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Language

Killed by cancer.

Killed by cancer.

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Today would have been my friend Bridget's 30th birthday. Bridget was a team member of mine at Event 360. She died several months ago, and I was honored to deliver a eulogy at her funeral.

I have thought about Bridget a lot these last two months because I have been asked to speak about her often. At her funeral, at several conferences, and most recently at the Komen Leadership Conference a few weeks ago. I wanted to share a short experience.

During my presentation, I said something to the effect of “Like my mother, Bridget was killed by cancer.” Through the bright stage lights I could see the first few rows of the audience. Everyone stiffened when I said the word “killed.” I wasn’t going to make much of it but I saw that I had made everyone in the audience uncomfortable, so I paused for a moment.

I said, I use the word “killed” deliberately. I believe language is powerful; that language dictates our actions, and our actions shape the world. When we say someone “died of cancer” we are basically admitting that “dying of cancer” is an acceptable, normal state of affairs. We are saying, in essence, “people die for many reasons, and cancer is one of them.”

I disagree to the core of my soul. Cancer kills people. No one should die of it. If we harnessed enough of our money and technology and talent, we could make it preventable. I do not accept the worldview that it is a natural form of demise, and neither should you, because it isn’t true. 

Thank you Bridget, and thanks Mom, and thanks to my family friend Nick, and thanks to everyone out there who made the ultimate sacrifice to help the rest of us get our priorities in order. Bridget, more than anything, is a reminder to me of the work we have to do. And why it is worth doing.

 

An overused narrative.

Perhaps it is the fact that the 2012 presidential campaign is underway in earnest, along with its ongoing torrent of analysts parsing every word. Or perhaps it is because I find myself reading more and more business blogs that are really pseudo-marketing blogs. Or maybe it is simply that my subconscious vocabulary overflow meter has finally been triggered.

Whatever the reason, I find myself mechanically tearing clumps of hair out of my head whenever I hear what has to be the most abused, overused word of the year: “Narrative.”

We are told that the Romney campaign has to find a “narrative that resonates with Middle America,” while the Obama campaign needs to find a “narrative to respond to the Romney campaign.” Marketing leaders are looking for a “narrative that resonates with consumers.” The Olympics provided us with a “rich narrative of personal achievement.”

I finally reached my personal limit when I started seeing the word pop up in the nonprofit space. “We have to find a mission narrative that donors will respond to.” Honestly, when I hear nonprofit executives talking about a “mission narrative,” I want to scream. 

“Narrative” is a word for our times. It sounds grown-up. Sophisticated. But it is also, basically, meaningless. Is a narrative a story? A theme? A conversation? A pitch? A lie? It is a word that offers little but self-importance. It is a word designed to be deliberately vague. 

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not sure where “narratives” fit in politics, business, or particularly, the nonprofit world. Campaigns need platforms — a worldview that is supported by policies, not stories. Businesses need strategies — unique, defensible positions supported by operational activities that fit together. And nonprofits need a mission — a specific way of changing the world. 

It is important to be able to talk about how you can help change the world. But it is much more important to actually have a way to change the world, and then to go about doing it. It could be that your problems in fundraising (or marketing or selling or operating or campaigning) have less to do with the way you’re telling the story and more to do with the actual subject matter. Are you making a difference? Does your organization actually help people, directly and impactfully? If the answer is yes, we can find a way to powerfully tell the story. If the answer is no, then no amount of marketing, writing, editing, or creative manipulation will help you grow. 

Leave the narratives to the authors. The world needs help — what are you doing about it?