Lesson 8: How will you let people know what you want to be known for?

This is part of a series introducing you to Claxon University, where nonprofits can learn everything I know for $949.

Claxon University’s first course is Words on a Mission. Each of the twelve lessons in the course asks a fundamental question a nonprofit needs to answer in order to develop high-impact messaging. In each post in this series, I’ll share what the question is, along with a snippet from the video lecture.

Lesson 8: How will you let people know what you want to be known for?

Lesson 8: Does your Mission Statement align with your Know Statement? from Claxon University on Vimeo.

The Engagement Cycle: Know, Understand and then (and only then!) Engage

engagement, connection, marketing, fundraising, strategy
Engagement Cycle

In writing my book, Pitchfalls: why bad pitches happen to good people, I encourage people to let go of the idea of having one elevator pitch (creepy!) and instead map their pitches to an Engagement Cycle (see image to the left).

It seems forehead-slappingly obvious when you stop to think about it. Of course a donor would need to know you and understand you before she would engage with you.

But it’s stunning how frequently nonprofits leap straight from know to engage. And that leaping isn’t good for your mission.

This leaping comes from a good place. We love what we do so  much, that we sometimes (often?) have a “to know me is to love me” mentality.

“But of course someone will want to support our organization! How could they not?! We save animals. Who wouldn’t want to save animals?!” 

A lot of people, it turns out. Because not everything cares about animals…or feeding the hungry, or the arts, or education, or whatever your cause is.

Even if, by chance, you got someone moved from knowing you to supporting you in short order, if you didn’t take the time for them to really understand you, the chances they’ll renew their support go down. Dramatically, precipitously down.

You want your renewal rate going up, not down, right? You want more people more deeply engaged in your mission, right? If so, let’s take a look at each step of the Engagement Cycle so you can start using it to achieve those goals.

1.  KNOW: The ‘know’ pitch answers the question: ‘What do you do?’ You want a pitch that is remarkable—meaning interesting enough for people to remark on it to you and (pay attention because this next part is very important in terms of word-of-mouth marketing) to others.

2.  UNDERSTAND: Once you’re on someone’s radar, i.e. they know you exist, you need to make sure they really, truly understand what you do and why you do it. Of all the organizations out there, why should they engage with yours? What makes you special? Compelling? Unlike any other? Your ‘understand’ pitch answers these questions. It answers the question: ‘Why you?’

3.  ENGAGE: Donate. Advocate. Volunteer. Buy. This pitch answers the question: ‘How can I engage?’ This is the pitch that moves people from learning to doing.

Is it simple? Yes. Is it easy? Not always. Is it worth it? Yes.

***If you want to master this process, check out Claxon University’s Words on a Mission course. In this self-paced course, your organization can create a collection pitches that will effectively and efficiently move donors through the Engagement Cycle!***

#FixMyPitch—Children’s Hunger Alliance

Children's Hunger AllianceChildren’s Hunger Alliance submitted their pitch via Twitter as part of the #FixMyPitch contest we did with Beth Kanter. They weren’t a winner because their pitch didn’t need enough fixing. However, it’s a perfect example of how small tweaks can make a huge impact on your pitch.

Bear in mind that, unlike Seacoast Science Center and Pacific Education Institute, where I did a coaching session with them, I haven’t chatted with the fine folks at Children’s Hunger Alliance. What follows is the type of thinking and pondering I’d do if I were them and wanted to improve my pitch by making a series of minor adjustments.

The Pitch: Children’s Hunger Alliance ensures all children are fed regular and nutritious meals and develop lifelong healthy eating habits.

You want your pitch to be a triple threat: concise, compelling and repeatable.  Weighing in at a mere 16 words, this pitch is fairly concise. But, because of word choice, it’s neither compelling nor repeatable. (Insert sad trombone.)

Here are some thoughts on making this pitch more compelling and repeatable, while keeping it concise.

  1.  ‘Ensure’ is a fine word in writing, but it isn’t a word people say naturally in casual conversation (and, if they do, they sound like a robot, which isn’t very compelling). You up the odds of your pitch being repeated by using the more casual, spoken version. Easy fix for this particular word: switch to ‘make sure’.
  2. ‘…children are fed’ uses passive voice. The work you do isn’t passive, don’t let your voice be! Try something like, “We make sure all children get…”
  3. When we speak, it’s more common to say ‘kids’ than ‘children’. There is no right or wrong on this one. There are legitimate reasons to stick with ‘children’. Many organizations I work with feel that ‘children’ is more respectful. Just know that when others talk about your work, there’s a good chance they’ll say ‘kids’.
  4. Your ‘know’ pitch should speak directly to the one thing you want to be known for. One. In this pitch, it’s hard to tell what’s more important: the regular meals or the lifelong healthy eating habits. I know it’s hard to pick. You want to say it’s both, but you need to prioritize. Do you want to be known for the meals or the eating habits?

