The Language of Leadership

Presented by Erica Mills, director, Nancy Bell Evans Center on Nonprofits & Philanthropy, University of Washington at the 2017 BoardSource Leadership Forum

Erica Mills — an expert in the interplay between language and impact — promised a fast-paced and interactive session on how to create remarkable messaging to lead staff, engage donors, and advocate for our missions, and she delivered! Here are a few of the session’s take-aways:

  • Be attentive to your words. Words matter, and nonprofit leaders are using only five percent of the more than 15 million words available to them to describe their organization’s work. Ninety-five percent of all English words are going unused. What can we do to increase our vocabulary? To not use the same words over and over again or the same words being used by all nonprofits? The answer is The Wordifier — an online tool Erica developed for finding new and interesting words that will help an organization stand out. It will tell you whether you should stop using a specific word due to overuse, use it with caution, or use it all you want.
  • Ensure your mission statement is memorable. Mission statements have to be memorable if they are going to engage our audiences. Most are not; most are difficult to follow or understand or incorporate words (particularly verbs) being used by many others. Using a tool — the Flesch reading-ease test, which tells how easy or hard something is to understand — Erica shared a few nonprofit mission statements. All had 0.0 reading ease. Then, she zeroed in on one in particular: “The Alaska Kidney Patients Association is committed to providing support, education and advocacy for kidney patients and their families, encouraging organ donation, public education and the prevention of kidney disease.” How might it become remarkable, memorable? Erica suggested the following: “The Alaska Kidney Patients Association takes care of Alaska’s kidneys.” Less is more.
  • Don’t use jargon. Jargon — including acronyms — is evil. It excludes people. Have someone outside your organization read your external-facing literature. They’ll identify the jargon.
  • Focus on benefits, not features. To illustrate this point, Erica shared a video featuring a blind man in need begging for money on a street. His sign read “I am blind.” Few people stop to drop a coin in his hat. A young woman approaches him. He can hear her pick up his sign but cannot see what she is doing. She leaves. Many people start dropping coins in his hat. The sign now reads: “It’s a beautiful day. I can’t see it.” You have to consciously, actively make it clear how your work relates to the person taking the time to read your messaging. Me < We. Use “you” and “your” or “we” and “us.” It’s about them, not you.

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