Purposeful Q+A: Layla Avila, CEO of Education Leaders of Color

Layla Avila is founder and CEO of Education Leaders of Color, or EdLoC, a new membership organization dedicated to elevating the leadership, voices, and influence of people of color in education and to leading more inclusive efforts to improve education. Layla is driven by a central value, a “belief that our work and education is about really being able to use education to create more thriving black and Latino communities, with a belief that education is a key way of ending generational poverty.” This focus is driven by personal experience and her own education, which “really changed the trajectory for my family.”

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Purposeful Q+A: Immigration Attorney Jorge Castañeda

Jorge Castañeda is a Denver-based immigration lawyer who recently found himself volunteering at citizenship drives, presenting at schools, talking to social workers at a local hospital, and teaching people about immigrant rights, particularly those who are undocumented. The 2016 election sparked his passion for sharing his expertise with the community:

I think for a long time, I did my job in a way that I did not see a greater purpose to it. You do the work, you do it well, but I didn’t see the potential impact of it all.

“The first thing that happened is I moved to Denver. Having practiced in Phoenix for a long time, I think Denver is a much more socially conscious city, in a lot of ways. That shifted my perspective a little bit.

“The second thing I did was participating in a fellowship called the Latino Leadership Institute, a yearlong fellowship at the University of Denver. It opened my eyes to ways that I could help the community and the power that I have as a bilingual immigrant attorney.

“Finally, I think the catalyst in a lot of ways was this last election. The idea that somebody is running for president and calls people of my nationality ‘rapist’ and ‘thieves;’ and the whole concept of immigrants being these beady-eyed people in the shadows who are just looking to steal and rape from poor, innocent Americans. That really opened my eyes even more. It solidified that I have a role to play. My skills need to be used for the greater good of immigrants.
Jorge Castaneda

Jorge was born near the border with Mexico and grew up in Nogales, Arizona. He spent about equal time in both countries during the first 18 years of his life.

One of the things that gives me the most joy is when someone is not an English speaker and I speak to them and they say, ‘Thank you. You talk to me like I talk, and you explain things well.’ They tell me I spoke to them in their language, and they feel comfortable with that. That’s the inspiration, to help people.
Jorge Castaneda

Because of his work, Jorge has access to the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, a place most of us haven’t seen. I asked him to describe it.

An immigration detention center is essentially a prison. There’s no other way to describe it. I think within the hierarchy of jails and prisons, they’re probably on the ‘better end,’ but it’s still a jail. It’s still a prison.

“It’s crazy and to me, to think that people spend so much time in those facilities without criminal charges. If your client is in custody, for example, here in the Colorado area, then you go to Aurora, and the courts are inside the prisons. Everything’s in the prison. It’s not anywhere you want to be permanently, that’s for sure.

Immigration is a complex issue, and certain nuances are difficult even for someone with Jorge’s knowledge of the law. Sometimes, the outcomes of immigration cases just feel unjust.

There are some cases where you think a person maybe doesn’t deserve to be a permanent resident for whatever reason: criminal convictions, this or that. But, because they have a wife or a child, they get some kind of benefit. Then you have other cases where someone has never been in trouble, and they haven’t done anything wrong. But there’s not much you can do because they don’t have the right relationship or the right situation.

“Immigration’s tough in that way. In criminal law, sometimes you can raise your fist and be the white knight and say, ‘I’m going to defend you. I’m going to work within the law, and we’re going to get you off. We’re going to go to a jury, and we’re going to present our evidence, and then we’re going to win.’ It doesn’t work that way in immigration. Immigration is very black and white, and you either qualify or you don’t.

“I try to treat everybody well. Clients can be incredibly difficult and have unrealistic expectations, but I would tell anybody who’s going to do work like this that you have to remember that they’re people that you’re helping. Sometimes we can lose track of that because, on the flip side, when you do this type of work, you also have to detach yourself to a certain extent. You’re dealing with lives, with people, with prison sentences in the case of criminal law, deportations, families being split up, families’ lives getting turned upside down.

Purposeful Q+A: Jason Ballard of TreeHouse

When tackling the world’s ecological and human health issues, Jason Ballard says “All the roads lead back to buildings and especially back to homes.”  

Jason founded his company TreeHouse to solve those problems: "We believe that it's urgent that homes become healthy and sustainable as fast as possible.” The Austin, Texas, company is “built upon the idea that all homes should be sustainable, beautiful, and healthy. We bring progressive products, great design, human-centered services, and leading edge technology under one roof.

