It should come as no surprise to anyone who has either served on a board or staffed one that there are members who join with only the vaguest understanding of the organization’s work or aspirations. Or, they face challenges telling the organization’s “story.”
As a message development consultant, I have been asked many times to draft an “elevator speech” that incorporates the messages that we’ve hammered out through research and creative work. You know the scenario: you step onto an elevator with an important politician or donor and have a golden opportunity to speak up for your group. What to say? In that moment you need a concise, powerful way that maybe, just maybe, will make a lasting impression.
Most nonprofits have underutilized assets in their staff and board who may “choke” when they need to sing. Imagine the power of harnessing all of your human resources to tell a glowing story of your group when out and about. Yes, you want everyone to use “THE MESSAGE” to reinforce the impressions that will strengthen your brand. But, it has been my experience that few people can actually tell an “official story” convincingly if it isn’t somehow part of their own.
“I can’t remember all that.” “That’s not what motivates me to serve here.” “Who cares about all those statistics.” “That doesn’t connect with me, so I can’t say it.” These are all responses I have heard as both a board member and a consultant. So what to do?
When doing a training for a child advocacy organization’s board a number of years ago, I stumbled on a better way to do this by unlocking the potential spokesperson’s own creativity through their emotional connection to the people the organization serves. After getting pushback, my frustration led me to challenge each person in the room to say what motivated them to help advocate on behalf of children. Their answers were each quite different, but they were their own, and they liked sharing them.
One favorite that I remember was “I just can’t stand the way some adults disrespect children by talking down to them or chasing them out of the store as if they were thieves. How can we expect them to treat adults well if adults are mean to them?” That was the starting point for a great story about the organization and its mission, and that story came from the heart. No need to memorize a script – just remember that opening line, and you have a potent conversation starter that can bridge you back to the organization’s mission and work.
When I run spokesperson training sessions, I start with that question to help connect people to the essence of the work and advocacy. When training spokespeople for the release of a UN report on inequality last year, I asked each person in the room to share a story from their own personal or professional experience that illuminated the problem. Every one of the trainees could highlight some dramatic experience or observation. Next, we embroidered their stories with further details to make them more alive, and then we honed down a version for use as a supporting anecdote to illustrate the key message points about the report.
The key is to unlock what is there, not drive home someone else’s words. It also makes it fun.