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19 tech tools recommended by in-the-trenches communicators

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 7.30.05 PMIdentifying best practices and new trends are reasons enough to network with others in your field.

Networking generates ideas for  fresh new ways of doing things, which can result in a competitive edge, as well as a more vibrant and valuable social circle.

Because of the nice response to the recent summer reading suggestions sent in by a dozen school communicators, I’ve circled back again and asked a few more experts to share their favorite tech tool.

It’s my hope their A-List offerings will enhance your productivity and create more free time for you.

Sara DeVries

Sara DeVries

Sara DeVries: Basecamp makes it easy for people in different roles with different responsibilities to communicate and work together, which is why Sara, public relations director at Herrick District Library in Holland, Mich. uses it to organize projects that include several people and require multiple tasks. She said she considers Basecamp indispensable because it’s a place to share files, have discussions, collaborate on documents, assign tasks, and check due dates. A 60-day free trial period is available. After that, Basecamp will cost you at least $20 a month. More information is available at basecamp.com.

Basecamp stores everything securely and can be accessed at anytime from anywhere. helps me manage all the timelines and tasks for different PR projects we are working on, including assigning tasks to colleagues and approving their drafts.

Karen McPhee:  The, education policy adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former superintendent of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, says a powerful search engine is a communications leader’s best ally. “This might seem like a ‘duh’,” Karen said, “but understanding where and how to find reliable information quickly is essential.” Google is Karen’s favorite search engine because she knows how it responds and how deeply she’s need to dig into the search results to discover what she needs.

Karen McPhee

Karen McPhee

McPhee  also recommends that school communicators try a “read it to me” news service like Umano. This app gives you an audio versions of the day’s top print news stories and articles from leading print sources. plus articles that have been recommended by listeners. It also offers a selection of audiobooks. Karen says having news read to her in short spurts while she’s transitioning from one activity to another helps her keep up with what’s happening in the world.

“A world view is the hallmark of a communications leader in any industry,” Karen said.

Tom Gould

Tom Gould

Tom Gould: As director of Howell Public Schools in Michigan, Tom has occasion to write in different styles. But when he’s writing a press release, his aim to write in perfect Associated Press style so print media outlets don’t have to clean-up his copy. Tom says he runs AP StyleGuard, a plug-in for Microsoft Word, in the background as he writes. If breaks an AP style rule (like spelling out February instead of using out the Feb. abbreviation), the app flags it and asks whether he’d like to change that to AP style. AP StyleGuard costs $39 per year.

Although it’s more of service than an app, Tom also recommends using Help a Reporter Out, also known as HARO. Reporters enter queries looking for sources with expertise in certain areas. He answers queries in which he can recommend an excellent source. This is how a Howell Public Schools gym teacher was quoted in a recent Parents Magazine article.

Dave Tchozewski

Dave Tchozewski

Dave Tchozewski: The primary software on Jenison (Mich.) Public Schools’ technology director’s  “Must Have” list are  Google Apps for Education. This absolutely free suite of software (email, calendar, docs, sheets, slides, and more) are how Dave said he gets work done.  These productivity tools work on any computer, any tablet and any smartphone. The most important part of the package may be Google Drive, a file storage and synchronization service created and managed by Google. It allows users to store documents in the cloud, share files, and edit documents with collaborators. Users do have to access Google Apps for Education through the domain of a registered educational institution.

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler: The assistant superintendent of the Kent Intermediate School District (Mich.) agrees with Dave Tchozewski about Google Apps. ”They’ve become so commonplace that a huge gap would exist if they were no longer available,” Ron said. However, in the interest of full disclosure, Ron believes it’s important that users, and would-be users, recognize and remember that Google collects and markets some personal information in exchange for the free use of their apps.

Stephanie Tuttle

Stephanie Tuttle

 Stephanie Tuttle: The app this Grand Rapids (Mich.) attorney wouldn’t want to live without is just for fun: Trivia Crack. It’s a platform for playing trivia games online with players worldwide. Stephanie’s go-to app for professional purposes is FastCase, an online law library database that allows her to conduct legal research in every jurisdiction in the United States, for both state law and federal questions. There are 12 different ways to search and results are populated in a Google-esque fashion with the the most relevant sources placed at the top of the results list. “I have often used this in situations where I’m negotiating a settlement out of the office, or having discussions with other attorneys outside of a courtroom setting,” Stephanie said. FastCase is affordable when compared to other legal research services. A free trial subscription is offered. It’s possible to subscribe month-to-month. An annual subscription to the premium service costs just under $1,000 per year.

School Communicator Gerri Allen

Gerri Allen

Gerri Allen:

This Detroit-area public relations consultant uses radio apps and news tracking services in an attempt to stay abreast of trending stories. “It’s always important to scan the environment for the next big thing that could impact the schools,” Gerri said. Fortunately, there are a lot of good apps in this category. National Public Radio has a good app for mobile devices. Stitcher provides a user-friendly interface for keeping up with favorite radio programs.

Gerri also recommends Dropbox  as a safe, low-cost way of sharing, syncing and storing files in the cloud. A free trial is available.

Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder: “Staying up-to-date on current affairs is the most critical part of my job,” says Kate, principal strategist at Piper & Gold Public Relations in Lansing, Mich. “My must-have apps are those that help me stay up-to-speed on local news,” Kate said. The ones she uses most are the  Michigan Radio app, which allows her to live-stream a Michigan NPR-affiliate on her mobile devices, and apps from MLivewhich allow her to tap into news by metropolitan areas.

Linda Wacyk

Linda Wacyk

Linda Wacyk: Communications director for the Michigan Association of School Administrators first used TweetDeck to monitor Twitter traffic in multiple hashtags at a professional conference. It made following conversations in real-time so much easier! Unfortunately, if you’re  not working on a desktop or laptop computer, you’re better off using HootSuite, a Twitter management tool which has mobile applications. The free version of HootSuite allows the user to manage up to five different social profiles.