What I mean by that is homes, by sector, are the largest user of energy. They are the second largest user of water behind agriculture. They are the largest user of renewable and non-renewable resources. Construction and maintenance of the buildings are the largest producers of waste. In America most of the toxins you’ll be exposed to in your own lifetime happens in your own home. I can keep going on, but I think you get the idea. It’s not like this is a problem here and there. It is existentially urgent that we find a way to shelter ourselves without ruining the world around us and ourselves.
Bald cyprus trees at Big Thicket National Preserve.

Bald cyprus trees at Big Thicket National Preserve.

Jason had what he calls a “Huckleberry Finn childhood” in the biodiverse Big Thicket of southeast Texas. “I would go out in canoes. I went hunting and fishing and walking around in the woods. I played outside a lot, and I fell deeply in love with the miracle that is life.

But the other thing I grew up near, and probably what Southeast Texas is most known for, is the highest concentration of tetra chemical refineries in America in an area that, not affectionately, I refer to as Mordor.

“So I grew up with this real dissonance in front of me: this profound sublime natural beauty but, right next to it, the most profound desecration of that beauty you can imagine.

At the time, Jason was young. He didn’t know about biodiversity or carbon. But he did sense something was wrong. So, he studied conservation biology in college, and at the same time, he pursued a path to be a priest. At just about the same time he was accepted into seminary, TreeHouse secured funding. Unsure which path to take, Jason met with his bishop to ask for his advice. He said: “Don't think about [TreeHouse] as something separate from your calling but try to live into that work as if this is what you were supposed to do, as if this is your best way to love and serve the world.”

So, Jason became the purposeful leader and CEO of TreeHouse. Though he was building a company, he modeled it on his morals, on “what animates my care for the world,” he says. Taking that approach can be risky in the for-profit space. But Jason believes that’s how business must be done — in a fearless way that reflects his purpose, both for his employees and his customers.

The underlying insight wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you can make a lot of money building sustainable, healthy homes.’ The underlying conviction is like, ‘We have to find a way to make homes healthy and sustainable.’ That gives you a certain kind of courage, I guess. A certain kind of helpful stubbornness.

A great example of that is from when we first opened and nobody would buy solar from us. In another business, perhaps you would have said, ‘Oh, all right. Well, that’s just not a category for us. We’re going to abandon it.’ Like Home Depot or Lowe’s or something. But for us it was like, ‘No. We have to get solar panels on homes.’ We went back to the drawing board, despite the data, and found a way. Now solar is our number one category in the business. It’s a baseline conviction about the way things should be, which makes us hang in there even when the data says, ‘You should move along.’

While he has a deep commitment to sustainability, Jason recognizes it isn’t yet mainstream. TreeHouse has found success because it appeals to a convergence of trends and interests.

When we first opened the doors, I was younger and more naïve than I am now. We thought, ‘Man, this is just so profoundly the right thing to do that people will obviously get it and they’ll just beat a path to our door.’ In fact, that’s not what happened. The early days were rough. We learned that most people don’t wake up thinking about how to make their homes healthier and sustainable.

They do, however, think about their homes a lot. If you watch the Pinterest phenomenon, if you watch the phenomenon of all these home improvement shows, it’s very obvious that people care a ton about their homes. That makes a lot of sense, right? It’s your most valuable investment. It’s where you make your lives. So we really quickly realized that we had to align the problems TreeHouse cares about with the problems that homeowners care about.
TreeHouse kitchen remodel.

TreeHouse kitchen remodel.

That gets back to the first principles; what is a home for? Why did the first Neanderthals move into a cave? It wasn’t to be more sustainable. The most sustainable thing you could do was to keep sleeping on the ground. You have a home for comfort and safety, primarily. And then over time, the home has become your arena of high self-expression. We realized that to make health and sustainability desirable, we had to cook them up to comfort, safety, and self-expression. Healthy sustainable homes had to be the safest, most comfortable, most beautiful homes at the same time.

Between his business and raising a family, Jason renews his sense of purpose by setting aside time for silence and prayer.

The other thing I do is I try to and I also encourage all my employees to regularly reconnect themselves with nature. I go running and fish. I try to get outside as often as possible. I often joke with my wife — I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan, and I don’t know if you know the story, but Frodo has to leave the Shire to save the Shire. He never gets to go back permanently. So, in order to save the wild and natural world, I’ve had to move to the city and work in an office most of the day. But it is important for me that I get back to the Shire from time to time to remind myself of those places and their beauty.

