Having just finished a mission statement exercise, I appreciate how hard it is to create gems like:
“Changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators.”
- O’Reilly Media
“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Both are pretty evocative (and, for the record, no longer current). But they still use the kind of abstract language that Carmen Simon warns about in her book Impossible to Ignore, a guide to designing attention-catching content. The problem? Abstract language is easy to forget. Which got me thinking: What if companies supplemented these mission statements with concrete examples?
I realize that a firm’s products and services are supposed to be the manifestation of these values. That everything a company does and sells is what brings to life its aspirational claims. But there’s often, I find, a gap between statement and action. What I’m envisioning is a way to liven up mottos by pairing them with specific examples.
For example, O’Reilly could showcase everything from its role in the birth of the current “maker” movement to some of the heartwarming creativity testimonials I used to get from Missing Manual readers. (If O’Reilly was feeling particularly self-reflective, it could also tell the potentially apocryphal story of its role in the rise of online porn — thanks to the many webmasters whose shelves were lined with the company’s books.) Or Google could share the story of a specific teacher and his students learning in some particularly empowering way.
A simple link from abstract statement to concrete example could keep the design of the former nice and clean. Or even adding something like a tiny “eyebrow” link (“see how” or “want proof?”) could work. However it’s presented, the point here is to find ways to take what can often be generic and imbue it with meaning — and make it memorable. As Simon puts it, one of the best ways to do both is to “wrap abstract words in concrete contexts.”
Or as Frank Conroy, the head of my grad school writing program, used to harangue us: “the text must support the abstraction.” Frank, if you’re reading from that great writing stable in the sky: “yessir!”