Depending on the answer to #4, you could go one of two directions with your ‘know’ pitch:

Option A: We make sure all kids get healthy meals on a regular basis.

Option B: We make sure all kids develop healthy eating habits. (Note: ‘Lifelong healthy eating habits’ is mega-awkward to say. To those not seeped in the work, ‘healthy eating habits’ implies longevity.)

It’s pretty easy to imagine two parents hanging out on the school playground waiting to pick up their kids and one of them saying, “I just learned about Children’s Hunger Alliance. Have you heard of them? They make sure all our kids get healthy meals on a regular basis.” Or “They make sure all our children develop healthy eating habits.” Tougher to convince yourself that a parent would, in casual playground convo, say “They ensure all children are fed regular and nutritious meals and develop lifelong healthy eating habits.” See the difference?

Ideally, your ‘know’ pitch will weigh in at 10 words or less. Option A is 12 words, so a tidge long. Option B is 9. Either way, my hunch is if you make these types of small adjustments to your pitch, you’ll start to get some traction.

Good job, Children’s Hunger Alliance—thanks for all you do to help kids!

Want more help with your messaging? Check out our free Messaging Toolkit.

Before & After with #FixMyPitch Grand Prize Winner Seacoast Science Center





You may recall that we teamed up with Beth Kanter to do something called the #FixMyPitch contest. Out of a bevvy of entries, we ended up with two Grand Prize Winners—Seacoast Science Center and Pacific Education Institute–and three runners-up–MKE123, WoodGreen, and United Way of King County’s Free Tax Campaign. Congrats to our winners and to all the brave souls who submitted their pitches for fixing!

The Grand Prize Winners each did a coaching session with me. We’re going to do a series of ‘before and after’ posts that show how we fixed their pitches in the hopes that you’ll get the inspiration and information you need to fix yours. (If you’re looking for more free resources on how to spruce up your pitch, you can download our Messaging Toolkit.)

In the posts, we’ll  focus on the ‘know’ pitch, since everything else falls into place once that’s nailed down. Although the pitches are specific to each organization, the advice is applicable to lots and lots of organizations. So, if you read one and think, “Hmmmm…we do that,” see if you can apply the fix to your pitch.


Before: “The Seacoast Science Center is a non-profit marine science education organization located on the New Hampshire coast. Ocean education is what we do. We use programs and exhibits to inform people, from toddlers to grandparents, about why a healthy ocean is important. We educate and motivate. We want everyone to recognize and understand that the things that people do every day have an impact on the health of the ocean and that the health of the ocean has impact on their daily lives. Invest in us and you are building a community of ocean stewards that care about the future of the seas. A healthy ocean drives the quality of life for future generations.”

After: We teach kids why the ocean matters to them.

Seacoast Science Center faced three big issues with their pitch. These issues befuddle even the best and brightest of organizations. Here’s what they were and how you can fix them:

Issue #1: Answering questions, rather than inviting them

Seacoast Science Center’s pitch is really three pitches masquerading as one. In reality, it includes a ‘know’ pitch, an ‘understand’ pitch, and an ‘engage’ pitch. This happens a lot. It happens because we’re worried that someone will have a question that we didn’t cover. Oh no!!! Better cover off on every conceivable thing. I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

You want people to ask you questions! In the world of pitches, that’s success. It means you were clear and compelling enough for someone to want to know more. Hooray!

Instead of trying to answer every single question out of the gate, brainstorm the types of questions you’d like to be asked. Then think about how you might structure your pitches to invite those questions.

Issue #2: The curse of the boring verb!

Verbs are the action heroes of every sentence—they represent the change you want to create in the world! For better or worse, in English we focus way more on our nouns (people, places and things) than we do on our verbs. We spend so much time on our nouns, in fact, that by the time we get around to thinking about our verbs, we’re exhausted. This exhaustion leads us to using boring verbs like provide and help and is and are.

Let’s pause on ‘is’ and ‘are’ for a moment as they play a starring role in many a pitch. When you intro your organization with “We are…” or “Seacoast Science Center is…”, you focus on the organization itself (the subject) rather than what you do (the verb) or for whom you do it (the object). Although you are undoubtedly wonderful and fascinating, most people care less about you and your organization and much more about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. So you want to do what you can to avoid ‘is’ and ‘are’. (Here’s more on why ‘provide’ should also be avoided. At. All. Cost.)

You don’t want flashy verbs, per se. (People don’t generally use flashy words when they speak.) You want verbs that have purpose.