“And I encourage my employees to do the same thing because we work in a retail store. I mean, it’s easy to forget the trees and the water and the birds and the bees and what they mean for us. I encourage people and I regularly get back in touch with those things.
A walk through Big Thicket.

A walk through Big Thicket.

Jason has one last piece of advice for the budding purpose-drive social entrepreneur.

Whatever you do, you have to be great at it. Your purpose is not enough. Or a better way to say it is your purpose doesn’t excuse bad work. What I have noticed around a lot of other social entrepreneurs is there’s this sense that the purpose can carry all of the water. But in the rough and tumble world of business, you still have to do great work. I’ve seen so many people with good ideas, but it’s like, ‘You’re coffee is actually really bad. I appreciate that it’s shade grown but it’s bad coffee.’ Same thing with electric car. It’s great that it’s electric, but it only goes 85 miles. A purpose doesn’t excuse bad work.

Purposeful Q+A: Angela Cobián, Organizer + School Board Candidate

Angela Cobián calls hers “a truly unique Colorado story.” She is from Denver by way of Mexico. Her parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s and, benefitting from President Reagan’s amnesty, they stayed, worked, and built a family. They first lived in Arleta, California, in a three bedroom, one bathroom house. She remembers:

 

"One day, my dad heard from our next-door neighbor, who was an immigrant from Guatemala, that there were lots of jobs in Colorado because of construction. Our neighbor and my dad went to Colorado in the late '90s. They slept out of their found jobs, and came back to California with U-Hauls. I still remember that the U-Haul had just one seat, so it was my Dad, my Mom, my brother, me, and my little sister (who was a baby at the time) on my Mom's lap.

I remember making the drive from California to Colorado and going through the Eisenhower Tunnel. I looked outside the window and saw snow for the first time. That is my first vivid memory of Colorado! Then, we went to the apartment that my Dad had found in front of a K-Mart. That's how we started our lives here in Colorado. I started my schooling in Kindergarten and then I chose to go to college in Colorado."

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Purposeful Stories: A roundup of Q+A's with inspiring leaders from the first half of 2017

purposeful leaders

Education. Women’s issues. Art. Advocacy and activism. This work - and the people behind it - that's what Purposeful is all about.

I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing a number of purpose-driven leaders over the last several months, and I want to take a moment to share some highlights. Maybe you read these posts originally but missed a few details – maybe you’re discovering Purposeful for the first time (and if so, sign up to be a part of our community!). Either way, there are some lovely tidbits here for anyone who loves stories of leadership and purpose.

1) “Someone Saw Me”

CEO of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado Lauren Casteel is a leader who speaks with great clarity about purpose.Whatever one's purpose may be or whatever that may look like, I don't think it's about the arrival at a particular mountaintop or a particular title. I think if one's purpose is to be the best parent that one can be, or the best friend, or the best person who can demonstrate passion and compassion, then that is wonderful.” Lauren’s interview is jam-packed with wisdom. Read it all here.

2) A Values-Driven Career

Chris Watney spent many years as president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, only leaving recently to pursue counseling and coaching full time. Chris lives by her values, driven by a lifetime of experience that includes witnessing the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. She says, “The reason it was a tragedy was the impact on so many individuals. Also, its perpetrators were two people who were not born sociopaths, if you spend the time to figure out their stories. These were two people who believed they were doing something important. So where along the way did individuals miss opportunities to identify that and help them?” Read more here.

3) A High School Senior-Turned-Entrepreneur

Nigeria Segure-Watson is a high school senior in New York and board member at GripTape, where she was empowered to learn entrepreneurship -- and how to be successful. “To me, it just feels like I've grown so much since then. There were points that I wanted to give up... there were points where I felt like this was the best thing in the world. I truly wouldn't change any type of moment while doing the challenge.” Read her Q+A.

4) Let’s Grow Diamonds!

Pamela Norton-Shelpuk is founder and CEO of Liberti, a company that’s, among other things, developing American-made, “grown” diamonds. By doing this, she’s helping create direct competition with “blood diamonds” and their impact on people and the environment. She says, “We believe growing diamonds in this country appeals to women who are socially conscious, eco-conscious. We’re creating a whole new market in this country for a product that didn’t exist and does now: it’s an American cultivated diamond.” Her company is also helping refugees in America. Super inspiring stuff. Read more.

