Matthew Sherrington: Are you clear why you're talking to me, what you're saying and why?

You need to make your case in language your audience understands, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Almost everyone knows what an elevator pitch is – imagining you’ve stepped into a lift with the most important person you can think of who could help your cause, and having 60 seconds to engage them and make your case. Almost everyone knows the importance of being able to nail your story succinctly, of knowing the key messages you’d want to get across.

And yet it’s not taken that seriously. It’s a bit of a parlour game. So no one practices and no one is ready. I know – I put team after team through this exercise, and it’s an eye-opener. People generally don’t know what their organisation’s key messages are. Or if they think they do, they are often wrong.

It’s an artificial scenario, sure. But what’s also illuminating is that it forces people to speak, and in speaking they use words and language that are different from those they write. Too often the "boilerplate" summary is a jarring consertina of jargon found in organisational plans, without much thought to the language used by the audience. Speaking it helps you simplify it.

Ask people about their organisations and they start with what you’d find in the "About Us" and "What We Do" sections of your website. Your history, how big you are and the vast array of activities you carry out. The stuff no one is that interested in, and certainly not the stuff to engage them. The range of activities you do is just the "how" you do the real stuff – the difference you make to the cause you care about.

Some people might be interested in opening the bonnet and seeing how the engine works, but in these days of computerised and sealed engines, not many (speaking as a non-petrol head whose in-laws have a red 1953 MG in the garage). People might show polite admiration for the bodywork, but what they’ll really want to know is why you’re excited to be on wheels at all and where you’re going. And if they like the sound of it, they’ll get excited about the chance to come for a spin. Why you do it is what you do, and that’s the story to get straight.

Then we come to whether you’re clear why you’re communicating at all. Ask people that question – and, again, I know because I ask it a lot – and most answers are along the lines of awareness, information, education, spreading the word, profile, engagement, feedback, influencing. Maybe one in ten answers hits the target, and none of those do.

Now don’t misunderstand me; I’m not raking up that hoary old brand vs fundraising chestnut. All of these things are valuable; they just aren’t the reasons why you’re communicating. The test is simply to ask the "why" question again. Why is information, or awareness, or any of the other things important? Why are you doing it? You should end up at an answer that involves the person on the receiving end doing something with it, changing attitudes and behaviour, and taking action, whether supporting or using the services you offer. And the answer to why that action matters should have everything to do with contributing to your mission.

All advertising in the end wants you to step this way, buy that thing. Inviting and engaging people to reach that end action can take various paths, but it’s important not to lose sight of the goal. We’ve all seen poor fundraising results from a TV advert, for example, explained away by the white rabbit of awareness. When so much communication is integrated and cross-channel, and it’s sometimes harder to measure impact, it’s easy to lose sight of why you were doing it in the first place and how it adds up.

Charities don’t have the time or money to waste not to be clear about why they’re communicating, what they’re saying and why. Besides, it’s just not that effective.

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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