Words matter. They shape what people think about, they shape how people receive your ideas, and they frame the entire tone of a conversation. Choose the right words, and you can inspire people and start a movement. Choose the wrong words, and you can offend people or lose your audience’s interest.
Often times, the goal of a nonprofit public relations initiative is to raise awareness, to educate, and to inspire people to take action. And yet, often times, the vocabulary does the opposite. It turns people off. It makes them think, “I can’t relate to this person.”
Unfortunately, most of us are products of our environment. We hear a phrase enough times in the boardroom and it winds up as part of our public vocabulary. But here’s the thing: When you’re making your case to the public — on social media, on television, or wherever else — watch out for language that doesn’t resonate.
With that in mind, here are some phrases you might want to avoid using in your public-facing communication:
As in, “We wanted to host an event that would benefit all stakeholders.”
Why it doesn’t work: The short answer is that regular folks don’t use the word “stakeholder.” In fact, it really isn’t clear what a stakeholder is. Is it the board? Is it the members of the organization? Is it donors?
“Stakeholder” has become a generic catch-all that essentially means, “All the people who have something to gain or lose from this.” Not exactly inspiring.
What to say instead: “People.” As in, “We want to hold an event to show our appreciation for all the people who love this organization.” Stakeholders sounds cold and calculating, but referring to them as people is, well, humanizing.
Your average person watching on TV might think that she doesn’t have anything in common with a stakeholder, but she could certainly identify with these caring people.
As in, “We want to make our website more donor-centric.”
Why it doesn’t work: Does it make sense in a conference room? Of course it does. You’re focusing on precision of language, and this phrase is a wonderful shortcut to clearly explain to your colleagues what you mean. But when applied to the general public, it comes off as too cold and calculating.
What to say instead: “people who support us with donations.” Again, keep it human. It also sounds a whole lot more appreciative and respectful. By making your website easier for people who support you, it communicates more emotion and empathy.
As in, “He made that decision based on optics.”
Why it doesn’t work: This one has become a huge buzzword, and it’s just a fancy word to describe how something looks. People used to just say, “It looks bad,” but now the cool way to put it is to describe the “optics.”
What to say instead: This one is a bit of a trick because the answer is to avoid talking about optics altogether. By focusing on the difference between what something is and how it’s interpreted by the public, you’re creating a wedge between your organization and everyone else.
The goal is total transparency and never worrying just about “how something looks.” While issues with both will always exist, you often make them worse and undermine trust by talking about them publicly.
“Move the needle”
As in, “We need an event that’s really going to move the needle.”
Why it doesn’t work: Here’s yet another conference room buzzword that gets used so much that it loses its meaning. Is the general public going to get excited about the movement of this metaphorical needle? No, they want to hear about the impact.
What to say instead: Get more specific. If you’re talking about an event, mention how you wanted to find a performer that people would love, or mention that you wanted to create an experience that no one would forget. Talk about how you want to reach your fundraising goal and how that would affect you and the people you serve. Give people clear, emotional benefits.
With the use of positive, plain language, there’s really nothing you can’t accomplish. For starters, your message will be a whole lot more clear, but people will also have a much better appreciation for you and what you do. And isn’t that the whole point?
Amir B. Eyal, JD, CFP®, AIF® is the CEO of Mylestone Plans – a national leader that educates the members of the non-profit community on how to achieve their financial goals. Mylestone provides a comprehensive range of institutional services to hundreds of non-profit organizations, as well as private financial and investment planning to their leadership and employees.