For Social Impact, Unchain Your Words

Adapted from the recently-released book,The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur by Jonathan C. Lewis.

Social change requires compassion. Social change requires community, courage and competency. And, most certainly, social change requires good communication.

Words persuade, inspire, challenge, question, educate, infuriate and inflame. Words motivate colleagues, convince financial backers and win over naysayers. Indispensably, words are how social entrepreneurs appeal to the conscience of the community. Words are how we communicate our beliefs, share our vision and engage others. Yet when it comes to talking about our work, words often fail us.

Plain speaking is not a social sector rule. It’s not even a cultural norm. As change agents, we are engulfed in gobbledygook and the poison pills of jargon, acronyms and buzzwords — a fusillade of shopworn words and vocabulary traps. Never in the history of humankind have so many words created so little social justice.

In a utopian world, our ideas, policy knowledge and heartfelt values would be judged on their merits, separate and apart from our communication skills. Our social innovations and moral imaginations would triumph over bad presentations, bad pitches and bad grammar. “It doesn’t seem fair that an idea’s worth is judged by how well it’s communicated, but it happens every day,” writes Michael Bungay Stanier in End Malaria.

The hard truth is, if you and I communicate poorly, we trivialize and sideline what we stand for. Fuzzy communications sabotage our opportunities to win converts and collaborators. If my dazzling idea is dead on arrival, there is a good chance that I killed it with a bad explanation. When I fail my cause with crappy communications, I feel the opposite of awesome. I’ve let myself down and, worst of all, I’ve let down what and who I care about.

Without good communication, we can’t give each other constructive feedback, let alone support each other’s work. Everything we care about depends on you and I understanding each other. Former CIA director Michael Hayden sets the bar at the perfect height: “You aren’t just responsible for what you say; you’re responsible for what people hear.”

As social justice advocates, we’re also responsible for making damn certain that words aren’t an excuse to shut people up, to silence or exclude them, to disrespect them (except in the case, of course, of people who have earned our disrespect, but let’s talk about that some other time). We have to remember that, even if someone doesn’t express themselves with proper grammatical construction, everyone deserves to be heard.

Clear communication requires fierce honesty and unflinching self-awareness. Lazy writing reveals my lazy thinking. “The process of crafting your message not only helps convince others of your worth, but also can help you clarify your work for yourself,” says Mark Jordahl, Founder of Conservation Concepts. “If you have trouble communicating why you do things a certain way, maybe it’s a sign that you have to look more closely at your model. Maybe you are doing the wrong things!”

Some of our worst writing and greatest communications misfires occur in our business plans. If you want to ruin your day, read a social venture business plan. The number of deadly-dull, substandard business plans is really quite astonishing.

“What’s wrong with most business plans?” asks Harvard Professor of Business Administration William Sahlman in ‘How to Write a Great Business Plan’. “Most waste too much ink on numbers and devote too little to the information that really matters to intelligent investors. As every seasoned investor knows, financial projections for a new company — especially detailed, month-by-month projections that stretch out for more than a year — are an act of imagination. An entrepreneurial venture faces far too many unknowns to predict revenues, let alone profits. Moreover, few if any entrepreneurs correctly anticipate how much capital and time will be required to accomplish their objectives. Typically, they are wildly optimistic, padding their projections. Investors know about the padding effect and therefore discount the figures in business plans.”

Famed entrepreneur Steve Blank in The Startup Owner’s Manual argues, “Business plans rarely survive first contact with customers. No one, besides venture capitalists and the late Soviet Union, requires five-year plans to forecast complete unknowns.” Our business plans need projections, but you and I should acknowledge, humbly, that they are speculations and estimations — not ironclad certainties.

A challenge for us, as social business plan writers, is that the words we have at our disposal to ‘wow’ a potential impact investor are devalued and flabby. There are only so many variations for describing a societal problem and our transformative, disruptive solution for it. It’s entirely likely that our reader has read every possible hyperbole about our ‘game-changing, transformative social impact’.

Moreover, “a social business plan should not deviate from a traditional business plan. One of the biggest mistakes aspiring social entrepreneurs make is over-emphasizing the social part,” charges Tracey Turner, Co-Founder of Copia Global. “Forget you are a social business for a second. Then, once [you have written a pure business plan], add one section that articulates the social value of your business. But don’t let that section pervade the whole business plan.” With enthusiasm, I agree with her.

In simple, declarative English, our business plans should explain how we intend to earn money by having social impact. State what is known and what is unknown, what will be done next and by whom, and at what cost. If we hide ourselves behind a fortress of fat words, obscure messaging and messy numbers, well, just remember the words of Alain de Botton in Religion for Atheists: “There is no justification for delivering world-shaking ideas in a mumble.”

In other words, write like the coherent, compelling social entrepreneur that you know you are. Unchain your words to reflect your best, toughest, leanest, smartest, most-disciplined self!

Jonathan C. Lewis is a life-long social justice activist and accomplished social entrepreneur. He is the founder of MCE Social Capital and the Opportunity Collaboration, and co-founder of Copia Global. He is a trustee of the Swift Foundation and general partner of Dev Equity.

Jonathan may be contacted at his website: His twitter handle is @SoCentClinic. Hashtag: #UnFinSocEnt