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The Future of Content: episode 42: Navigating young adult fiction and nonprofit storytelling with Katie Bayerl

32 Min. ReadDigital strategy

The Future of Content episode 42 with Katie Bayerl

Key ideas

  • Nonprofits will benefit from physical content production because people are missing the physical experience of receiving something.
  • Subject lines, headlines, and bolded text are just handrails for the reader to go deeper.
  • Writing young adult novels from the teenage perspective allows the writer to capture the intensity and passion of the age — something we’ve somehow lost along the way.

Our guest

Katie Bayerl is not only a renowned young adult fiction author, but also a skilled content strategist, offering her unique insights into the realm of young adult fiction and the world of nonprofit storytelling.

In the episode, Katie takes us on a journey through the world of young adult fiction, discussing why this genre resonates with readers across all age groups. She suggests that the intensity, passion, and idealism inherent in teenagers provide a fresh perspective and an appealing vibrancy in young adult fiction. The opportunity to explore first experiences and themes such as love, grief, and justice in their most raw and potent forms adds to the genre’s appeal.

Transitioning from fiction to the real world, the conversation steers toward the intricate landscape of nonprofit storytelling. Katie shares her expertise on using headlines, headings, and imagery strategically to guide readers through a story. She underlines the importance of compelling narratives that can resonate across multiple media platforms, shedding light on the challenges nonprofits face in content creation due to limited resources and time.

In this digital age, Katie proposes an unexpected revelation — the resurgence of paper. Despite the prevalent digital trends, Katie argues that paper might be making a comeback, especially in the nonprofit sector. Print publications have the power to establish personal connections in communication, which can have a profound impact on audiences.

Throughout the discussion, Katie’s experiences as a freelance consultant offer invaluable insights into managing constraints in the nonprofit sector. The strategic advice she provides is a testament to her profound understanding of the sector and the various challenges it faces. The episode concludes with a discussion on the future of print publications and the immense power of personal connections in communication.

The conversation with Katie provides a fresh perspective on the areas of young adult fiction and nonprofit storytelling. Whether you’re a writer, a nonprofit professional, or just an avid reader, this episode offers a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.

Episode transcript

​​Todd Nienkerk: Howdy, everyone. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. On today’s episode, I’m joined by Katie Bayerl. She’s a content and communication strategist specializing in storytelling for nonprofits. She’s also a young adult fiction author whose book, A Psalm for Lost Girls, is available now. Our conversation touched on a lot of really interesting things, as we tend to do in this podcast. For the first half, we talked about the young adult fiction world. What does young adult mean? Is it a category? Is it a marketing tool? And who’s actually reading young adult books? Surprise, it may actually be adults. So we talk about just how interesting it is to write for and write with teenagers, and from that kind of perspective. And the rules and the norms within young adult fiction and why it seems to be so appealing to so many people. We then shift to communications, storytelling, messaging for nonprofits — where we talk about the importance of headlines, headings, and imagery as handrails to guide the reader through a story, as well as the importance of physical media. And one of the things that I was surprised and encouraged to learn is how important print materials are for many nonprofits, because in a digital world where we all get newsletters and emails and all kinds of things all day long, social media and tweets and posts and all of that. Receiving a really beautiful annual report or brochure in your mailbox, or handed to you, or picked up at a conference is really powerful and has a tendency to sort of stay at the top of the bentall stack longer than something that arrives in the inbox. So, interestingly, the future of content in this case may be paper. So please enjoy my conversation with Katie. I think you’ll find it quite interesting.

Todd Nienkerk: So you’re a content and communication strategist focusing on nonprofits. You’re also a young adult fiction author. You are an educator. You started in education, correct? Did you originally teach writing, or was it English or literature? What were you doing?

Katie Bayerl: I was mainly a ninth grade English teacher, though I entered the backdoor as a history teacher. So I kind of had a complicated, meandering start. But I started teaching when I was about 15 years old, working with middle schoolers, and that seemed like the area that would be my full career and along the way discovered a knack for writing. That brought me into more communications and editorial roles within the organizations where I worked and that has ended up becoming the career, though it wasn’t the initial goal. Also, the love of teenagers and talking about books with teenagers kind of morphed into writing books for teenagers and teaching creative writing outside of schools to teens. So the interests are all very connected. They’ve just kind of taken surprising paths.

