That’s 7.14 tweets to explain to a complete stranger who you are and the essence of your being. It’s also the writing prompt for a medical school in New York that my friend Freddy Kingsley is applying to. Not to be confused with Freddie Kingsley—a character in a chick flick. (Okay, so that’s not my friend’s real name, but he asked that I change his name and replace it with the name he always wanted. Though he was disappointed to find out that a fictional Freddie Kingsley already exists.)
Needless to say, applying for med schools has been daunting, and Freddy was stuck, overwhelmed by the space limitations for a seemingly limitless topic. And somehow I was roped in to help him define himself in 1000 characters or less.
The challenge with this kind of prompt is that it’s too open-ended given the length restrictions. How do you boil down the layers, complexities and experiences of a person into 1000 characters? Freddy likes to surf, is obsessed with the band Mumford & Sons and is extremely close to his family. All true, but does this med school really care about that? That’s questionable. Yes it’s nice, but does that make him a better candidate than the thousands of other applicants vying for a ticket to doctor-hood? What would make Freddy stand out without being cliché? What would show how Freddy is different without being too random? In other words, what the prompt is really asking is…
What about you matters?
But the implied follow-up question asks, Why should we care?
I think most nonprofits are struggling with the same challenge of defining themselves. How do you wrap up a multitude of good works into one clear understanding of what makes your organization exceptional? And on top of that, how do you justify your cause…why is it relevant? Today, there are thousands of nonprofits doing good work in their local communities and in society at large. And they are all competing for the charitable dollar when many Americans are striving to earn income dollars.
In Freddy’s case, we had to balance the who of Freddy Kingsley with the what that makes up who he is — sharing the qualities that make Freddy, Freddy, AND the ways in which Freddy’s character has been developed and proven.
And in the case of nonprofits, whether it’s a piece of marketing or your elevator speech, you’ve got to have a focused definition that shows how your organization is both exceptional AND relevant.
So from Freddy Kingsley and me here is…
How to define your organization (in 1000 characters/7 tweets or less):
- Ask yourself, What are the five values, qualities and projects that energize the people at your organization? (109 characters)
Be sure to get different perspectives to meld into one distinct definition of your organization. But beware: if you stick to the usual suspects (cough marketing, cough development) you run the risk of overlooking some of your most important assets (for example, financial transparency). In Freddy’s case, he wanted to showcase his strongest qualities that he would draw on not only as a person, but also as a future doctor. So he listed some on his own and got some honest input from friends.
- Connect the dots. (20 characters)
If you were to write one sentence about each of the five things, would you notice any common threads? How are these ideas related? Which of these things are not like the others? Are some redundant? Freddy noticed that most of the qualities he listed were developed through sailing lessons and that became the framework for his personal definition. Anything that didn’t quite fit got scrapped.
- Tier your thoughts into a hierarchy of categories: Need to know and nice to know. (85 characters)
When Freddy learned how to sail, he developed a deeper relationship with his father, but that piece was steering Freddy’s definition off course. So we didn’t mention his father at all, but rather we dove deeper into the lessons his father taught him — discipline, patience, and effective communication — qualities and skills that apply to practicing medicine. Sentimentality, though endearing, wasn’t a top-tier quality for Freddy’s audience, so we let it go to keep his definition straightforward and focused.
- Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. Cut through the jargon. No inside baseball terms. (77 characters)
Freddy may know what tacking is, but I don’t. I do understand what it means to read the wind and assess the waves. If I need to use Wikipedia you’ve lost me. Unless you’re certain that every person who reads your materials or hears your pitch has enough background information on the issues you talk or write about, assume a baseline of zero awareness about your cause.
- Less is more, so ditch the frou-frou. (37 characters)
Seriously, parse it down. If you add more to it, you have to be willing to get rid of the same amount, if not more. This is where Freddy’s twitter skills came in handy. Freddy only had so much space — he had to make it count! (Don’t forget, this is true of time too.) Need more help? Check out our post on overwriting.
- Make it easy to read and remember. (38 characters)
If it’s being printed, make it easy to scan. Use bullets if possible to break down your most important points. If you’re speaking to a group of people, call out the number of things they should remember as you introduce them. In Freddy’s definition, he bolded the most important words and used everyday language. We wanted those folks in admissions to be able to effortlessly repeat who Freddy is.
- Take the time to do this with excellence. (45 characters)
You only get a first impression once. Which is what I had to remind Freddy whenever he got frustrated. Why should 1000 characters take this long? he lamented. Stay the course. Keep revising. Step away when you need to, but don’t settle for showing your audience anything else than who you are and what you stand for.
How do you prevent yourself from being just another fish in the sea? Share your thoughts with me! I’d love to hear about your experiences and any tips and lessons you’ve learned.