5) A Photographer with a Purpose

Photographer and multimedia artist Flor Blake has made striking portraits of Misty Copeland, Gloria Steinem and Cornel West, to name a few. In this Q+A, she shares how she got into photography in the first place – and the secrets behind her beautiful images. Flor says, “I always wanted to go and take a drawing class or a painting class or a photography class, and I never did because I thought I would never be good enough. So when I stopped working at the PR agency, I suddenly had all this time, and I thought, I’m going to go and take a photography class. I haven’t looked back.”

6) Community Advocate

Colorado Representative James Coleman calls himself “a voice for the community, a voice for people for people that don't always feel like they're being heard.” He recently finished out his freshman year at the Capitol on a variety of issues, including support for peace officers. He said, ”I was proud to support police officers, especially as a black man. There's a lot of folks who didn't think that a black man would introduce a piece of legislation to support law enforcement officers across the state given what's been going on across this country between the relationship with African-American folks and police officers. But I think it aligns with my values, and at the end of the day, that's why I've been blessed to be in a position of leadership - because of that mentality.” Read more about James’ inspiration and all the issues that matter to him.

7) Saving an Old Art

Tom Parson is CEO of Letterpress Depot, an old train depot in Englewood, Colorado, which will soon be home to a museum, library, and teaching space all about letterpress. The organization just finished a crowdsourcing campaign to raise money for the building’s restoration, which will be a place for Tom’s collection of letterpress ephemera, among other things. He is building a museum to ensure his passion lives on. “If I want to save this stuff, I've got to build a community that knows what it is, and actually owns it.”

8) The CEO with a Passion for Literacy

The daughter of a high school art teacher and librarian, Jeani Frickey Saito is now a vital advocate for early childhood literacy. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from her Q+A: “Early literacy is a non-negotiable now. A healthy Democracy relies on educated and engaged citizens. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s a national threat to have people who are disenfranchised because they can’t read written news or written information from candidates and elected officials. Think of the battles waged in the Middle East over construction of a school, and the battles for girls in developing countries to become educated. There’s no excuse for our country for not doing better, with all of the resources we have. “

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Purposeful Q+A: Tom Parson + Letterpress Depot

Tom Parson didn’t get into letterpress because he loved the look or feel of an imprinted page. He started out as a poet who wanted to share the written word on paper. Though the practicality of the craft drew him in, Tom has since developed a deep enthusiasm for letterpress that’s led him to collect thousands of typefaces, a library’s worth of books, and many printing presses. Now, to share his passion with the community, he’s restoring an old train depot in Englewood, Colorado, which will be home to a museum, library, and teaching space all about letterpress. 

Tom walked me through his home and workroom filled with letterpress supplies waiting for their new home at the Depot. He has a loving reverence for it all, which comes from what he calls the “mysterious” details of this classic craft. He says, “Every job becomes a different puzzle. Every time I touch this stuff, it's like new all over again.”

TOM:

When I first started, I took a workshop, and the teacher said, "Pick a poem to print, pick a typeface you like, and print a broadside with it." I sat there for about three days looking at the types and saying, "I don't know what I'm looking at. I don't know what this is. What's the difference? What am I seeing?" The subtlety of typefaces and type design is such that we don't have much language to describe it.

Somebody comes in and wants a wedding invitation. They say, "Well, I want something nice looking. I want something really pretty. That's too frilly... No, I don't like that. That's too bold." Bold? Frilly? What does that mean? Yet, when you see something in type, you know you like it, or you know you don't like it right away. It's a visual, emotional response, a gut reaction to it.

We have so many typefaces. I probably have 2,500 different fonts of metal type here, and 3,400 types of wood type. Every one is different, and you almost can't describe them to people….

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Purposeful Q+A: Lauren Casteel

Lauren Casteel

Lauren Casteel believes we all can be philanthropists. It’s part of her mission as the CEO of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, a role that is the latest in a career that includes more than two decades of philanthropy. Lauren is the kind of compassionate leader who speaks with great clarity about her purpose.

She says: “I've been blessed to find work to which I'm naturally suited, because it's relational, and I am relational by nature. I am an optimist by nature. I believe in possibility and promise and equity and inclusion, and I believe in leadership. So, to facilitate that in others has, in fact, been a recipe for happiness for me.”