Todd Nienkerk: They tend to, and being open to that is certainly. You just never know where something’s going to lead. That’s really, really interesting. What is it about the teenage audience, as students, as readers, as writers, appeals to you so much?

Katie Bayerl: I think it’s the intensity and the passion of the age. Everything is a first, not everything, but most things are a first when you’re young. So in writing for teens, in exploring stories that are in a teen perspective, I get to write with that full intensity, the full sense of “What is grief? I’m experiencing grief for the first time. What is love? What is my understanding of justice?” So I think, from a writing perspective that’s always appealed to me. From a human perspective, I enjoy being around teenagers. I think, for the same reason. There’s so much possibility. There’s so much — I keep using the word intensity because it really is the big one for me — but they’re in the moment of figuring everything out, and the stakes can often feel very high. As a teacher there’s so much opportunity to think about what comes next and to help young people figure out their next stage. I also mentioned passion, because I think teenagers can be extremely idealistic. I know I was, and a lot of the teens I work with are. I think that ferocity around values and the tendency toward truth is something I find very appealing and something that I hope to always keep alive in myself. Being around teenagers and writing from that perspective allows me to keep that energy going.

Todd Nienkerk: Tendency towards truth. Let’s unpack that a little bit. What do you mean by that?

Katie Bayerl: I think that teens are less tolerant of hypocrisy. I think that, sometimes, as a non-teen, I have to also be more comfortable with gray areas, but the lack of willingness to compromise around what matters is something that I admire in young people. I like being around people who hold strong to their values, and a lot of teens really do. Sometimes they’re discovering them for the first time. Sometimes there’s that purity of thinking about social justice issues for the first time. The willingness to fight and to speak up is something I admire. I think a lot of teens feel more free to do that than, say, someone in their 40s. Does that feel fair? That’s a broad characterization.

Todd Nienkerk: I laughed earlier because I’m thinking about myself as a teenager. In high school everything was very immediate and passionate. Everything was about trying to seek out some deeper or universal truth. Things just burned really brightly, I suppose, is one way to put it. This is something that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. There seems to be a strong — not in everybody — but this creative arc where a lot of creators’ most interesting or maybe prolific work is done when they’re younger. I don’t know if that’s an energy thing, or a passion thing. I think about. This is a really ridiculous example, but the Beatles did everything the Beatles did before they were 30. Probably even younger than that. It’s just incredible that they were able to produce all of that. They, of course, all went on to continue to have careers as long as they were alive. They’re sort of known for that brief, really pretty short period of their own personal histories. I know I, personally, as a younger person, felt like I felt so caged in by 24 hours in a day. There were just so many things that I wanted to explore, and do, and feel, and see. It just felt unfair that there’s just such limited time to do that. But then, as I get older, it’s more of an emphasis on, I guess, not reflecting, but maybe taking a breath and appreciating now and here and things like that. Does that at all factor into your experience being around teens? What’s it like to sort of insert yourself into that world for a while and then come back out and live your adult life? And slink back into that. What’s that transition like?

Katie Bayerl: Well, these days when I teach it’s usually a one-off class or it might be a couple of days or a week long in the summer, and I come away deeply energized and completely exhausted. So being around that energy is exciting and inspiring and it kind of rejuvenates something in me. But I also know doing that every day, every week isn’t necessarily sustainable, and I like to crawl back to my little cave and sit with my computer and my cats and create words. So personal balance, being around teens all the time, maybe not so realistic, but in terms of my favorite place to be and the place where I get most satisfaction and energy in short bursts, it’s certainly being around that age group. I don’t know. You asked why you think it is that the energy is so intense at that age? I think we kind of have been circling around it, and you were just saying some of it. And some of it is, honestly, is prefrontal cortex not being fully established. The inhibitions aren’t there, the willingness to take risks, to kind of go all in.

Todd Nienkerk: That makes me feel better.

