Vu Le & a Free Webinar

Vu Le & Erica Mills immediately after eating way too much vegan Thai food.











What are you doing on Wednesday, April 26 at 2pm Pacific? I ask because I’m going to be having a candid conversation with the one and only (and very hilarious) Vu Le and I’d love for you to join us.

In case you’ve been buried under a rock in the hinterlands of Siberia, Vu is one of the brightest stars in the nonprofit sector these days.

His blog–Nonprofit with Balls–is a must-read for everyone in the social sector. He’s the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps where they are on a mission to promote social justice by cultivating leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Not that any of my webinars are scripted (as you likely know, me and scripts get along as well as me and podiums, which is to say not well at all…scripts and podiums make me feel hemmed in…eek!), but this one will be particularly free-ranging. In a good way.


You will likely hear us talk about:

  • Equity, diversity, and inclusion…not just lip service
  • Using language to build trust
  • Hummus and unicorns and martinis
  • Grantee/grantmaker power dynamics
  • Capacity building: doing it and funding it

And a bunch of other stuff.

What I appreciate so much about Vu is his ability to infuse heady topics with belly laughter. Pure genius and goodness.

So sign yourself up. Then when the day/time arrive, kick back with your favorite mid-afternoon beverage and be prepared to laugh and learn.

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FREE WEBINAR: Put your Words on a Mission

Claxon University is hosting our first-ever FREE webinar on August 24 at 1pm PST. Will you join me? I’d love that.

If you’ll be on vacation that day, don’t sweat it. Enjoy it! Sign up today, and you can listen to the recording when you’re back…refreshed, reinvigorated, and ready to get your communications in tip-top shape.

Now, what will you learn in this webinar that you might not already know?

  • The biggest messaging mistakes I see nonprofits make again and again. And then I’m going to tell you how to avoid and/or fix them.
  • How to make simple tweaks to your writing that’ll make people go, “Woah, wait. What are you doing? I want in on that!”
  • How to get into the minds, and hearts, of your most important audiences. Think donors and staff and board members and volunteers. (And then think about donors again because, well, they’re important.)
  • Etc, etc, etc.

This won’t be an “oh let me just turn this on and listen in the background” webinar. This is going to be a “oh let me have both hands free so I can take copious notes” type of thing. There will be time for Q&A, so you will also be able to get your burning questions answered on the spot.

Whether you join me live on August 24 at 1pm PST, or via recording post-vacay, I really encourage you to sign up for this webinar. It’s free. So pretty much a no-risk proposition. And you’ll learn a ton. The Claxon Team has continued to do research, and find out new things, and by August 24, we’ll be ready to share all our newfound knowledge with YOU.


5 Very Bad Assumptions Nonprofits Make About Language

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Thanks for hosting, AFP Bellingham!

Last week, I spoke at the Washington State Nonprofit Conference and at a training up in Bellingham, WA hosted by AFP Washington (that’s about 90 min north of Seattle for you non-NW readers).

We talked about five very bad assumptions most nonprofit folks make about language and how to shift those assumptions to increase your impact. Here they are:

  1. You are the center of the universe: Whether or not that’s true, if you want to engage supporters in your mission, shift your language to make it about them. (Hint: Liberal use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ will do the trick.)
  2. Answers are more important than questions: Nope, questions are where it’s at. When you hear someone’s questions, you know what they’re interested in. So shift your approach so you proactively invite questions.
  3. You’re being strategic with your words: Unless you’re crystal clear on what success looks like, and who you’re trying to reach with your words, you’re not being strategic. Shift to a habit of always being clear on whose ears need to hear your message. The 1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree poster (which you can see in all its glory in the picture above) can help you make this shift.
  4. People can understand you: Um, not if you’re using jargon and fancy phrases. Knock that off! You want to shift so your language is free of jargon and fancy phrases. That makes it easy for people to understand you and repeat what you say.
  5. Nouns are more important than other parts of speech: Yeah…no. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again–verbs are where it’s at! You’ll do yourself and your organization a big favor by shifting to a verb-first approach to language.