When I asked Rob and Nicole from Seacoast Science Center what change they wanted to create in the world, they said, “We want to educate kids about the importance of the ocean. We want to connect them to the natural world.”

See how educate and connect are much more specific than ‘is’? This was progress in the right direction. But we weren’t quite there yet because ‘educate’ has its own set of challenges, namely that it implies an inherent power dynamic. Wanting a verb that put kids on more of an equal footing, Seacoast Science Center landed on ‘teach’ as their verb.

Issue #3: Ignoring your ‘why’

Having found their verb (yippee!), it was time to turn our attention to why Seacoast Science Center teaches kids about the ocean. At this point in our conversation, I channeled my inner 3 year old (as I frequently do with clients…) and started asking ‘why’. Why do they want kids to better understand how they impact the ocean? Why do people need to connect with the natural world? Why does ocean education matter in this day and age?

Here’s the thing: when you’re working on an issue day in and day out, it’s easy to forget why what you’re doing matters. Can’t everyone see that this work is super, duper important?! No, actually we can’t. You have to remind us, your dear listeners, why your work matters. Why should we care about a “non-profit marine science education organization located on the New Hampshire coast”?  In this case, it turns out we should care not just because they ocean matters—in general—but because it matters to us, as people, as humans, as inhabitants of planet Earth. There is a symbiotic relationship—be nice to the ocean and the ocean will be nice back. Or, conversely, if you mess with the ocean, the ocean will mess with you. (And the ocean is way bigger than you, so best to play nice.)

When kids come to Seacoast Science Center, they learn about everything from gihugic sea mammals to palm-size sea anemones. In all instances, the key point is: the ocean is its very own great, big, wide world filled with amazing animals and creatures. They may seem a world apart, but they impact your life in ways you might not think about. And you impact them in ways you may not think about. But should.

When we shifted away from where the teaching was taking place and focused on why it was taking place, it infused their pitch with meaning and teed up a question they very much want to answer—why does the ocean matter to us?

If you struggle with any of the issues outlined above, try one of the fixes and see what happens. Remember, small tweaks can yield big returns. Experiment. Fail. And have fun!

Giving USA: giving is lookin’ good

Giving USA, philanthropy, fundraisingThis morning, I got a whirlwind run-down on Giving USA 2013. Tom Mesaros, of The Alford Group, gave a lively overview of all those charts and graphs. (Shout-out to Pacific Continental Bank for making this info-packed, muffin-filled breakfast possible!)

Tom made many good points. One of his Great Big Points was that, as a country, we’re pretty darn generous. Total contributions were $316.23 billion in 2012. Not exactly chump change. 72% came from individuals. Foundations account for 14%. When you figure that lots of the foundation money comes from individuals, this paints a rosy picture of our altruistic acumen.

Tom also spoke to some of the challenges we face as a sector. Terrible note-taker that I am, I didn’t manage to get them all down, but one really stood out: the growth challenge.

  • Are people still hungry? Yes.
  • Are there still homeless children on our streets? Yes.
  • Is the environment still in danger of going up in smoke? Yes.

The list goes on and on. There is still significant unmet need. If we’re going to realizing our vision of a better world, we have to grow in order to meet his need.

Although we’re making a comeback from our 2008 ‘hiccup’, the report estimates we still have six to seven years to go before we hit pre-recessionary levels (adjusted for inflation, mind you). Cramped influx of capital with high unmet need. It’s kind of a conundrum.

Broken record alert: we’re only retaining 3 out of 10 donors. I feel like there’s a connection between this stat and the charts/graphs in the Giving USA Report and the aforementioned conundrum. If we can make headway on retention, imagine what that would do in terms of growth! Makes my heart palpitate.

Smart growth is complicated. Expanding and deepening engagement is complicated. I’ll give you that. But as I was sitting there this morning, I couldn’t help but think how much we’re under-utilizing a really cheap asset–language.

We’re using words anyway (at an average rate of 15,000 per day). If we made them count more, how much would that help with retention? With meeting unmet need? With engaging more people at a deeper level in this thing called philanthropy? Even if all we did was fixed our pitches, what impact would that have?

I wonder. I really, truly do.



Practice makes progress

role play, pitching, practicing, messaging
Practice until you drop!

Yesterday,  a group of brave staff and board members from an awesome organization (that shall remain nameless to protect the identities of those involved) topped off a day of word nerdery with some good old-fashion role playing.

I have done role playing with countless people and groups and I’m yet to have someone say, “Oh thank goodness. We finally get to my favorite part–role playing!”

No one likes role playing. It’s awkward and you feel like a dork. And you’re encumbered with the belief that the goal of practice is perfection, which is unattainable so why bother.

Practice isn’t about perfection. It’s about progress.