Katie Bayerl: Yeah, is it better to make decisions that are so bold and to not have those guardrails up. I don’t know, I don’t want to make a judgment statement on that, but I also think some of the inhibitions that maybe we feel post that age come from disappointments and fear that kind of builds up with time, and so being able to drop some of that, I think, can be really healthy. So, yes, both, and I hope to also drop a lot of that as I age, and I see a lot of wicked old ladies who are doing it. So I don’t know that it’s necessarily youth alone that has the ability to just kind of hold on to that truth and to just go after it and world be damned. But it’s something I admire for sure, at whatever age we’re talking.

Todd Nienkerk: So young adult as a genre. I feel like that was named after I was a young adult. Or maybe just when you’re in it, you don’t know that it’s when was that sort of coined as a genre?

Katie Bayerl: As an age category, because of course it contains every genre. Am I going to get this wrong? It’s really late ’90s, early 2000s that it starts to become an independent publishing category. But some of the early books, you can go back to The Catcher in the Rye, you can go back to Ella Montgomery and the Anna Green Gables books. There were a lot of books that had young adult qualities. They just weren’t separately published within the U.S. marketing framework. And then along comes Judy Bloom, and along comes Essie Hinton, and Lois Lowry and a bunch of other authors in the ’80s, and then that starts to build in the late ’90s, 2000. So it’s really more in some ways a marketing niche that was created within U.S. publishing and took on a category. Although books from a youthful perspective, from a teen perspective, have been around for much, much longer.

Todd Nienkerk: So it’s primarily then defined as a marketing category, maybe a demographic category. A lot of adults read YA stuff, though, right?. I’m just curious, off the cuff, do you think that the total audience of people reading YA fiction is — are they actually YAs or are they adults?

Katie Bayerl: It is a great big unknown discussed ad nauseam in the young adult community. Part of the problem is a lot of the purchasing happens by adults, but that includes libraries and parents, and so you don’t know into whose hands the books ultimately fall. I’ve seen numbers like 85% of those who buy young adult novels or adults, but what does that really mean? I think it’s less about the audience. We also tend to debate what YA means as a category, and I tend to not adhere to any rigid definitions because there’s so much that breaks the boundaries of it. And YA doesn’t exist in other countries, by the way. If you publish a book with a teen protagonist in Australia, it won’t be separately marketed, but it will be in the U.S. And that really is the defining characteristic: Is the protagonist a teenager and is it told from an immediate and authentic point of view, versus a nostalgic or ironic adult kind of looking back onto youth?

Todd Nienkerk: So, that example of not having a YA category in Australia, let’s say. So that’s just simply because marketing is done differently there? Is there any regulatory reason why that’s the case? Because I know a lot of countries ban advertising and marketing to younger people. I don’t know how young.

Katie Bayerl: I actually don’t know for sure, and I don’t want to misspeak, but I think part of what happened in the U.S. is that our major publishing houses all have separate divisions. So they have their children’s division, and they have their adult division. So it’s a completely different office structure, a completely different marketing structure. My editor at Penguin Random House works on picture books through YA. She does not edit adult books. Meanwhile, Penguin Random House has a separate division that has all of the facets that are required to make a book come out into the world that produces adult books, and so I think because YA got connected to children’s, that’s sort of how it differentiated from the adult market. I don’t really know why things are the way they are in Australia or in Europe. I think I just threw that out of that example because there are some, a lot of authors that I admire who break what we consider to be the rules of young adult fiction, tend to come out from outside of the country because they don’t have to adhere to the norms that were used to in the books kind of blur the boundaries. So there might be multiple points of view where you have an adult appearing in the story, or you have a child appearing in the story, and I just find rule breakers interesting, even if they’re not breaking rules within their own context.

Todd Nienkerk: The rules of YA. So, if I can try to identify a few of them. It must be written with a teenager as the main character and point of view, but done so earnestly and authentically, and not in a nostalgic way, not in an ironic way. And, generally speaking, it sounds not having multiple points of view outside of the teenage world — not introducing adults.

Katie Bayerl: Typically, some books get away with it and some books mix things up. I had a 6-year-old protagonist. She had a minimal number of pages in my first novel, but the two main protagonists were both 15 and 16 years old.

Todd Nienkerk: What are some of the other rules of YA?