There they are–the five assumptions and the shifts you should make if you want to use language to make the world a better place!


Ode to Jargon, a Limerick

The jargon is often quite dense,
and often eludes common sense ,
at the end of the day,
say what you may,
I am certain it’s not what you meant.

Linda Moore, President & CEO,
Yakima Valley Community Foundation 

Jargon. It seems so benign. What could be so wrong with using the expressions ‘wrap-around services’, ‘collective impact‘, or ‘philanthropic value proposition’?

As David Ogilvy so eloquently stated: “Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.” Put another way: You may think jargon makes you sound smart. But the “smarter” you sound, the dumber your listener likely feels. 

Jargon really gets on my nerves. It’s why I write about its nefarious nature in Pitchfalls, in this post about board members and hiccups, and this one where (for our collective and individual sanity), I assertively encourage you to embrace a more straight-forward way of speaking.

If you want people to engage, invest, support, donate, volunteer and/or serve as your advocates or fans, you’ll be well served by systematically eradicating jargon from your marketplace of words.

NOTE: It costs you nothing to stop using jargon. It costs you everything if you don’t succeed in getting people engaged in your work and talking about it to others! Don’t let something as simple as jargon get in your way.

7 Rules of Thumb (plus some cats and dogs)

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Photo credit: @DressForSuccesPHX

Earlier this week, I gave a keynote for the Alliance of Arizona’s annual membership meeting. I got to talk about one of the my all-time favorite topics >> The Language of Impact: how words can make the world a better place.

We covered 7 rules of thumb when it comes to using language, and therefore words, to increase impact.

  1. Get rigorous.
  2. Focus on your verbs.
  3. Ditch the robo-speak
  4. Stop talking about yourself.
  5. Stop talking so much.
  6. Translate your taglines.
  7. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Some, but not all, of these are covered in some form or fashion in Pitchfalls: why bad pitches happen to good people, my pocket-size book about pitches.

I focus a lot on pitches because they force you to really pay attention to every single word you use. It’s a useful exercise to see if you can say what you have to say in 10 words or less. It forces you to find the very best words and to prune out the superfluous ones.

Is this easy? No. Mark Twain said, “I would’ve written you a shorter story, but I didn’t have the time.”

Is it worth it? Yes.

Because the above Rules of Thumb take a little explaining in order to embrace, over the next few weeks, you’ll see a follow-up post on each rule. In the meantime, experiment with saying whatever you have to say in 10 words or less. See what stays and what goes.

(If you know anyone else who might be interested in how to use words to make the world a better place, share/forward this post so they can get in on the action, okay? Thanks!)

A note on cats and dogs: At the beginning of my talk, I asked a series of questions so I could factor the audience’s answers into my remarks. One of the questions was whether they were a cat person or a dog person. Someone asked me later how I used that information. (They were too polite to say it, but I think their real question was: do I really use that information or do I just ask it because it’s kinda funny? Either question is totally legit.)

Here’s the answer: I commonly ask the question at the beginning of a talk and, yes, I totally use what I learn. Acknowledging that this is a GROSS GENERALIZATION (and one with which some will take umbrage), here’s how: I use it as a proxy for how extroverted/introverted a group is. I then use this to inform how much I will/can engage the group.

For this particular group, there were way more dog people than cat people in da house. I engaged the audience a whole lot. I called on people individually. I asked questions throughout, etc. If there had been way more cat people, I might not have engaged quite so much. At least not right away. I would’ve eased into it a bit more. Not because introverts aren’t social–because they can be!–but they generally have a different learning style than extroverts. (See this wonderful graphic for more on introverts and extroverts.) This cat/dog approach is not an exact science and has its flaws, but it works pretty darn well.

So there you have it: 7 Rules of Thumb, plus some cats and dogs.

