell the old chestnut story again, will this audience relish it or disdain me? Answering those questions before you open your mouth will make your key messages fresh and tailored to the audience and prevent you from boring them with old chestnuts.
Sort and Balance the Chestnuts and Messages
The audience’s appetite determines whether your story is a luscious treat or a stale old chestnut. Before you address a group, understand their point of view and tailor your consistent messages to the audience’s needs. If they hunger for chestnuts, go ahead and tell those old stories that resonate best with them. If not, stay with the consistent key messages, freshened up.
This post is excerpted from Kathy Schaeffer Consulting, LLC blog posts: Chestnut or Consistent Message? (August 14, 2018) and 4 C’s of Effective Messaging (April 11, 2018). You can read these and more recommendations for public relations strategies including public speaking, persuasive writing, and communications on their publicly available blog: http://www.ksapr.com/ksa-blog.
Public relations activities help you build a positive reputation and educate important audiences in your community long before members of those audiences need your company’s services, and long before you need their support, such as for plans to build a crematory in your community or expand your operations. The CANA PR Toolkit, developed with professional PR firm Kathy Schaeffer Consulting, LLC, is designed to help you craft your PR strategy to grow your reputation and educate your community. This exclusive member benefit is available online and on-demand, whenever you need it most.
Kathy Schaeffer, principal of Kathy Schaeffer Consulting, LLC (KSC), is a lifelong Chicagoan who now spends her time in Chicago and Michigan. Kathy founded Kathy Schaeffer and Associates, Inc. (KSA), her issues-oriented Chicago PR firm, in 1994. Today, through KSC, she continues to serve clients trying to make the world a better place. CEOs praise Kathy’s media and spokesperson training and strategic counsel. Intuitive, inquisitive and straightforward, Kathy stands apart from sycophantic publicists. When she’s not working, you'll find Kathy swimming, biking, cooking or tasting wines.
tips and tools
Posted By Danielle Burmeister, Homesteaders Marketing Communications Lead,
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Today’s consumers foster inherent skepticism toward traditional advertising. Instead, they prefer and rely on recommendations from people they know and trust. To effectively reach these consumers, you need brand advocates – individuals who have first-hand knowledge of your funeral home and can share their positive experiences through word-of-mouth referrals.
Your brand advocates are well placed to offer credible recommendations to their peers. They sing your praises to others in the community without incentives like coupons, discounts or special offers. They do it because you have earned it, and they are often your most effective recruiters, a compelling blend of advocacy and authenticity.
The most successful funeral businesses rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and testimonials to increase brand awareness in their community. But to truly capitalize on this valuable pool of promoters, you need to know how to identify and mobilize your brand advocates.
How do you identify brand advocates?
The most obvious place to look for brand advocates is among your client families. These individuals are well acquainted with your goods and services because they’ve experienced them firsthand. This makes them valuable sources of information about your business. However, not every customer makes an effective brand advocate. To ensure you’re focusing your attention on those individuals who are going to have the most impact on your business, you should identify customers who have had memorable and rich experiences with your funeral home.
Storytelling is an essential part of word-of-mouth recommendations for funeral businesses. No one truly wants to shop for a funeral – caskets, vaults, urns and monuments are not fun to buy. Very few people are going to be compelled to use your services because they hear you have an impressive collection of 18-gauge steel caskets. Instead, they respond to story-based recommendations that describe experiences and emotions. And the most effective stories are the memorable ones – the ones that get told and retold from person to person.
My family recently experienced two losses that illustrate the importance of memorable services. When my grandmother passed away, we planned what many of us think of as a “traditional” service: an immediate cremation followed by a visitation for friends and community members, a memorial service at the local church, a lunch reception at the community center and a short graveside service at the Veterans cemetery. While the day was certainly meaningful for my family, it was not necessarily memorable to those who attended.
When my cousin died a year later, we planned a very different service. We held the funeral in the high school gymnasium, with his name lit up on the scoreboard above a red bowtie – his favorite accessory. Every member of his graduating class wore bowties, even some of his coaches. During the service, dozens of teachers and friends shared stories, some sweet, others funny – all memorable. The luncheon afterward was even catered by his favorite barbecue restaurant. His service was memorable – so much so that many in the community are still talking about it three years later.
Consider the last 10 services you performed at your funeral home. How many of them were truly memorable? Can you picture attendees sharing stories from the service with their friends and relatives? Will people still be talking about that experience a year from now? Two years? Ten? If you’re not sure, you likely need to spend some time working with your staff on creative memorialization and personalization so that each and every family leaves your funeral home with a memorable experience that they are excited to share with everyone they know.