Katie Bayerl: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t like them is the thing. You know, people talk about endings needing to have a glimmer of hope. I don’t know if I always buy that. There’s sort of a sense that teen readers and child readers are more impatient. They’re not going to put up with a lot of tangents or long descriptive passages, or the author, you know, maybe feeding their own ego with these riffs that have nothing to do with story. They want things to move, and so there’s definitely a lot more pressure to keep writing tight and to keep scenes going and to have stories that feel alive and in the moment.

Todd Nienkerk: The glimmer of hope thing. I’m trying to think of an example of a book that I read as a teenager that involved teenage protagonist main characters that didn’t have even just like a little shred, and I can’t think of one. I was thinking of Ender’s Game, for example, and even at the end of that book, after this child massacres an entire species, (spoiler alert!), there’s still like this sort of not an epilogue, sort of a day-new maw of like he will carry forward the memory of this species for the rest of his life, and that’s his new mission. And that’s a pretty bleak ending. But even then there was actually a little shred of hope. So, YA work, on the one hand, and marketing and storytelling and messaging for nonprofits. How did you get involved in the world of messaging and stories for nonprofits, having come from the background of education?

Katie Bayerl: Well, very accidentally. So I worked for a couple of education nonprofits before I started teaching, and then again after I had been in the classroom for a bit. And I ended up becoming the person who senior staff would turn to to churn out content quickly. I wasn’t hired necessarily in that role, but I was — I think one of the things that I’ve discovered over time and the reason I’m able to make it as an independent content creator for nonprofits is that nonprofit staff just don’t have enough time. They’re overtaxed. That’s true for executive directors, it’s true for communications directors or development directors, and so my executive directors would turn to me and say, “Hey, can you write this letter to the board?” Or, “Hey, can you just listen to me rattle off some ideas and turn this into great prose that we can put before a foundation?” And I kind of got pulled into that role. I found it really interesting. Although I hadn’t planned on it, I found, in some ways, being a 20-something-year-old who was in a position that wasn’t very senior on paper, it also allowed me to be involved in strategy. Because I think a part of writing — I find this even now — is helping clarify the thinking of the folks who are doing the work, and so it becomes a backend or a backdoor entry point into helping organizations and leaders kind of refine their thinking as they’re thinking about how to engage their constituents. That’s certainly the case in coming up with a strategy that you’re going to put before a large foundation in a proposal. I don’t do a lot of proposal writing these days. I don’t find it as creative as public-facing communications. But even in writing an annual report, you’re helping an organization really think about, “Okay, where are we this year? What do we want the world to understand about us next year? How can we create that bridge through story so that they can be a part of this next step that we want to take as an organization?” And in having those conversations, I think that there’s some greater good than just the audience engagement. There’s also a sense of clarity that staff develop in thinking it through and in seeing their work on the page.

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Todd Nienkerk: What is it about the writing/storytelling process do you feel provides that clarity when trying to articulate a strategic vision? Because I imagine senior leadership or maybe working with a consultant or their board or something. They come up with what are essentially, I mean, they’re really just bullet points, right? “These are the things we want to do in the next one, three, five years.” Having been on that side of things, both at nonprofits and at my current work, there’s such clarity in that moment. In that moment of like, “We’re going to do this thing, and we’re just going to say it very simply and move on to the next thing.” And then a week goes by or a month goes by, and then suddenly this thing that you wrote, that’s just a phrase or a sentence or something. Suddenly you lose the context or suddenly it means something so much more. And when you’re faced with okay, now I’m going to explain this to the team. I’m going to explain it to our constituents or the public or whomever it takes on this like, “Well, this thing that was a sentence now has to be, you know, a chapter, that that unpacks all of this stuff.” What is it you think that that is? Do you think there’s something then missing when somebody is trying to articulate vision, strategy, goals, that, or is there like a shorthand that’s being used? That then has to be sort of extrapolated.