Disclaimer: The above paragraph should not be taken as judgement for or against introverts or extroverts, cat-lovers or dog-lovers or animal-lovers, in general. The world needs all the above, plus the animals they love.

Community Foundations playing with their verbs

words, messaging, community foundations, philanthropy
Playing with words is fun!

Yesterday, I invited staff and board from Washington state’s community foundations to think differently about language. To play with words.

The group spent much of its time trying to find their verb. That’s right: their verb. Verbs are where it’s at. They are “the part of speech that expresses existence, action or occurrence.” Anyone who wants to inspire people to action and engagement should be downright obsessed with their verbs.

In English, we’re very focused on nouns. People, places and things. Those are important too. But when you focus too much on your nouns, your verbs get short-shrift and you end up with a wimpy verb, like ‘provide’. You can do better.

What struck me yesterday was how much community foundations are like philanthropic cruise directors. Julie on The Love Boat knew everything that was going on and could therefore recommend the perfect activity for each guest. Ditto for community foundations (only minus the boat). They know everything going on in their communities and can therefore direct people to where their investment can have the biggest impact given their interests.

At the end of our session, I suggested that their verb was ‘direct’ and that they spend some time playing with the following core message:

We direct money to where it can make the biggest difference in our communities. 

For the balance of the convening (they had another 24 hours to go after our session), their task was to edit that sentence. To see what stuck with them. What didn’t feel right. To play with it.

I confess that I gave them a bit of a toughie. I wanted to see if anyone would notice that, as stated, their verb (i.e. the action for which they want to be know and that they are uniquely positioned to act upon) focused on a feature (i.e. directing money) rather than the benefit. If you were to rearrange and introduce a different verb first, you would get something like:

We drive change in our communities by directing money to where it makes the most impact.

Is it a bit longer? Yes. But possibly worth it. It all depends. With this switcheroo, community foundations would in essence be saying they are uniquely qualified to drive change in their communities and the way in which they are uniquely qualified to do that is by directing donors’ money.

In reality, those who aren’t board and staff probably won’t say ‘drive change’ because it isn’t something most folks would naturally say. (“What are you up to day, Susan?” “Oh nothing much, just driving change.”) So they’d still be investing in ‘directing’ as their verb, but it offers an option with the ever-popular and rather effective benefit-feature structure, which is always awesome to have on hand. And can be used in writing.

I don’t work for a community foundation, so I can’t say if these are the right words for them. That’s the thing with words–you have to find your own.  I can only say that, if I did work at a community and was looking for my words, these are some of the ones I’d play with. And then I’d see where they took me from there.





The Language of Leadership

leadership, leadership development, storytelling, messaging, language, communicationYesterday, I spent the afternoon with the brave and audacious participants of the University of Washington’s Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). As one who believe that word nerdery will change the world, I invited the group to explore the language of leadership, a.k.a. “leaderly language”. (No, leaderly is not officially a word. Roll with it.)

We spent a chunk of time looking at how to use language to create messages that create stories that inspire action from both internal and external stakeholders. No small task, for sure. Yet one made much easier with a good S.U.N. Story in hand.

If you’ve never heard of a leader’s S.U.N. story, you’re not alone. It’s an acronym I made up to make it easier to remember  Marshall Ganz’s recommendation that leaders always think of telling three stories in one:

  1. Story of Self: why you have been called
  2. Story of Us: why we have been called
  3. Story of Now: the urgent challenge on which we are called to act

See? A SUNny story.

Ganz outlined this idea in his 2008 article, “What is public narrative?”  It’s based on Hillel’s famous quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Leaders who use language effectively have answered Hillel’s three questions and know how to calibrate their answers to the setting and their audience. The ‘us’ changes based on context and therefore the ‘self’ and ‘now’ must always be adjusted accordingly. For instance, the ‘us’ of you and a new donor is different than the ‘us’ that is you and your staff. Being able to share why you were drawn to your work and how that relates to the task–or moment–at hand creates a sense of intimacy and purpose.

