We’ve all been there. You write and revise and rewrite. You delete. You take a different path, switch the metaphor. The words themselves start to lose meaning, and you forget why you were writing in the first place. You might even question your organization’s value. It is profoundly frustrating.
And it’s trickier if you are writing for a company seeking to create impact. The stakes feel higher. It’s more personal. It is like bragging on your children. You know it’s important to do, but it always feels a little awkward.
I have worked with dozens of impact companies struggling to articulate their vision. But the work feels personal because I also write for an impact company. I frequently become frozen with self-doubt. To understand what was happening, I uncovered some of our recent client work to see what they struggled with specifically. I found five reasons. Once we know our barriers, we can understand how to overcome them.
You may be concerned that making money will cheapen your impact. Or, you may be comfortable making money, but not with using your impact as a marketing tool. Either way, we all feel the tension between profit and purpose. But, this isn’t the article where I argue that profit and purpose aren’t at odds but are complimentary (it is true, though). This is where I acknowledge that talking about them both can be tough. It’s a thin line to walk.
We have a client that operates Substance Use Disorder clinics. The founders have compelling personal stories of bouncing from clinic to clinic, desperately trying to regain their lives. They are happy to use the narrative if it helps other people. But, as individuals in recovery, the last thing they want to do is use their story selfishly. They have to speak in concrete terms, not over-promise, and be honest.
Where the conflict above was primarily internal, there is an external companion. Some industries are more likely to have companies making false or misleading claims. In these situations, you will be concerned that any strong statement will lump you in with these companies. This doesn’t have to be the case.
We have another client who grows, distills, and sells CBD products. It’s a young industry with changing regulations. Companies are making exaggerated claims about the beneficial properties of their products. And companies are making misleading claims about the purity of their products. Because our client controls the process from the seed to the bottling, they know what is and isn’t in their products. They see the hyperbolic marketing language. They separate themselves from their competition by being transparent about their process and pointing to research to make claims.
This can happen in two different ways. One, the culture of impact is in place, but the business isn’t yet there to support. We often find ourselves in this position at Bullhorn. At times, we knew who were and where we wanted to go but didn’t have the clients to support it yet. The language felt like we were overselling internally. It can take a toll on morale. We combatted this by switching the conversation. We talked about ourselves clearly and acknowledged that we were on the path to becoming the company we want to be.
The second way is when the business supports the impact claims, but the culture of the company isn’t aligned. We have a client who recently become a B Corp. They saw the business case. They were saving a ton of money by paying closer attention to their environmental impact. They were developing stronger relationships with their customers. But, some of their employees weren’t values-aligned with the culture. The company needed to show them that creating impact wasn’t soft-hearted idealism, but that it made for better business. They were concerned the messaging would sound misrepresentative of where they were. So, we had to search for common ground.
Some impact companies are out front seeing things and making connections that the rest of us can’t. The threat is that when talking about it, it will sound, well, a little off the wall. But, aren’t most big ideas? It feels even truer for impact companies. The disruptions are often in the things most people take for granted and don’t even realize that they need to change.
One of our clients didn’t like the idea that the average person who bought produce at the grocery store was buying something that spent weeks in transit, grown in conditions illegal in the United States, and burning tons of diesel in the process. They decided to build large-scale, high-tech greenhouses. The challenge was how to articulate this vision without making it sound like a creepy science experiment. We related the idea to something the purchasers already understood: Farming Now.
This is common and pernicious. We get so in the weeds with what we are doing that we assume our experience is more or less like everyone else’s experience. That is untrue. If you are reading this article, you are thinking about the world differently than most people.
I liken it to the mixed-use trail near me. It feels good to ride my bike. Because I am in a good mood, I wave to other people on the trail. Because of the reinforcement and sense of camaraderie, we are encouraged to get out there to exercise more and bring others along. Was the act of riding my bike special? Not in and of itself, but I shared the path, I acknowledged someone else, and that kindness could have long-running ripple effects. Talking about your impact is the same. It may feel bland to you, but it’s not. It can be quite inspiring.
In writing about the barriers that we face with our clients, I developed the following checklist that will give you confidence to talk about your organization in the best way.
+ Is the tone and content in alignment with your values?
+ Does it reflect your culture?
+ Have you removed hyperbole or exaggeration?
+ Is it stated as simply as possible?
+ Does a third party verify your claims?
+ Does it feel honest to you and your team?
+ Does it feel like an extension of your brand?
+ Does it feel unique to your brand, or like you could use it for any other business?