Katie Bayerl: That’s such an interesting question, and I think I don’t know that what I just described is the best way to go about developing a strategy. In an ideal world, organizations would have the time and the support to really refine their strategy through a deliberate process, and then the narrative building would come out of that. Sometimes, especially with smaller organizations or organizations that are moving on the fly and haven’t had a chance to pause and reflect, I can insert a little bit of that into the process. It isn’t always ideal. You know, organizations that are in a very muddy place can be very difficult to work with in creating narrative, and you get a lot of back and forth, a lot of just tangled Google Docs with everyone’s various perspectives. That can be a nightmare. I think, this is going to sound a little bit like a power trip, but I think one thing that that I enjoy and I think that I’m good at is listening to other people and helping find compromise or synthesis on the page. And so you can be in a meeting space or on Zoom with so many different ideas flying, and it can be hard to find commonality in that space, sometimes stepping back and just finding a simple way of saying what three people who thought they were in disagreement all agreed on can create some shared vision. That doesn’t always work, but I was finding that, you know one of my early roles when I was in my 20s. I was working for an organization that was basically on the outside in leading reform for the Boston public schools. And I would sit at these long conference tables with all of the senior staff of the Boston public schools and outside partners. Here I am 23 years old, whatever I was. They’re all fighting, and I got to write the minutes. So in the minutes, I was able to kind of pull together and find the points of commonality that they may not have been able to find in that moment, and so it’s a little manipulative. It was a little bit of a power trip. But it also felt like a useful skill set to bring to situations that were often very complex. So I think that’s part of it. I think it is true that sometimes you put something on the page and the organization isn’t really ready to commit and they move off in a new direction very quickly or a website becomes outdated. But I tend to think of a lot of the work I do in annual cycles and being able to just tell your story for one year can be so powerful. I work closely with graphic designers too, and I think part of it is creating the combination of narrative and visual. So even creating an organizational graphic that shows the work that you do, how all the pieces come together, can be such a powerful tool. And then, you know, you have that on page four of your annual report. Well, anytime you’re in a meeting with funders, you can pull that report out. Or maybe you’ve created the PowerPoint slide, a version of that, of that chart. Those graphics tend to go a really long way throughout the year in helping an organization tell its story. And then the overarching narrative, the themes that we create, can also help create a sense of continuity and engagement for donors or whomever the stakeholders are. So throughout the year you have one consistent idea that you’re using to hold together all of your communications.

Todd Nienkerk: You mentioned creating, working with visual designers, graphic designers, to create images to complement or underscore or clarify what it is that you’re trying to do. Something that I’ve noticed when people talk about storytelling: I feel like some people don’t seem to grasp that storytelling is not just the words. It’s the whole package and the context in which it’s told, and everything. So, to effectively communicate, to tell a story, you might need some mix of written words on a page or screen, visuals, animations, charts, data, video, sounds, right? And, even just the you know, sort of a media theory. You know, ‌the medium is the message kind of thing too, right, like that. All plays into it. How do you find, in working with nonprofits, working with or for, what mix of these things is most impactful in telling stories that drive some of these organizations’ missions or goals?

Katie Bayerl: That is tough. I think to some extent it depends on the vehicle. Are we talking print? Are we talking online? Are we talking blog? Are we talking newsletter? What do we have for a photography budget? I think you can do a lot with a little. Having great photos goes a long, long way in the nonprofit sector. They really do tell a story, seeing people deeply engaged, people doing the work. However, that can be depicted in some fields, it’s more sensitive than others, so you need to be careful about what kind of imagery. For me, I actually think that this might be my writer head. I think at minimum you need a beautiful way of conveying headlines, because not everyone reads the details or they don’t read the details immediately. We’re all awash in so much content all the time, but if you send me something that has clear, standout, appealing headlines that both captivate me narratively, and that I immediately see on my screen and that I can attach to before getting bogged down in copy, that can be just a powerful entry point into reading more. That is partly design. It’s figuring out what your fonts and palette choices are. It’s coming up with a template for that newsletter that doesn’t feel like wall-to-wall text and thick paragraphs, but I tend to think in those terms when I write. I usually get to work closely with designers, so I’m thinking in terms of what they can do with the text. But what that experience is like visually, even just of words, what the human mind is willing to digest in their inbox at 8am on a Tuesday morning, if that’s when the newsletter goes out. How do you create a pleasant and exciting process that makes someone want to keep reading has a lot to do with just the pacing of words and the placement and the hierarchy of those words.