A leader will have  many S.U.N. Stories in their story arsenal. The art is knowing when to use which one.

If you want to see a great S.U.N. Story in action, check out the Harmony Project’s Margaret Martin’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch. That’s a whole lot of SUNny awesomeness, right?

[Hat tip to Andy Goodman for bringing the idea three stories of one back on my radar.]

Marketing Game Plan for Idaho Gives

My marketing advice is...drink more coffee!
My marketing advice is…drink more coffee!

May 2, is going to be a big day in Idaho. It’ll be their first-ever statewide celebration of giving–aptly called Idaho Gives.

Thanks to the Idaho Nonprofit Center, the wonderful masterminds behind Idaho Gives, I have gotten to train nonprofits from all over the state on how to create a Marketing Game Plans for this statewide give-a-palooza.

These one day give-fests are awesome from nonprofits. Why? Because they force you to get your marketing in line with your mission and your goals. (The lure of free money and golden tickets can have that effect.)

Now, when people come to a marketing training, they usually think we’re going to spend most of our time talking about Facebook, e-blasts and, if we’re really, really lucky, Pinterest.

Instead, we talk a lot about what their goals are and who they need to engage to reach those goals. Why so little talk of Pinterest and Instagram and all the fun stuff? I like the fun stuff as much as the next marketing-obsessed speaker, but here’s what I’ve learned over the years: that part comes pretty easy once you know your WHAT (your goals) and your WHO (the people you should engage).

And you know what isn’t fun at all? Wasting your time and money. And that’s what you’re doing when you skip the What and the Who. Because without that information, you can’t make good choices. Doh.

At times, you might skip those two all-important first steps and get results by random luck. Good for you. But you can’t take random luck to the bank time and time again, now can you? No, you can’t. Not unless you’re George Clooney’s gang from Ocean’s Thirteen. (Oh but look, they did meticulous planning before taking their loot to the bank too, so scratch that!)

It’s through planning that you figure out how to tailor your messages. As Gayla Hatfield of Hope Preschool and Memorial Community Center told the Coeur d’Alene Press, they weren’t clear on who they really needed to reach and were “spewing too much info out.” Now she knows how to target her message and she’s “better prepared” for  fundraising in general and Idaho Gives in particular.

Planning may not be as fun as pinning and, as you can see in the picture above, it requires quite a bit of caffeine (note how many coffee cups are strewn across the table) and not everyone will find it riveting (note the woman on her mobile, who was actually very engaged much of the time, I swear, but happened to not be when this particular pic was snapped…what are the odds?), but if you’re serious about marketing advancing your mission, planning is the way it’s gotta be.

The Idaho nonprofits who rolled up their sleeves, filled up their coffee mugs, and did their planning will likely have a very good day on May 2. I can’t wait to see their plans turn into action..and engagement…and donations!

[For the record: In one of the trainings, the group was having so much fun, I laughed until I cried. I really, truly did. (Thanks to Dawn Burke of The Rat Retreat for being such a sport!) Proof that planning can be both fun and productive.]


The Global Campaign to Bring It On (and kick cancer’s ass)

Just like Rosie, let’s Bring It On!

I recently spoke at a benefit concert for Kelly Wade–the world’s most talented acupuncturist. She’s having to take a break from her practice to duke it out with cancer.

Kelly is a doer. She has no patience for wallowing in self-pity. She is beyond annoyed that, as a society, we allow news of cancer to reduce us to living in fear.

If you live in fear, you can’t live life to its fullest. Kelly would very much like us all to knock off this living in fear business.

After we were all treated to a Brahms violin concerto by six incredible musicians from the Seattle Symphony, I gave the following remarks. I’m sharing them here in the hopes that you will join the Global Campaign to Bring It On.