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock: Email is the most useful technology tool, the world around, says SCN this SCN contributor and former vice president of communications for Spectrum Health (Mich.). Rob says his favorite apps are the ones he uses socially to keep in touch with family and friends: Facebook, Instagram and FaceTime. His affection for visual media didn’t surprise me, since I know that Rob and his wife Cindy are new grandparents.

Kym Reinstadler

Kym Reinstadler

Kym Reinstadler: The cybersphere is glowing with great apps, but I’d be hard-pressed to name one more useful to me than Evernote. Years ago, my life was littered with scraps of paper on which I’d scrawl notes to myself of things I wanted to remember. For quick reference, I’d impale these notes on one of two spindles that sat on my desk. One spindle was for my personal life and the other was for my professional life. One day, two male colleagues seized my spindles and had a sword fight in the newsroom! That’s when it dawned on me that I was being dumb having my three kids’ Social Security numbers — and other important information that I’d hate to flutter away — on spindle that could be commandeered as a play toy.

Evernote is in infinitely better solution. The free version has all the features I need but there’s also a premium version.

I can take a digital note. I can group the notes into topical notebooks. I can instantly access those notes from my Evernote account from any device anywhere that I happen to be.

Evernote makes me look sharp, without a pointy spindle!

Cornerstones of a rock-solid graduation speech

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

Some treat.

For reporters on the education beat, the reward for sitting through a year’s worth board of education meetings that contain a lot of back-patting — but not much news — is covering graduation.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 8.40.55 PMDuring the decades I was writing for a newspaper, I routinely covered five or six high school and college graduations each spring. One year, I heard Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” read from the podium five times — including twice during the same ceremony.

I hereby declare myself an ex officio expert on commencement addresses.

Graduation speeches are secular sermons. The chosen speaker gets a golden ticket to impart timeless guidance and inspiration to voracious minds and open hearts on the precipice of the “real world.”

Hard to imagine a greater honor.

Yet — if I were appointed to coach a speaker on how to write and deliver an effective commencement address — I might struggle to disaggregate the things that add up to a home run of a speech.

That’s why I reached out to Rob.

Rob to the rescue

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock is an SCN contributor who also teaches public speaking at Hope College in Holland, Mich. Graduation speeches are part of his repertoire.

He himself was selected to give the commencement address to Hope’s Class of 2010.

Rob says he prepares according to findings of a study conducted by researcher Marcus Buckingham when he worked for the Gallup Organization.

Buckingham — also an author, motivational speaker and business consultant — found that audiences rate speakers this way (in priority order):

  1. Length of time
  2. Personal appearance
  3. Content

(This will be disconcerting to speakers spend hours polishing their pearls of advice to a high gloss. Fact is, how long they speak, and what they look like when they talk, will be more important to the majority of the audience than what they say.)

The “sock you between the eyes” message is:

Be brief. Pocock said he kept his graduation remarks to 17 minutes. (He said he was trying not to exceed 15 minutes. Alas, there was so much he wanted to say and that his audience needed to hear!)

“Think about it this way,” Rob said. “When you’ve heard a GREAT presentation, did you wish that speaker had gone on for 10 more minutes? Of course not. You might hope to hear them again, but audiences never wish the speaker had spoken longer. So, be brief.”

Leave the lectern. Personal appearance ranked high in Buckingham’s survey. Convention dictates that most commencement speakers wear cap and gown, but they still have some control over how they look.

“Leave the podium. Add descriptive gestures. Incorporate sustained eye contact. Have a purposeful walk,” Rob said. “All these behaviors effect how the speaker looks.”

Be audience centered. Buckingham called this “content.” It means knowing your audience — the graduates — and focusing your remarks to them.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 8.48.32 PMWhile audiences primarily judge a speaker by how they look, tone and words are also important.

Speakers need to mix it up — vary the rate of delivery, punch key words and incorporate purposeful pauses.  Silence can be the best way to make a point.

Each speech should have a clear objective that completes the sentence “By the end of my presentation, the audience will…” The objective may even be stated in the speech.

A speech is properly focused if the speaker can clearly state what it’s about in 12 words or fewer.

Organize material into concise key points that support the message. State the points in parallel structure.

Remember the power of stories engage audiences. Storytelling is an art unto itself and speakers who are good story tellers have an upper hand.

Always be a good steward of your audience’s time. It is a privilege to stand before an audience. Speakers who don’t adequately prepare or who don’t honor the time constraints are stealing the audience’s time.

“In my book,” Rob said, “stealing is a sin. Be a good steward of your audience’s time.”

Want more inspiration?

Probably because I am a writer, my favorite commencement addresses are usually by authors or English teachers.

Or, maybe writers have just got this speechwriting craft down pat.

I love an collection of graduation speeches given by author Kurt Vonnegut that’s titled “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young.”

Another favorite, “A Short Guide to a Happy Life” by author and journalist Anna Quindlen, wasn’t even delivered as planned in 2000. A group of conservative students protested her selection as speaker because of her liberal views, so Villanova University canceled commencement. But the copy of the speech, once shared, went viral.

The gold standard of all commencement addresses is probably author David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life,” given to the Kenyon College Class of 2005.

Wallace is a tragic literary figure, but there’s no doubt that he nailed that speech.

Quotes from many stellar commencement addresses are archived at brainpickings.org. Audio and video files are posted for many of the speeches.

Share brain pickings, and this column, to inspire and instruct graduation speakers so they’ll shine bright during their moment in the sun.

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is fantastic, but they can’t all read Dr. Seuss.