Todd Nienkerk: And when you say headlines, in this case it sounds like you mean both the literal headline, the thing at the top of an article that’s followed by the byline that’s followed by the copy. But it sounds like what you’re also maybe including in this, is more of the concept of a headline. Like, “Oh, I don’t want the details, give me the headline.”

Katie Bayerl: And the subheads.

Todd Nienkerk: I guess that walk you through the email subject line and maybe a poll quote.

Katie Bayerl: Subject line, headline, and then all those little, all the bolded text that walks the reader through the main argument. It’s a little depressing to realize that most of the copy I create probably doesn’t get read, or it depends on the outlet. It might not get read the first time, but you can still go a long way with those small snippets of text that stand out on the page in letting the reader into what the most important story is. And so, I just think of those as being the handrails. And then for those who are ready to go deep it might not be on the first read, it might be the next time through, they can grab onto that handrail and go a little bit deeper with a copy that sits beneath it.

Todd Nienkerk: When I think about how people only read the headlines, the biggest example for me is that comes to mind for me is The Onion, because The Onion is you know it’s 99% the headline, and then even if and I have a background in comedy writing, so I kind of eat up everything that they do. But how many people really read the actual article? That’s The Onion, but it’s still great. I mean they should. It’s good content, but it’s also like the joke is in the headline. Right, you can read the headline and that’s enough and you get it and the commentary is made and you can walk away, and for me, nothing really crystallizes the importance of that than just that one example that people are going to read you know the headline when it’s posted to social media or the subject line in their email box. What do you find — are there certain rules or methodologies, or not trends, but, things that you do when thinking about the headlines and the subheads and all of that that you find work particularly well in telling stories for nonprofits?

Katie Bayerl: Well, I love a pun. I love word play. And I think, maybe that’s why I love headlines so much, is the creative writer in me gets to really play. They are, they can be so impactful. It’s a place to take a theme and riff on it. There’s often an element of surprise or an unexpected twist or an iteration or whatever it is, that kind of creates a moment of connection and a moment of energy. I also don’t write picture books, but I have studied picture book writing and a lot of my colleagues that I exchange work with write picture books, so I see them a lot. I think picture book writing has taught me about the pacing of headlines over the course of a longer publication. So when I think about a report, whether it’s an annual report or something slightly more academic, I tend to think in terms of the page turns and the narrative build, that that happens across a publication. And so it allows me to play with story in that way that they work as a handrail for me, too. I’m kind of thinking about the beats of the plot and I’m thinking about it through what those headlines are, and then the text builds from there.

Todd Nienkerk: I’m curious, in your, in your work, storytelling, messaging for nonprofits, what are some of the biggest challenges that you face or that you feel nonprofits face in telling their stories?

Katie Bayerl: I think one of the biggest challenges is time. Staff time. And so the role that I play helps alleviate that. I think what ends up happening in smaller nonprofits, especially some of the clients I work with, may have a staff of 10 or 15. You have, perhaps, a communication shop of one and an executive director who’s in the weeds there, too. Maybe you also have a development director who has some overlapping roles. But when you have a staff that’s that small, it means that they are constantly responding to urgent deadlines, event-driven deadlines, moment-driven stories, you know, if there’s been any kind of crisis or just a need to immediately respond to something going on as well as grant deadlines. Those tend to take over communications roles, too, whether the person is officially in that role or not. And so being able to turn to someone else who has a little bit more time to be able to do the thoughtful writing that is required to tell stories is a pretty big deal. So that’s where I’ve found a niche for myself, is I’m able to have focus in my day. I’ve created a career for myself where I’m able to do the chunked-out, focused work that was so hard to do when I was a one-person communication shop, when someone was knocking on my door and this was happening and something else was happening. That kind of focused time — that thinking, the drafting, the time to really revise deeply. You need space and you need time for that. And I think, so, that’s one challenge. Let me think of some others. I think writing skill is a big one. Not every staff has those capacities on board, for whatever reason. It may be that they’ve hired staff with other skill sets, or they’re just not finding people at the income range that they’re able to offer. And so being able to clearly tell a story is something that just may not be in the skill set of whoever’s in the room. There isn’t a lot of professional development in communications among nonprofits. There are a couple of groups that do it, and they may, I’ve seen, like ComNet is out there, that they do conferences. I think largely for more senior staff who might be in comms strategy roles or fundraising strategy roles. But for junior staff, learning those skills can be tough. If you’re in a staff of one or two, where do you go to learn those storytelling skills? I think I was really fortunate, and again, this was accidental. But in one of my first jobs — which ended up also becoming my third and fourth job — I had a mentor who was just a really rigorous writer, and being able to learn under her, I learned how to use a semicolon properly. I didn’t know semicolons and em dashes. I had gone to an Ivy League school. My professors thought I was a decent writer, but some of those pieces of grammar and syntax had eluded me until I had Marianne’s training, and so having her edit me and having her really sit down with me and show me how to use headlines was a big deal. But I don’t think everyone gets that, especially if they’re brought into a solo role where they may not have time to connect with others in those capacities.