When looking for brand advocates, you should also consider the breadth of experience a family has had with your business. Someone who selected direct cremation is unlikely to have much to say about your funeral home – good or bad. They simply haven’t had much exposure to you or your business. On the other hand, consider the credibility and influence of an individual who met with you in a prearrangement setting for their spouse; interacted with your staff at the first viewing, visitation and memorial service; took advantage of your aftercare efforts; and then returned to plan and fund their own funeral. A customer who has this kind of rich experience with you and your staff is much more likely to be a loyal, informed advocate for your business.
How can you mobilize brand advocates?
Unfortunately, identifying your most effective brand advocates is the easy part. Learning to motivate and deploy them effectively is much more difficult.
To mobilize your brand advocates, you first need to build and nurture meaningful relationships with them. This first part is likely something that already comes naturally to you – after all, you work in a relational profession. You likely know many of your client families before they come in for an arrangement conference, and if not, you are skilled at establishing a connection with them within a few minutes of meeting. However, it’s just as important to continue to foster those relationships long after the immediate need has passed.
There are few tangible ways to do this. First, take advantage of as many fact-to-face interactions as you can. That means dropping off paperwork at a widow’s home instead of mailing it, offering to transport flowers to the family’s home so they don’t have to pack them into their station wagon, and taking time to greet your customers whenever you see them out in the community. You may even consider calling the surviving spouse three or four weeks after the service just to check in, or taking them out for coffee so they have something to look forward to once all their friends have stopped calling and visiting.
You should also leverage opportunities to continue to provide service to families through your existing aftercare. Make sure every family knows what’s available – newsletters, emails, grief support groups, etc. Let them know why they’re important and offer to connect them with others who have found value in participating in those programs. Whenever you have events at your funeral home, like open houses, memorial services or holiday events, make sure you invite your brand advocates. Attending provides them with more exposure to your business and gives them one more thing to talk about with their friends and relatives.
The last – and most important – step in mobilizing brand advocates is asking your client families for referrals. This is often an uncomfortable thing for funeral professionals to do, but it’s a key part of leveraging brand advocates to promote your business. Often, customers who have had great experiences with your business are already inclined to promote you in their communities, but it’s still a good idea to remind them that it’s a valuable thing for them to do.
When you ask for referrals, make sure you incorporate three things:
- Explain why their recommendation is valuable. Talking about death can be uncomfortable for your client families, but you can help normalize it by encouraging them to share their experiences. I’ve found that the most effective way to do this is to focus on what they can do for other families: “Losing a loved one is difficult for every family – especially those who have never experienced loss before. You can help the people in your life prepare for the loss of their own loved ones by sharing your experience with them.”
- Ask them to provide a testimonial or referral. Timing is important. If you already have a follow-up system in place (like a survey), that is the ideal opportunity to ask for testimonials. If not, follow up with families a week or two after the conclusion of services to check in and ask about their experience. If they have great things to say about you and your staff, encourage them to share their thoughts with others: “We’ve found that hearing from other families we’ve served helps others who experience a loss understand what they can expect when they use our funeral home. Would you be comfortable providing a testimonial about your experience?”
- Let them know how/where to provide feedback. Decide how you want your client families to share their feedback. Ideally, they will be talking about your business everywhere they go. But it’s also a good idea to give them a concrete starting point – like your funeral home’s Facebook page. Once you’ve asked for a testimonial, make sure they know where to go to provide it: “We are honored you chose our firm to care for your loved one. Our service standard is to provide exceptional service to each and every family. If you feel we went above and beyond in our service to you, please share that on our funeral home’s Facebook page.”
One final note: The best way you can ensure you are identifying and mobilizing your brand advocates is to build the process into your standard operations. Make sure everyone on your staff understands the importance of providing memorable service to your client families. Train them to be on the lookout for individuals who have rich experiences with your firm and stories to share about your services. Then set expectations for how you will ask families for testimonials and ensure that every member of your team knows how valuable those testimonials can be for your funeral business.
Danielle Burmeister grew up in an apartment above her parents’ funeral home, where she cleaned cars, arranged flowers, and played “Taps” for graveside services. Some of her earliest memories include family dinners squeezed between visitations and road trips to local and national funeral association conventions.
Now, Burmeister works as Marketing Communications Lead at Homesteaders Life Company, a national leader in providing products and services to support the funding of advance funeral plans. In her current role, she offers a unique perspective on blending the day-to-day demands of a funeral business with creative and comprehensive marketing strategy.
Follow her on Twitter @burmeisterd1.
tips and tools