Kissing Frogs: Tips on Creativity and Innovation by Stephanie Zavala

As web designers, marketers, content creators, and more we know that coming up with creative content can be challenging. After all, not all of us get to work in a Google environment with chair races and rubber band shootouts (at least that’s how we imagine Google). So when the AWS team attended the Nonprofit Communicators Conference hosted by Texas Christian University, we were thrilled to see a panel on innovation and creativity. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we asked one of the panelists to share her tips for you here!

I was recently asked to speak at Texas Christian University’s Nonprofit Communications Conference. I was asked by the lead professor for my Certified Public Communicator course, which I will finish this summer. I immediately felt honored because TCU is my alma mater.  Then my professor told me the title of the panel I would be on with a former student of hers: Innovation in Outreach.  Innovation?! I hardly thought anything I was doing was innovative, but because I respect my professor and trust her judgment (I mean, she’s a Communication professor, she must know!) I went along with it. The other panelist and I set up a time to discuss what we would present and while he was talking he mentioned his same hesitancy to use the word innovation.  I laughed and told him why I was laughing, and then we laughed together.

When most people think of innovation they think of the tech world or the medical world.  They think of TED talks.  Speaking at the conference and hearing the feedback from the audience made me understand that innovation doesn’t have to be in the form of the latest app or the cure for cancer. It can simply be using creativity to make any task more effective.  If you work for a private sector firm like Google, they embrace innovation and imagination. The story is a little different in the public sector, such as a municipality like the one I work in. We tend to toe the water for much longer.  The key, in my opinion, for cities to foster more inventiveness in their communication strategies is an open mind and some open space for their creative staff. I’ve been able to accomplish some fun projects that were only made possible through the support of a boss that trusted my vision and gave me the space to stretch my creative muscles. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

Creativity is NOT a Four Letter Word.  If you ask a room of nonprofit communication professionals if they consider themselves creative, almost everyone raises their hand.  Ask a room full of municipal communication staff and hardly anyone raises his or her hand.   The most empowering statement said to that room of city staff during the CPC course last year was that we all have some innate creativity in us. You don’t have to be curating an art gallery or playing a gig at a dive bar to be creative. If you find a way to do something different, you’re being creative.  Own it!

  • bulb-40701_640ADD Can Be Your Friend. Never stop brainstorming. I don’t take a formal lunch hour because I know the minutes I spend here and there, rappelling down the rabbit hole of creativity, inevitably add up to an hour.  However, this is where ideas come from.  No communicator is an island either. Start an informal network of other inspired people outside of your department or even outside of your office. The more ideas the better. Plus it’s a lot of fun.
  • Integrate to Create: Look outside of your organizational box. I hit a brick wall with our communications office on a project.  Instead of getting mad I decided to use it as a learning opportunity and I signed up for the CPC course.  Having a better idea of who you are working with and what your different goals are make it easier to find common ground to achieve all of your goals together.
  • Don’t take it Personal: Constructive criticism can be your friend when done well.  When you have an idea and someone else doesn’t like it, that can be hard to swallow. It’s hard to separate the rejection of an idea from the rejection of yourself, because you’re the one that had the idea in the first place!  However, most of the best ideas around were not the first ideas.  Most weren’t even the second idea either! Don’t be afraid of no. Listen, meditate, LEARN, and move on. Sometimes it takes kissing a lot of frogs to get to that Prince Charming idea.
  • Partnerships:  Know your partners and set realistic goals. My outreach programs have been successful because I’ve been fortunate to establish relationships with great partners.  That doesn’t mean it’s been all rainbows and unicorns.   Partnerships, like any relationship, take work and LOTS of communication. Make sure from day one you are on the same page when it comes to your communication strategies and your goals. Don’t forget to celebrate your successes either!  If you don’t, no one else will.

Stephanie Zavala is a Water Efficiency Specialist with the City of Fort Worth.  She has a Bachelor’s degree in Business as well as a Masters in Environmental Science from Texas Christian University.  She has been in the environmental outreach and education field for eight years.  The Texas Smartscape Plant Sale program she initiated in the region, as well as the electronic magazine she developed in conjunction with that program both won awards from the Texas section of the American Water Works Association in 2015.  Stephanie also won the 2015 Public Educator Award for the region from the Texas Water Utilities Association.  www.savefortworthwater.org.