Todd Nienkerk: The team of one — that pops up all over the place. Team of one, communications team of one. The one we run into is web. Most nonprofits are lucky if they have one person who knows how to go in and make real significant changes to the website. And their time is often spent dealing with things that are kind of on fire, things that are just momentarily urgent, and there isn’t really an opportunity to zoom out and look at the bigger picture of, “Well, we ultimately need to maybe redesign this website and while that’s going to be, I mean, one person doing that is going to take a very long time.” And the work that you currently do, the way that you work with these nonprofits now, is as a freelance consultant, right?

Katie Bayerl: Yes, usually I have a couple of organizations that I work with continuously. It’s still in a freelance capacity, but we have an understanding that every month I’m going to work with them for a certain number of hours, approximately. Or over the course of the year, we have a larger contract, so those are sustained engagements. But it’s hourly. Everything is basically hourly. From my perspective, it is anyway.

Todd Nienkerk: Do you find, though, that being a kind of an outside party coming in well, you are an outside party coming in that you are maybe the one who is paying the most attention to the bigger picture, the longer term, as it relates to the things that you focus on, like storytelling and messaging and things like that or do you find that you’re working with somebody who is sort of equally dedicated to that long-term picture?

Katie Bayerl: It really depends on the organization. Some of the organizations I work with have crackerjack senior communications folks, you know, who are really partners, and from year to year or over the course of the year they hire me to do very specific work that they just don’t have the capacity to do on their own. But we really work as partners. They have a sense of strategy and my job with them is to kind of, you know, pull out the story or elaborate on the thinking and then go run with it, go write the thing, go interview the people, go do the thing that they don’t have the capacity to do on their own. I do also sometimes work with smaller nonprofits or nonprofits that have had a lot of turnover or whatever it might be. Where I’m also kind of playing a consulting role, in the sense of kind of an advisory role, where I may be talking to the executive director or someone who’s more junior that’s trying to carry everything. And nudging them on a little bit, helping them think a little bit more strategically about their comms for the year. It’s tricky, because I’m not always hired officially for that. So they may be hiring me for an annual report and they may have a limited budget, so I can’t do a complete comm strategy for them in that process, but we usually build in a planning period. One of the creative partners that I work with the most, it’s J Sherman Studio, also here in the Boston area. When we do projects together, we create a creative brief up front and that guides both the visual direction and the storytelling, the tone, our sense of what we’re hoping that audiences will do once they’ve engaged with whatever this vehicle or set of communications tools will be, and that helps set the stage, and it’s often the only time that an organization has had a chance to think like that. So I think it ends up substituting for a communications plan, even if it’s not the whole thing.

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, we, being a web team that’s brought in to help people with their websites, we run into all shapes and sizes and all kinds of interactions. But the thing that I’ve learned not only doing this for other people, but also running a small business and having lots of things that we need done that we don’t do in-house, like our own marketing, or our finances, or HR, like just having somebody else come in and be that outside perspective or being more dedicated to things and not being caught up in the constant tornado whirlwind of what we’re doing here is so important, and I wish more organizations would realize that they’re not just expanding the capacity of their team. Or even if they do realize they’re not doing that, they’re also not just bringing in somebody who is highly specialized in something, but they’re bringing in somebody who is just not going to get blown in the breeze like they are every day. And they’re that much more likely to deliver really quality work and to be thoughtful about it.

