Not like all the others

One of my college friends is a firefighter who was recently recruited by his chief to help craft a mission statement for the department. He went through many drafts, each of which included making the chief’s suggested changes and additions. Then he sent it to me for editing to make sure that it read well.

I told him the truth. It reads fine if you want it to read like every other mission statement.

Mission statements, like so many pieces of writing that will be shared publicly, tend to all sound the same. They’re full of jargon like “We will aspire to achieve excellence in all endeavors, to communicate with transparency, and to provide our customers with the highest standards of service.”

Sure, those words technically mean something. But will they move anyone? Will a single person act or think differently about the organization after reading them? Or will they just be words that hang on a wall and allow the organization to say, “We have a mission statement”?

I wrote him back with some suggested edits that maintained the standard, formal tone it was clear his chief was comfortable with. But I also gave him a complete revision I titled, “Kevin’s Version the Chief Will Never Approve.”

Here are three samples of the revisions:

Their version:

Responsiveness
We respond in a safe and rapid manner to all emergency calls for service. Additionally, we are committed to providing timely and accurate information and resources in all matters affecting our stakeholders.

My rewrite:

Responsiveness
We answer every call to serve—emergency or otherwise—as quickly and safely as possible.

Their version:

Duty
We choose service over self.  We are stewards of public trust and champion what is best for our community.

My Rewrite:

Duty
Community, department, self. In that order.

Their version:

Integrity
We are accountable for our actions, celebrate our successes, and look to our failures as opportunities for growth. We are committed to the standards of the organization, always working to “do the right thing.” 

My rewrite:

Integrity
We take responsibility for our actions and our results. We will do the right thing, not the easy thing.

I know the chief will never go for my version, but I took a swing anyway. Sometimes people assume that a piece of writing must sound the same as all the others. It doesn’t, especially if you want it to work.

You can improve almost any piece of writing, from an email, to a mission statement, to a college essay, by:

  • Getting right to the point.
  • Writing as if you were speaking to another person.
  • Removing unnecessary words.

Do those things, and your writing won’t sound like all the others.

Here’s a past post profiling my favorite book on how to improve your writing.