I was never very good at science growing up, but I loved nature and always had a strong interest in the environment. I love my job at The Nature Conservancy in Iowa because I get to work with awesome scientists every day and do what I do best—write about it.
My main problem: Our mission and work is incredibly complex, and people with science degrees are usually not the best at explaining it.
I don’t think this problem only exists in the conservation sector. I think all nonprofits struggle with simplifying our elevator speech. After all, we do SO much, and we want to make sure people understand just how much we do and why it’s important. We have to keep in mind that while we might be incredibly passionate about clearing trees on a prairie to make suitable habitat for prairie chickens… most people aren’t.
I mean, your eyes just kind of glazed over reading that sentence didn’t they?*
Often, the language nonprofits use is overloaded with jargon. When I first started working at the Conservancy the “hot phrase” was ecosystem services. I understood what the phrase meant, but I had an inkling most people did not. But everyone understands the phrase nature’s benefits, which is what ecosystem services means.
After a one year process, our marketing and development department (read: my boss and me) managed to take all of the jargony, complex science language we used and condense it into a simple, easy to read document that speaks to issues all Iowans can relate to. It wasn’t an easy process, and there were a lot of days I wanted to pull my hair out, but I learned a lot about how to simplify a nonprofit’s pitch.
Be Short. Be Succinct. Be Engaging.
Use simple, straightforward language and get to the point. As a writer, I tend to use a lot of unnecessary words because I think it makes me sound smarter. Quit doing that! I often write things in as few words as possible, to the point where it sounds incredibly ugly, and then add in words as needed. We all know we don’t have a lot of time to catch someone’s attention before they’re back to texting or checking Instagram. If people don’t understand why you’re work is important for their lives you will lose them.
Have Your Best Friend, or Your Mom, or Your Grandma Read Your Pitch
Sometimes I write something I think is brilliant and easy to understand, only to take it to my mom and find out she doesn’t get it. My mom doesn’t know anything about conservation, and that’s exactly why she’s a great person to edit my text. She forces me to simplify the language for the broadest appeal.
You Might Get Some Backlash From Your Coworkers… Listen, But Stay Firm
When our philanthropy and marketing department started going through the process of simplifying our language we upset a lot of people. We held an editorial meeting where we asked everyone on our staff to answer several questions about how they talk about our work. Not surprisingly, there are things some staff members say that I would never put down on paper. We recognized that some staff members were stressed because they thought they would have to read this elevator speech verbatim—which isn’t what we were going for at all! When we explained that we were writing a document that would appeal to the every Iowan—and that the every Iowan didn’t understand the complexities of our work but still wanted the benefits—our staff got on board. And when they saw how simple and clear the final document was, everyone thanked us.
*If the answer to that question was no, then we should probably hang out.