Katie Bayerl: And someone who sits outside the jargon, who’s able to act as a translator and realize, you have just been in way too many meetings. Stop leveraging things, we have got to come up with another verb. So it’s being able to have that fresh point of view and say, “Okay, what is it that you’re doing?” And translate it to — usually it’s a lay audience. If it’s a donor audience, I think is really important. I don’t know. You know, one thing I’m not sure about in the finances of all of this is the pros and cons of playing into the gig economy here. I think that for nonprofits with a small budget, especially organizations that may not be able to afford senior communications staffing, being able to hire someone on a short-term basis as an infusion of support can be really cost effective. Is that the best way for building long-term capacity? Is it the best thing for the field? I’m not sure, but I think, from a year-to-year budget perspective, hiring out for some of these crucial projects, like an annual report or web writing or a particular campaign or a brochure. Just the thing that everyone is going to touch, those high-touch pieces, can go a really long way.

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, avoiding the internal jargon. That’s a big one. Words have a way of, and phrases have a way of, sticking inside an organization.

Katie Bayerl: Oh my goodness, and those acronyms.

Todd Nienkerk: Oh boy, yes. Boy, yeah, a donor, or somebody outside the — or even a board member. You know, the last thing they want is that alphabet soup of, you know, “What does this mean?”

Katie Bayerl: You know?

Todd Nienkerk: I don’t live and breathe this every day. Well, let’s close with this. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what you feel the future of‌ — Let’s actually hit both things. The future of nonprofit writing, messaging, all of that, and also the future of young adult fiction. Where do you see that? These two things maybe in different directions. Where do you see these two things headed‌? You know, social media and AI and all the things that we’re currently thinking about and wondering about? And is this healthy? Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing?

Katie Bayerl: Oh boy, you know, I don’t know. I think there is so much that’s unknown. If we, you know, and there’s so much change from year to year in terms of the tools we have available for storytelling or the tools that you know on the young adult side that authors have for engaging with their audiences outside of their books. I think, you know, when I was doing my MFA, which is now 10 or 15 years ago, there was thought, more thought, about experimentation in kind of web-based novel writing, and I don’t really hear people talking about that right now. That may just be where my circle is more limited, I don’t know. I think that experimentation comes and goes in both genres. Technology tools come and go. Maybe this is my old-fashioned self speaking, but I think there are some core tools that folks are always going to enjoy and I really hope that a book remains relevant. You know, that could shift with environmental concerns, with changing markets, and what people are interested in buying, but I think the experience of a physical book or an ebook just being part of a story for 100 and more pages is a beautiful thing that humans enjoy and that’s going to continue to be around for a while. I think, similarly, print materials for nonprofits are going to continue to be able to have an impact, partly because we’re so inundated online that it’s hard for audiences to filter everything that’s coming in their inbox or coming through social media. But when you pick up something beautiful, I think it doesn’t have to compete and it’s something that you can put down and pick up. It doesn’t get lost quite as easily as something that drifts to the bottom of an inbox. So I don’t know, is the future the past? I guess I’ll put that out there as an idea.

Todd Nienkerk: That’s an excellent point about a bit of physical content production actually standing out now.

Katie Bayerl: Beautiful reports that land in people’s mailboxes. We get so much positive feedback and it generates end-of-year gifts. It becomes the leave behind in meetings. It’s just that physical experience, I think, is missing so much of the time. And so when it does arrive and when it is gorgeous, and when you do have a sense that someone has taken the time to create a story and play a little bit and speak to you on a human level, it’s just such an enjoyable, tactile, connected feeling. I don’t think we always get on the web, although I strive for it, especially with newsletters. I like creating that personal connection, but I do so paper. I’m going with paper as the future.

Todd Nienkerk: Paper as the future. I love that. Thank you. It makes me pine, so to speak, for the days when we were designing print publications. Well, thank you, thank you, thank you, Katie, so much for joining us. If people want to learn more about you, find your books, or get ahold of you, how do they do that?

Katie Bayerl: Well, I am the only Katie Bayerl on the internet, so they can find me at all of the different places with the handle katiebayerl or katiebayerl.com. It’s k-a-t-i-e-b-a-y-e-r-l. Great.

Todd Nienkerk: Thank you so much for joining us, and the future is paper.