“Rinse and re-use” should not apply to something as important as the expression of your enterprise and its future.

The words for genuinely new ideas don’t exist anymore in corporate speak. Tweet This Quote

One common misconception among entrepreneurs is the belief (because they’re told repeatedly) that they need to capture their business idea—however radical—in the structured and declarative statements called mission, vision and values. I know this because I used to tell clients the same thing.

Some years ago, I went to Cairo to lead a three-day workshop for Egyptian entrepreneurs and included the glossary below as a way to shed light on the confusion around the many forms these elements can take. I share these definitions in the same spirit with which people admit to a time in their lives when they didn’t recycle.

  • Mission: Why you exist, your organization’s purpose in life.
  • Vision: Where you want to take the company, what you want to accomplish, how you want to impact the marketplace.
  • Goals/Objectives: The specific, detailed accomplishments that are necessary in order to make your vision a reality.
  • Value Proposition: The core benefit that you offer clients, partners, etc. Can change with each customer segment.
  • Positioning: The underlying platform for marketing and communications. It distinguishes a company from the competition by articulating unique strengths and values.
  • Strategy: The creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.
  • Character: The personality of your company. Defines the experience that a customer or employee will have with it.
  • Elevator Pitch: Fast answer to the question: “Who are you?”
  • Tagline: Evocative, creative, emotional shorthand for your mission or elevator pitch…depends on communications need and context. Frequently changes every few years.

Make sense? I hope not.

First of all, there are just too many pieces—crowded footprints from thousands of marketing consultants making themselves important by inventing new paths to follow.

By following a formula, we become formulaic, and that simply won’t work for an entrepreneur. Tweet This Quote

Second, these are the prescriptions that served the old industrial age model and made it the mechanical monster it is today. Strict rules about what and how to speak shave off all the rough edges that make ideas interesting and audible to us. It’s as if all the worn structures and tired jargon can’t get traction in our brains. The words for genuinely new ideas don’t exist anymore in corporate speak, if they ever did. It’s like trying to express yourself deeply in a language you don’t know.

By following a formula, we become formulaic, and that simply won’t work for an entrepreneur. New ideas need new words to express them—and if fresh, powerful words are not found, they will not be heard, they will not become infectious, and they will never become reality.

What you need and should not leave home without is a promise—a clear, simple statement that explains what you will do, how it’s different, why it matters and to whom.

Strict rules about how to speak shave off all the rough edges that make ideas interesting. Tweet This Quote

My definition of a promise is: The commitment a business makes to each of the people who interact with it. It’s a promise that defines what is unique about the company and what people will get for their money and their time, whether they are a customer, partner, investor or employee.

A promise is active. It’s what you commit to do and be. Once you make the promise, the behavior needed to make it true becomes obvious and actionable. It may be hard to trust this notion before you do it, but when you have it, all the decisions you need to make flow from it, in the most organic way.

One of the most famous examples is from the Ritz Carlton hotels: “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”

This is a lesson in brevity. In seven words, it sets a standard that is known and can be measured. It says what they do, for whom, and how it’s different. It tells employees how they need to treat guests, and it tells guests what they can expect in quality and service. It doesn’t bother to say they’re in the hospitality business because that’s not what makes them unique.

If you find your own voice and language as an entrepreneur, you will have a set of words that gives your idea life. Tweet This Quote

Doing this well is neither easy nor simple. Most of the time it requires the help of someone who can see you and what you want to do objectively. It’s easy for people to know what they’re good at and what they are burning to accomplish, but it’s extremely difficult for them to tell how they’re different from everybody else. It’s even harder to self-edit all the details that feel so important to include but in reality are just the stakes of whatever game you’re in.

However you get to it, if you find your own voice and language that is meaningful to you, you will have a set of words that, like a poem, makes your heart beat faster and gives your idea life for all to see. C.S. Lewis said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

In my experience, entrepreneurs intuitively know this. They’re excited by the challenge of finding the words that will not only capture their passion, but also set it free. It will. It’s true. I promise.


A version of this post originally published in May 2014. It has been updated and reposted to inspire further conversation.

About the author

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.