Let’s play this out. Let’s say you’re sprucing up everyone’s elevator pitch. You’ve just crafted a new core message (that one sentence you want everyone to embrace and say with zeal). Everyone really likes it. You know it conveys the One Thing You Want People to Know About You and Your Organization (title case because that’s what you’re after with your core message).

This is as far as most groups go. They write the message, then stand back, fold their arms, and talk about what they like and don’t like about it. They don’t practice it.

Talking about your message and saying it are two very different things. The first one keeps it “in theory”–the next time you find yourself in a situation where you could use it, you won’t. Because you won’t remember it. Because you haven’t practiced it. And without practice, there’s no progress. And without progress, there’s no change.

The point of finding world-changing words for your world-changing work (here’s a little rant on that) is to use them, not think deep thoughts about them while staring at them on a page or computer screen!

Thus, practice. Thus, role playing.

Role playing is particularly hard for board members who talk less often about the organization. They will resist. They will grouse. They will all of a sudden need to plug their meters and/or run to the washroom. Let them do all that. And then have them role play.

The group yesterday eventually transitioned from talking about their new message to saying it. They personalized it, infusing it with their passion and personal experience. And when they did, they knocked my socks off and blew my hair back. They were awesome.

Practice may not make perfect. It does, however, make for a whole lot of progress.

Venture forth and practice!

Pitchfalls (a free eBook to help you unleash your awesome)


UPDATE: This little gem was so popular I turned it into a mini-book!  Get your copy today.

The word ‘pitch’ has such a bad rap. It’s sad, really. Because a pitch is your ticket to conversations that lead to more people engaged with you and your awesome work.

There’s a lot of similarity between people’s pitch glitches. They can, in fact, be categorized. I shared three reasons why bad pitches happen to good people a few weeks back. What I didn’t tell you was what to do about all this bad pitching.

In Pitchfalls: why bad pitches happen to good people (a FREE sneak peak), I share the top five reasons that people stumble when delivering a pitch. I explain why it happens and, most importantly, how to fix it.

I wrote the eBook knowing it would be read by busy people–people like you who want to making the world a better place, have a great pitch to help you do it, but can’t quite find the time to make it happen. You can dramatically improve your pitch in less than 10 minutes. So can your staff and board. Really, you can. 

For those of you who can’t wait to know what the top five Pitchfalls are, here you go.

  1. You sound like  a robot
  2. You talk about yourself
  3. You talk too much
  4. You use jargon
  5. You sound like a talking tagline
If any of these sound familiar (or intriguing), buy your very own copy of Pitchfalls and get the full scoop!


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.


Sparking conversations vs. elevator pitching

elevator pitch, conversations,
What conversations will you spark today?

When we sit down to craft our ‘elevator pitch’, we generally ask ourselves: “What do I want people to know about me and my organization?”

That’s the wrong question.

The right question is: “What words can I use to spark conversations that will make my community better, stronger and more vibrant?”  

Your elevator pitch is a gateway to a better world. Every time you talk to someone about your work, it’s an opportunity to spark a conversation about building that better world.

Are you building a better world by ending poverty, hunger or bullying? How about world-class theater or breath-taking sculpture? Or maybe your better-world convos center around sustainability, transportation and housing?

If you focus solely on you and your organization rather than sparking a conversation, you’re missing out on the building-a-better-world boat.

So ask yourself: what conversations will I spark today?

“Did you just tagline me?!”

Elevator pitch, tagline, messaging
Don’t tagline someone at a cocktail party!

Last week at the Idaho Nonprofit Conference, I did a session on Mastering Your Message. We talked about the difference between messaging that is read vs said.

For instance, an elevator pitch is said and taglines are read. That’s why when you use your tagline as your elevator pitch, you end up “taglining” someone.

That’s right, thanks to an awesome workshop attendee, “to tagline” is now a verb. They were asked to share their current elevator pitch with their neighbors and as I wandered by one group, a woman looked up and said, “I think I just got taglined!”

Being taglined is no fun. It’s kind of creepy.

Take the American Cancer Society. They have a humdinger of a tagline: The official sponsor of birthdays. Now imagine you’re at a cocktail party chatting with someone who worked for them and they said: “I work for the American Cancer Society. We’re the official sponsor of birthdays.” Um, okay. Good for you. (Go away, creepy person who is coming on way to strong. That’s what you’d really be thinking.)

If you’re working on your messaging, start by perfecting your elevator pitch, then tackle your website copy and other social properties, and then your tagline. In that order.

Everyone wants to come up with the snazzy tagline. It’s way fun. And that’s why most organizations start there. But it’s much smoother, and completely un-creepy, to transition from messaging that is said to messaging that is read.

Have you ever been taglined?



Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?