Piggy bank with tape measureNo matter what our endeavor, whether we are making mobile phones or enhancing the mobility of someone with a disability, we all seek to create value for those we serve.  And yet, so many worthy ventures and causes don’t get traction because the people behind them struggle to say what their audience most needs and wants to hear—that is, why are you valuable?

If you ask most leaders, they will tell you that communicating value is paramount. But most of us don’t actually speak or write in value terms. It’s a lot like weight control—we all know we must eat less and be more active to shed unwanted pounds. But it’s really hard to do, especially when inertia and temptation are everywhere. So it is with the expression of value. We know we should speak about the things that matter most to our customers, clients, donors and other audiences, but we haven’t—or think we can’t—invest the time to figure it out.

To express value, we first have to hit the pause button, step back, and take the time to understand what our audiences need or desire most. We have to look inside and outside of ourselves and sometimes we find out things we’d rather not know. Perhaps our product isn’t as useful as we think it is, or our customer service is so annoying that our clients are going elsewhere. We might even learn some of the toughest realities to absorb—like our own team finds our organization bureaucratic or autocratic, making them ripe for poaching by competitors.

Communicating value isn’t about a list of things you do or products you offer. It isn’t even enough to share stories about people who have used your product or service or become involved in your cause. While I’m a big believer in storytelling to enhance communication, narratives alone don’t help you communicate value.

So what does? Here are a few tips for your New Year’s communications diet.

Ask. Reach out and request feedback from your key audiences. Find out why they love or hate what you do.  Probe more deeply. If your respondents say your product is great, ask what in particular delights them.  And if the comments are glowing, ask if there is anything they’d like to see you do or change.  Really listen to what’s said—especially the words that are used.  We recently worked with a client who said they thought their differentiator was that they are client-centric. Their key audiences agreed, only they didn’t say it that way; instead, they spoke of how the firm really listened or that the company “got into their DNA” to understand and then deliver what was wanted.

Accept What You Hear (in Balance).  This may be the most difficult thing of all, especially if the feedback is negative. Avoid the tendency to dismiss critics, as you risk putting your head in the sand.  Domino’s Pizza once floundered amid harsh criticism of its taste and delivery protocols. But by revamping and rebranding their product, they also bolstered their stock price. By the same token, be careful to keep feedback in balance. Sometimes we focus on the one negative comment that stands out against ten positive ones. That’s just as harmful as dismissing what you don’t want to hear.

Frame Your Offerings in Terms that Matter to Your Audience.  When stating what you do, always frame your communications in terms that specifically answer the needs and/or aspirations of your target audiences.  (You will understand what those are if you ask and listen.) Speak in terms of how what you produce or what you do positively affects your target.  Just like fruits and vegetables are essential parts of a healthy diet, so are verbs like increase, reduce, save, boost, eliminate and enhance part of a value diet.  These words speak to problems solved and new possibilities.  Enterprises want to increase revenues/donations, reduce turnover, save money, boost performance, and enhance teamwork.   For nonprofits addressing social causes, eliminate is a powerful word such as eliminating hunger or chronic homelessness. Instead of listing out services and products you provide, tie your offering to helping people and organization solve their challenges—that is what communicates your value.

Don’t Stop When You Think You’ve Figured It Out.  Value communication is not a task, but a process that is never fully done. It must be fully inculcated into your organization. It is like a beautiful rose garden that has to be carefully tended and pruned, otherwise the garden becomes overgrown or weeds obscure the blooms.

As we begin the New Year, invest in an incisive look at what and how you articulate and communicate your organization’s mission, purpose and value. I’d be interested in hearing how well your team communicates value externally, and how that communication aligns with your internal conversations.

A version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post.