Writing mission statements - one of your favorite activities, right? Something you wish you could tackle more often, right? Most people will not race to sign up for writing mission statements. And yet, we know that a [strong mission statement is a powerful, galvanizing thing. And that when people unite to accomplish a clear mission, great things happen.
Most of the pain involved in writing mission statements comes from forgetting why mission matters and how people respond to a compelling mission. The lament of teams writing mission statements isn't "we have no idea what we do or why." The lament is "it's tough to distill what we do and why into a few words that feel just right."
Here are 4 key goals to pursue when you want to communicate your identity and direction in a way that resonates.
Our hearts and minds are fickle. They simply won't rally for things that don't sink right in.
Consider this mission statement:
“It is our challenge to continually revolutionize next-generation opportunities to allow us to endeavor to synergistically utilize cost effective content.”
Ouch. This is hard to read. And even after you commit the energy, it doesn’t say anything useful. Thankfully, it’s also fake. It comes from a mission statement generator that combines business buzzwords at random to make silly, empty missions.
Readability is the most basic requirement. It will be almost impossible to speak to hearts and minds if your language is unclear. Figure out what you want to say to hearts (which listen for the language of values) and minds (which respond to the language of beliefs).
Measure readability by considering things like words per sentence and syllables per word. One study collected mission statements from Fortune 500 companies and evaluated readability scores4. As the authors put it, readability scores were “abysmally low.” So be wary of emulating mission statements.
Use the simplest and most direct language possible. Writing in a colorful and impactful way is great. However, avoid getting too abstract and idealistic. Overdoing it will backfire and leave people unsure what you’re actually saying.
Using insider jargon can exclude people. Consider the audience you want to reach. Customers or investors will struggle to identify with statements that use words or phrases they don’t know. Jargon is acceptable when you know that every potential stakeholder uses it. However, it’s best to craft your statements more broadly to ensure that more people feel included.
Tip: Read your draft statements aloud. Ask others for feedback. Does it make sense? Is it reasonably easy and pleasant to read? If not, go back to your core message and think about simpler, more direct ways of saying it.
Statements that sink into minds and hearts will make a stronger, more lasting impact on your organization. Employees faced with difficult decisions need core values to pop effortlessly into their thoughts and instincts as a guide. A long and winding paragraph can be informative, but a 1-2 sentence statement is much more likely to stick with people.
Choose every word and phrase with care. Set a length limit to help you be more thoughtful and intentional with your words. Say only what you need to say and nothing more.
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath offer six principles to make ideas more memorable3. They’re organized into the acronym SUCCESs, so ideas should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, stories. In mission statements, focusing on the core idea (simplicity) and being emotional are common ways to improve memorability, but try experimenting with others as well.
Tip: Focus on your core message, and set aside everything else. Aim for catchy phrasing that is easy to remember and apply.
“A good mission statement does more than simply include the needed components; it is also inspiring and motivating1.”
Even when people agree with you, delivering your message in a flat, dull tone can dampen their approval. People who react positively to your mission statement will be more likely to support your company. As a bonus, inspiring statements are more memorable too.
Subtle word choices make a big difference in motivating potential. A manufacturing business could say they ‘make’ something or they ‘craft’ it. Crafting suggests a level of care that making does not. It paints a more vivid picture. It suggests a story that goes beyond careless or automatic assembly.
Tip: Identify which parts of your work excite team members. Then let that passion inspire words. Think about how a poet might write about what you do. Use a thesaurus to find more interesting and inspirational words.
“You discover core ideology by looking inside. It has to be authentic. You can't fake it2.” Though you want to inspire, avoid grandiose language. Portray your company honestly. Authentically reflect who you are. When you're painting an aspirational vision, make it a believable extension into the future.
Consider the prior example of ‘craft’ vs. ‘make.’ If the actual product is cheap and made without much care, then using ‘craft’ will erode trust rather than inspire support. Use unique language to convey meaning and emotion. Just choose your five-dollar words wisely, and don’t forfeit clarity or truth.
Tip: Reflect on whether your draft statements feel true to who you are. Do your words match elicit how employees and customers actually experience your organization?
Identifying your purpose, values, vision, and strategy is extremely valuable. Distill a core message that captures your identity and direction in words that are readable, memorable, inspirational, and authentic. Keep at it long enough to successfully capture the passion and essence that make your organization unique.
Write the story for employees and customers who choose to participate in it. That will transform your effort from dull website and wall filler into a driver of motivation, meaningfulness, and alignment.