False subjects. Camouflaged and weak verbs. Passive voice. Yikes. Too many leadership messages make the leader sound lofty in tone, vague and uninspiring. And yet simple changes in language can drastically change how a message reads. In this blog, we peak at strengths and weaknesses in four leadership messages in hopes you can apply the tips to your own.
Remove the jargon and provide specifics
In this CEO message from Allison Transmission, the writer gets off to a reasonable start with a compelling, active looking photograph. The rest of the message leaves me feeling confused and flat. Several sentences remain too long. Camouflaged verbs such as valuation, missing concrete nouns after demonstrative constructions like ‘this’ and empty words like ‘vocational’ also create vague messaging. Without contractions, the writer sounds too formal. Consider this edit of the first paragraph:
As a public company, we are responsible for driving our business forward to the benefit of all our stakeholders and providing our stockholders with a return on their investment commensurate with our valuation as a premier industrial company. This will only be accomplished by our continued focus on quality, reliability, durability, vocational value and customer service.
As a public, premier industrial company, our business must benefit all our stakeholders and provide our stockholders with a return on their investment. We can only accomplish these goals if we remain focused on what first secured our success: quality, reliability and customer service. (My editors trained me to cap a list at three items lest our readers space out. Cherry pick the best three.)
Even with this edit, the list seems generic, trite, and ubiquitous. Don’t all companies value quality, reliability, value etc.? Also, can we combine the first two sentences and just say: We must profit? Too direct? Regardless, we’ve hopefully clarified the message some with these changes and shortened some sentences to help retain our reader(s).
Remove redundancies and weak verbs
Target’s CEO also looks and sounds reasonably upbeat in this annual stakeholder message. The author also provides some specifics showing vs. telling the company’s mission and philosophy. But his editor might trim back more for a more powerful voice. Let’s compress and consolidate a few paragraphs.
Target has long been a place that brings people together vs. Target has long brought people together.
But as much as we value philanthropy, we also know community giving is just a start. We believe a truly successful company has a duty to not only support, but lift up the communities it serves vs.
But while we value philanthropy, we also believe a truly successful company must not only support, but lift up the communities it serves.
Remain clear and motivational
In her brief, three paragraph message, CEO of Girls Who Code (Reshma Saujani) does a nice job outlining her nonprofit and its hopes for change. In her message, Saujani also makes good use of compelling data to show vs. tell us her reach. Consider this opening paragraph:
Girls Who Code was founded five years ago with the belief that computing skills are a critical path to security and prosperity in today’s job market. What began with 20 girls in the heart of New York City, Girls Who Code will reach 40,000 girls in all 50 U.S. states by the end of this year.
We also see an excellent use of examples to show vs. tell us the range of girls she impacts:
The demographic of Girls Who Code is the demographic of our nation. From Clubs in rural Oklahoma, to homeless shelters in Massachusetts, to the country’s most prestigious private schools—girls everywhere are united by their passion to use technology to solve problems in their day-to-day lives and make a positive impact on the world.
Use an approachable tone and voice. Pick a theme and run with it
In this delightful message from Bill and Melinda Gates, the use of a quote up top provides a refreshing hook and helps establish a warm tone and voice:
Our friend and co-trustee Warren Buffett once gave us some great advice about philanthropy: “Don’t just go for safe projects,” he said. “Take on the really tough problems.”
The writer of this message successfully maintains the theme—tackling world poverty and health requires taking strategic risks—throughout the message. We also see an excellent use of specifics—showing vs. telling—what the foundation has done and providing enough detail for us to want to know more.
For each issue we work on, we fund innovative ideas that could help remove these barriers: new techniques to help farmers in developing countries grow more food and earn more money; new tools to prevent and treat deadly diseases; new methods to help students and teachers in the classroom.
My final compliment: The writer of this message uses varied sentence patterns (with varied lengths) to help hook and retain the reader. Look at this example showing a complete sentence followed by an inserted idea sentence with coordinate adjectives to seal things. Beautiful!
We’re both optimists. We believe by doing these things—focusing on a few big goals and working with our partners on innovative solutions—we can help every person get the chance to live a healthy, productive life.
My closing advice: If tasked with writing leadership messages, stay consistent with a theme, chunk and consolidate your ideas then remove weak verbs and any redundancies for brevity. Also, sound approachable and real. Be yourself. Use contractions where possible while avoiding vague constructions such as camouflaged verbs and jargon.