5 Communications Lessons I Learned from the Vancouver Sun Run

I am in red.

For many of us in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, yesterday was an important day. It was the annual Sun Run, a 10K run through the beautiful streets of Vancouver. It was my first Sun Run and it was a very good personal experience. Interestingly enough, as I sat down with a cup of tea (and two extra-strength Advil) last night and reflected on it, I realized that there were some solid communications lessons in it as well.

Preparation is key
I was fortunate enough to join a Sun Run Training Group in my hometown of Gibsons, B.C. We started in January and met initially for two hours each Sunday morning. We built up our strength and stamina over time. Along with runs on Sundays, in February we went out twice during the week, building speed and stamina. We prepared so that we were ready on the day of the run.

This is true for any communications initiative. Preparation is key. Taking the time to do the research, to understand the audience/community, and to make sure you have covered all your bases has a direct impact on results. Without preparation, you are flying by the seat of your pants and you need luck to succeed. Preparation is the foundation of success.

Check your blind spot
For a short period during the Sun Run, it felt a bit like people bumper cars. People kept banging into each other because as they tried to pass someone; they didn’t check over their shoulder into their blind spot to see if someone else might be there. And with close to 50,000 people in the Sun Run, there was bound to be someone there!

This is easily translated to any communications initiative. It’s important to take a solid, clear look at what the situation is – not what you wish it was or hope it will be – but what it is. Think about what the challenges could be, what could create issues, what could provoke a negative reaction. You need to make sure there’s not something sitting there waiting for you to bang into it.

Trust the community to sort things out
One of the challenges of the Sun Run is that you put yourself in the starting category. The serious runners go first and then it goes through the levels of ability until you get to those who are going to walk the course. And it always happens that people over or underestimate their ability. I am a new runner, but I can’t tell you how many people I passed who were in faster start groups. Rather than create a more complicated sign-up process, the organizers of the Sun Run let us sort it out during the run. For the most part, walkers keep to the right and faster runners to the left. (Not always, but for the most part.) They let the on-the-ground process unfold organically; they trust us to work it out.

When you think about any kind of campaign or outreach, it is important to realize that you can’t control everything and that you need to empower your community to work out some of the issues that you know might come up. People are smart. Most of the time, they will find a reasonable way to work out process challenges of how they connect and participate together. (This doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to what is going on; it means you give those participating the opportunity to sort it out for themselves before you step in.)

It’s not the big boulders that trip you up, it’s the pebbles
No one in the Sun Run seemed to be tripping over big things like boulders or benches; it was small things – pebbles, an untied shoelace, a small piece of garbage or even a little (slippery) leaf that sent people tumbling to the pavement.

It is easier to recognize what might be a big issue than it is to see something small that could turn into a big problem. If there are little things that catch your attention or someone comes to you with something and your first reaction is to dismiss it, think about it again. You shouldn’t be like “Chicken Little” (the sky is falling!); but watch for the small stuff – it could derail your initiative if it isn’t taken care of.

Measurement is crucial
When I crossed the finish line, it was a pretty sweet moment. I had trained for three and a half months and was proud of myself. I was also interested to see what my time was (1 hour, 6 minutes, 7 seconds by the Sun Run time*) because that will allow me to improve. I can see what was challenging, what I did well, and I can plan for my next 10K. If this run wasn’t timed, it would lose its key point.

Measurement is crucial to communications initiatives. Understanding what works, what doesn’t and why is important to effective communication. There is always the challenge of measuring communications efforts because some things aren’t quantifiable, but you can identify a baseline and work out the key objectives of the campaign or initiative, so you can see where you were, where you wanted to go and where you actually moved to.

*Context is important too – the Sun Run time is based on crossing a marker to start and a marker to finish. I have a running app on my iPhone, which I also used. Interestingly enough, my run app had me up almost a minute in time (I started it before I hit the start line), but it also showed that I ran 11K because it counted my steps and included all of the people-dodging I did. Context matters.

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