Thank you for that amazing gift of music. I played oboe from Grade 5 to Grade 12. I was okay, at best. Whenever I hear gifted musicians play such beautiful music, I am reminded of how mediocre I truly was. Thanks to each and every one of you for sharing your talent with us this evening.

I am Erica Mills, a former entirely mediocre oboe player and a current patient of Kelly’s. Kelly asked me to give a few remarks on her behalf to tie a bow on this incredible evening.

Kelly is like Bruce Lee–small in stature and big on power. She is a force to be reckoned with. Larger than life. So when she asked me to say a few words, I was humbled…and a little stumped in terms of what to say. It’s a tall order to channel your inner Kelly!

But then I realized that this was an opportunity to put into action an idea I’ve had for about twelve years.

Twelve years ago, my mum was diagnosed with Grade 4 follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In non-medical terms, that’s “a bad blood cancer.”

My dad and I went to all of her chemo treatments with her. My job was to get trashy magazines. My dad’s was to get the lattes.

So we were sitting there reading about whether Brad and Jenn were going to split up (say it ain’t so!) and what Brittany Spears was wearing when my mum, out of the blue, looks up and says:

“You realize this isn’t my time, right?”

Me (with furrowed brow and a look of where is this going?) “Yep, pretty clear on that.”

Mum: “Among other reasons, it’s not my time because I don’t have any grandkids and I have every intention of having some.”

Me: Uh, okay.

Although married at the time, my husband and I weren’t quite ready for kids. So I started looking at other ways to focus my cancer-fighting energies and I decided it’d be a really good idea to launch a global campaign to Kick Cancer’s Ass. I was fairly serious about this. I really thought that was a great idea. Turns out, the idea didn’t take off in the way I’d thought it might and so it went into remission, as it were.

When I was thinking about what to say this evening, I thought, “Heck ya! It’s time to really launch this sucker!” I was psyched. The global scale was right for someone as awesome as Kelly. (Although galactic might be a little more on par with Kelly’s true influence and impact, but we’ll settle for global. Feels more actionable if we don’t include other planets at this point.)

Then I realized if we focused the campaign solely on cancer, we were missing the point. The point of beating cancer is to live life to its fullest, not just to kick its ass.

I also remembered the second law of thermodynamics.

I was first introduced to this law by my dad who, at the time, was a professor of thermodynamics. I was about 4 and was learning how to swing. My older sister was next to me going up, up, up. Meanwhile, I was going nowhere.

Seeing my frustration, my dad came over and said, “There is no free lunch, honey. Pump harder.”

At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. Mainly I wondered if this meant we were going to get a second lunch that day.

As I grew up, my dad would say this to me periodically, “There is no free lunch”. What I didn’t realize until I was older was that he was paraphrasing the second law of thermodynamics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As individuals and as a society, we apply this law to cancer in the following way:

Action: “I have cancer.”

Reaction: “That’s so sad.”

The depth of our sadness a mirror to the gravity of the cancer.

The flaw in our collective application of the second law of thermodynamics to cancer is that we have allowed ourselves to believe the full reaction stops with sadness or fear. It’s not that we won’t feel sad when we hear bad news about ourselves or others. But we can let that be a momentary reaction en route to the full reaction which is living life to its fullest.

We have an opportunity to make history here tonight. We have the opportunity to dismantle how we have historically applied this law and to hitherto apply it as follows:

Action: “I have cancer.”

Reaction: “Bring it on!”

Let me pause and say, I’m not advocating for all of us to actually say this when someone tells us they have cancer. That’d be weird and probably wouldn’t go over very well.

What I am advocating for is for all of us to fundamentally shift how we react to cancer and to any other piece of really bad, gnarly, yucky news. We have the choice to say: “Bring it on!”

And by ‘it’, I don’t mean cancer. I mean bring on living life to its fullest. Every day. In every way possible.

So, here, tonight, right now, I’d like to launch the Global Campaign to Bring It On!