Every inch of this conversation was a pure joy, and I encourage you to read it through to the end.

To start, I asked her about that recipe for happiness, to share an example of a project that has left her feeling energized.

LAUREN:

There are many, many stories that we could tell on the basis of our grantees, and I've had the opportunity to travel around the state, and when I travel around the state and I visit our regions fairly frequently, a couple of times a year, I try to visit the non-profits, the work on the ground as often as possible.

There's a video, April's video from a program in Fort Collins that's on our website, where she talks about, as a single parent, the support that she was given, and surrounded by community, and non-profits, and volunteers who were giving in many different ways. She is now an environmental engineer, and so the life that she now has for herself and for her son is very different than what she had imagined a few years ago.

And I asked the girls at Harrison High School, in one of the poorest districts in Colorado Springs, and they were very diverse, these 12 young women in this leadership program, how it was that they all came together. Even though they all came from poor, very diverse in every demographic you could possibly imagine, they realized that none of them could achieve without the other. They were collecting blankets for a homeless youth program. I said to them, "So, you're philanthropists. You're paying it forward. You're giving back." They were all surprised because I had asked them, "Do you know a philanthropist?" And their answer was, "Oprah!" which is what young people will often say; and I said, "No, you are. You're part of that next wave of philanthropy."

So, the stories go on and on.

KRISTINA:

When you graduated from school, what did you think that you were going to do and become?

LAUREN:

Oh geez. Throughout my life I've had different visions. When I was younger I wanted to be a jockey. True story. Well, the five-foot-eight of me was not inclined for that to happen. I went through a phase where I was really interested in law enforcement as well and thought about being a parole officer. Then I thought I could combine the two and I could be a horse patrol woman. Then I learned that I'd have to carry a gun. I thought it was just a PR job. I thought I'd just ride around in uniform and people would love the horses and I'd make them happy. So, that kind of didn't happen either. These are funny things.

There was a point in my life when I thought I would go into politics and be a state senator, a U.S. senator. In terms of my pursuit in education, I love language. I come from a family that loves reading, and so originally, English literature was my major, and then I switched to communications later on, and graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver. When I completed my degree and switched to communications, I was already working at a television station. I'd applied for a job for which I had no skills or experience, but the person who interviewed me took pity upon me. She was kind of fascinated. She said, "I honestly brought you in because I wanted to know who would apply for a job for which they had no skills or experience." She said it was very well written application, but it's not happening. Yeah, it was very funny. She became godmother of my oldest child.

But anyway, she offered me an opportunity to take an entry-level position and then to work my way back into the position for which I had applied, which I did. That position is where my passion for community really came to be. I had the pleasure of hosting two television shows and being an alternate host on a live daily show, and to do production as well. They were all community-focused, based on a requirement at the FCC in the 1970s to bring more community programming and diversity into media fields. So, I went from this station, then to public television as a producer, and again, continued that community track.

One of the things as I moved along the way was that I realized I didn't want to be a face. That was not what interested me. I mean, I loved being able to interview amazing people. It's fun being on air, but I really wanted to shape the conversation. So I moved more deeply into production when I moved over to public television, creating programs that were very well received and highly rated that talked about issues that otherwise had not really been talked about. Post-traumatic stress in Vietnam vets. We were early out on that. Issues related to persons affected different abilities. Just a wide variety of things.

From there, much to my surprise, someone saw me. Katherine Archuleta, who was in the mayor's office, they were looking for the first senior communications officer press secretary for the city and county of Denver. They invited me to apply. Again, I felt as though I was in a place where I was applying for something for which I had no skills, and yet there was no blueprint for what this position could be. The skills that I ultimately had that were of value were my voice, my understanding of community, a sense of team, a sense of sort of the core protocols, I guess. But we were all learning together. To be a part of that administration was exhilarating.

I made mistakes along the way. I saw Federico Pena not too long ago, and I mentioned one of my mistakes that has haunted me for years, and he didn't remember it, which made me really happy. Said, "You don't remember that headline?" He said no. I was like, "Great. I can let it go. I can let that one go."

But when I think about who and what I wanted to be, I literally never could have imagined what ended up being. I found a home in a field that I would never have imagined.

KRISTINA:

Do you still love horses?

LAUREN:

I do. I don't ride anymore. People are surprised to find out that there was actually a period of time in my life when I jumped horses. My father grew up in Kentucky. I used to spend my summers there, so there was something about the bluegrass state that just got in my blood.