Bring it on. Whatever ‘it’ looks like for you.

Unbeknownst to them, the Wade Family is the campaign’s first poster family. (For anyone who knows them, this is ironic, given how private they are, but they haven’t left yet so we’re going with it!)

Once Kelly is done kicking cancer’s ass, she and Bob can decide who the next poster family or person should be. But, for now, in this initial stage of the Global Campaign to Bring It On, our job is to support them in any way we can.

There are many unknowns in Kelly’s battle with cancer, but we do know a few things.

One, they will need food. Lots of it and hopefully really, really tasty.

Two, getting the amazing Wade kids to all their activities is no small undertaking. Some help getting them to and from so they can unleash their awesomeness will be a big help.

Third, we know that cancer isn’t cheap. Since Kelly and Bob are going into somewhat uncharted territory with her treatment, it’s unclear how much all this cancer fighting will cost. But it’s a safe bet that it’ll probably be expensive.

Two of Kelly’s friends, Alys and Karin, are responsible for organizing tonight’s event. They have also set up a way for us to make a donation. To the extent you are able to contribute, we invite you to do so.  (Details will be emailed in a few days, so watch for those.)

Some of you might be wondering what happened with my mum and her bout with cancer. I talked to her earlier today. She is busy preparing for Thanksgiving, which she will spend with her four grandkids.

My mum is a statistical anomaly  She shouldn’t be here. But she is. Because, since she’d lived with my dad for so many years, she knew that the appropriate application of the second law of thermodynamics was–Bring It On! And that’s exactly what she did. She brought it on and kicked cancer’s ass. Kelly’s going to do the same.

We all know that cancer is a powerful force. There’s no getting around it. But we know a force that is far more powerful than cancer. A force that no evil, no matter how big, can contend with. That force is humanity. As individuals, as a community and as a society, we have the opportunity to unleash the full force and goodness of humanity and channel it toward the Kelly and the whole Wade family.

Would you all please stand up and put both your hands in the air? Now make a fist. As you make a fist, I want you to visualize the enemy: cancer, living in fear, not living life to the fullest. (I personally visualize the enemy as a mashup of Donald Trump and Dr. Evil, but that’s just me.) Now open your fists and release. Release all the anger you have. The anger about cancer rudely attacking Kelly’s appendix. Release it. Because anger isn’t going to get us anywhere. Anger keeps us living in fear. If we’re going to take this campaign global, we can’t be living in fear. We’ve got to bring it on!

Now that we’ve released all that yucky fear, let’s close things out right. On the count of three, let’s say together–so loud we rattle the windows:


Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you for supporting Kelly and the Wade family. And thank you for being part of the Global Campaign to Bring It On.


Why Bad Pitches Happen to Good People

elevator pitch, boring, haiku, personal pitch
You’re not boring. Why have a boring pitch?!

The kind folks at WVDO-OR invited me to do a workshop on Perfecting Your Personal Pitch.  I really should’ve called it:  ‘Pitchfalls: Why Bad Pitches Happen to Good People’.

Andy Goodman, storytelling guru and all-around source of messaging goodness, has previously revealed ‘Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes‘ and ‘Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes‘. Both are mind-blowing while being uber-practical.

There’s no shortage of info on creating an awesome elevator pitch. So the question is: why do bad (elevator) pitches happen to good people?

Pitches go sideways for many reasons. After hearing thousands of pitches from good people over the years, here are the top three reasons:

  1. You’re boring: You technically say what you do, but you say it in such a boring way, the person you’re saying it to wants to nap.
  2. You say too much: You’re so excited about what you do that you go on and on and on, regaling the listener with your laundry list of awesomeness.
  3. You think people care about you: They don’t. They care about themselves. They want to hear how what you are doing relates to them.

Great pitches also happen good people. (Here’s an example of one.) And they can happen to you.

If you’d like to banish bad pitches, for you and good people, peruse the presentation and/or get in touch.


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?