KRISTINA:

Your father was a civil rights leader, and then your daughter, who just seems like the coolest young woman, is a painter in New York. Both work with purpose, and so do you. From your perspective, what can people do to create a family legacy of purpose-driven work?

LAUREN:

I have three amazing children that I adore. There's certainly more press about my daughter Jordan, but I think one of the things that has been important to me from my family, a fortune from my parents and from my grandparents is ultimately that we, whatever it may be, whatever it is that we may do, that we seek to bring good into the world. I grew up, and my immediate family was involved in the Unitarian Universalist church, starting in Atlanta in the 1950s. Very unusual for a black family to choose a Unitarian Universalist church as its home. But one of the things that I love about both that and as a consistent theme with the messages in my home was that it was value-driven. So, here I frequently quote Maya Angelou, that one moves from surviving to thriving with passion and compassion, humor, and style, generosity, and kindness. Those were kind of the core things for me.

So, I see that in each and all of my children in different kinds of ways, my sons and my daughter. I think all we can do as parents, so to be quite honest, I don't like to take credit or blame or anything, really. You raise individuals to simply be their best selves, whatever that may be, and you walk the journey with your children, whatever that may be. Each and every human being that I know ... That sometimes means you're walking up hills, or you're walking through valleys, or whatever it may be, but you just continue along the side. Whatever one's purpose may be or whatever that may look like, I don't think it's about the arrival at a particular mountaintop, or a particular title. I think if one's purpose is to be the best parent that one can be, or the best friend, or the best person who can demonstrate passion and compassion, then that is wonderful.

I happen to believe that regardless of one's identity, one's background, anything of that sort, that we all seek, that it is a human condition to find one's purpose and to have meaning in life. Those who may find themselves in points of time where they are struggling, we should never assume that they aren't seeking or working as hard as they possibly can to be the best that they can be in whatever form that that takes. I believe in that inherent passion and decency of all humanity. Each and every one of us. So, I think that that's a core value for me is that I have that profound belief in everyone.

Q+A's like the one you just read are near-exact transcriptions of live conversations, so please excuse any fragments, run on sentences, or other completely natural phrasing that often takes place in a conversation. 

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Elevator Pitch Tips & Tricks: How to Keep it Short

So, we know an elevator pitch needs to be short. A minute or less, ideally. Does that sound all but impossible? I work with lots of mission-driven individuals who are so passionate about their work, and they want to share everything about what they’re doing. And it’s tempting – if you capture someone’s time, shouldn’t you take advantage of it? But I promise, creating a captivating and short elevator pitch is going to serve you much better.

 

Easier said than done? Here are a few tips to help you pare back your words.

Use adjectives sparingly.

We believe our stories are the very best – and they are. But glorifying them with a plethora of floral adjectives does not do your pitch due justice. It’s easy to lose your listener in a sea of descriptive sentences. To boot, being overly effusive about your work can be a red flag to some, who may take you less seriously as a result.

These last three sentences include several adjectives. Too many for an elevator pitch. So when you’ve written your pitch, take a closer look and prune it – it will serve you well on length and approachability.

Use simple verbs

It’s really tempting to use complex verbs when you’re writing something for public speaking. You want to sound smart, so complexity is a good idea, right? Wrong. Simple is better, and not just because it helps you keep your elevator pitch short. It also allows the listener to follow what you’re saying; with longer verbs, you run the risk of losing someone along the way.

Here are a few verbs that are overused in the mission-driven industry. If you find yourself using them, think about whether the simpler option could be more direct. And I know you might say: I’ve used the word influence already – I need a synonym! No, if you’re in your elevator pitch and you’re saying influence more than once, you’re probably repeating the same idea too many times. Remember, keep it short, and keep the listener with you!

  • leverage – instead of influence
  • utilize – instead of use
  • seed – instead of start
  • catalyze – instead of make
  • galvanize – instead of inspire action

Cut out phrases like “This allows us to” and “in order to.”

They’re often just filler and don’t add anything to what you’re saying. Instead, it prevents you from speaking in an active, emphatic voice. Can you see the difference between these two phrases?

-       Parent involvement allows us to engage our school community.

-       Parent involvement engages our school community.

The last phrase is decisive and offers a clear picture of what you’re doing. The first one isn’t incorrect, but it is longer and more likely to lose your listener.