Enough With the Jargon

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Nonprofits love their jargon, don’t they?  You see appeal letters, thank you letters, and newsletter articles laced with terms like at-risk youth, underserved communities, leverage, and impactful.

I think people use jargon because it’s an insider language and it makes them feel like they’re “in the know” in their professional world. It’s easy to slip into jargon-mode around the office. But the danger comes when jargon creeps outside of your insular community and into your donor communication.

People need to understand you to connect with you

We can get lazy and use jargon when we can’t think of anything fresh and original. And that’s the problem because jargon is boring and your donors may not understand what you’re trying to say. Your donors don’t use these terms and neither should you.

Jargon fixes

Sometimes you need to give a little more information. For example, instead of just using the term food insecurity, describe a situation where a single mother has to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.

Let’s look at a few more of these problem terms and what you can say instead. You may use some of these terms internally and they might be in your mission statement, but try to limit them when you communicate with donors.

  • At-risk means there’s a possibility something bad will happen. Instead of just saying at-risk students or youth, tell a story or give specific examples of something bad that could happen. Our tutoring program works with high school students who are more likely to fail, be held back, and drop out of school.   
  • Underserved means not receiving adequate help or services. Instead of saying we work with underserved communities, explain what types of services these residents don’t receive. Maybe it’s healthcare, affordable housing, or decent preschool. Tell a story or give a specific example. Linda can’t send her daughter Kyra to a good preschool because there isn’t an affordable one nearby.
  • Impact means having an effect on someone or something. How are you doing that, and why is it important?  Again, give a specific example. Thanks to donors like you, we’ve helped families find affordable housing so they don’t have to live in a shelter, a motel, or their car. Now they have a place to call home. And, let’s please all agree to stop using the word impactful.

Tell a story

This is why stories are so important. You can get beyond that vague, impersonal jargon and let your donors see firsthand how they’re helping you make a difference for the people/community you serve.

What would Aunt Shirley think?

Imagine you’re at a family gathering and you’re explaining what your organization does to Aunt Shirley. Does she look confused and uninterested when you spew out words like underserved and at-risk, or does she want you to tell her more when you mention kids in your tutoring program are doing much better in school?

Let’s stop using jargon when we can use clear, conversational language instead. Here are more examples of cringe-worthy jargon. I’d love to hear some of your pet peeves, as well.

21 irritating jargon phrases, and new clichés you should replace them with

Nonprofit Jargon: 22 Phrases We Love to Hate

24 Words and Phrases It’s Time for Nonprofits to Stop Using

Photo by Wes Schaeffer

Let’s Start a Nonprofit Plain Writing Movement

Did you know there’s a Center for Plain Language?  Its mission is to help government and businesses write clearly. There’s even a Plain Writing Act, which “requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”

The Center’s tagline says it all – Make it clear.

I wish we had a Plain Writing Act for nonprofit organizations because there’s a lot of confusing and cumbersome writing out there.  Even though we don’t have an official act, we should make it a priority to write more clearly.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to read the Center’s Plain Language Checklist or better yet, print it out and post it somewhere you’ll see it.

Here are a few highlights and some tips to help you communicate better.

Can your readers understand what you write the first time they read it?

This is critical because unlike a tax document or legal form, there probably won’t be a second time.  If your appeal letter or newsletter is filled with vague language and jargon, it’s likely to go right into the recycling bin.

If you’re not sure your reader will understand something, give an explanation. For example, instead of using the term food insecurity, explain how some families have to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.

This is why stories are so important.  Instead of going into mind-numbing detail about the latest advancements in cancer or Parkinson’s research, tell a personal story about how you made a difference for someone.

Are meeting your readers’ needs?

Do you know your audience, and are you communicating with the right audience?  Here you must be donor-centered or volunteer-centered, if that’s your audience. Sometimes you need to send different messages to different audiences.

Besides content, you also want to use your reader’s preferred method of communication, which might be print, email, social media, or a combination of those.

Is your message clear?

What is your intention?  Do you want someone to donate, volunteer, or attend an event?  Stick to one call to action. Don’t muddle your message by asking someone to do all three.

Is your writing personal and conversational?

Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend.  Marketing guru Seth Godin sums it up nicely in this post The simple way to get better at business writing Don’t do business writing.

Nix the passive voice. It weakens your writing, and do you use it when you talk?  I hope not.

Is your message well written?

Have you checked for grammatical and spelling errors?  Even more important, make sure you’re not rambling on and including too much information – no 10-page newsletters or annual reports. Less is always more.

Does it look easy to read?

You may have written the most amazing letter, but if it’s a cluttered mess of long paragraphs, no margins, and 9-point type, most people won’t bother reading it.

Always think of your reader.  Use short paragraphs, lots of white space, and at least a 12-point type.

Your donors and other supporters are busy and don’t have a lot of time to read your messages. Make yours stand out with plain language and clear writing.

Check out the Center for Plain Language’s website for more information.

Image via http://themediaonline.co.za/

Create a Jargon-Free Zone

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Are your appeal letters, thank you letters, and newsletter articles laced with terms like at-risk youth, underserved communities, leverage, and impactful?  If you think your donors understand you when you use jargon like this, think again.

It’s easy enough to use these terms around the office. I think people use jargon because it’s an insider language, and it makes them feel like they’re “in the know” in their professional world.

But the danger comes when jargon creeps outside of your insular community and into your donor communication.

People need to understand you to connect with you

We can get lazy and use jargon when we can’t think of anything fresh and original. The next time you write something for your organization, look it over to see if it contains words found in this link. Jargon Finder 

If it does, replace them with plain, but fresh language that your donors will understand. Garbl’s Plain English Writing Guide

Not all the words in the above links are jargon. Some are awkward or pompous words and phrases that you should also avoid.

Jargon fixes

Sometimes you need to give a little more information. For example instead of just using the term food insecurity, describe a situation where a single mother has to choose between buying groceries and paying the electric bill.

Let’s look at a few more of these problem terms and what you can say instead. You may use some of these terms internally and they might be in your mission statement, but try to limit them when you communicate with donors.

  •  At-risk means there’s a possibility something bad will happen. Instead of just saying at-risk students or youth, tell a story or give specific examples of something bad that could happen. Our tutoring program works with high school   students who are more likely to fail, be held back, and drop out of school.
  • Underserved means not receiving adequate help or services. Instead of saying we work with underserved communities, explain what types of services the residents don’t receive.  Maybe it’s healthcare, affordable housing, or decent preschool. Tell a story or give a specific example. Tammy isn’t able send her daughter Emma to a good preschool because there isn’t an affordable one nearby.
  • Impact means having an effect on someone or something.  How are you doing that, and why is it important?  Again, give a specific example. Thanks to donors like you, we’ve helped families find affordable housing so they don’t have to live in a shelter, a motel, or their car. Now they have a place to call home. And, let’s all agree never to use the word impactful.

What would Aunt Edith Think?

Imagine you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and you’re explaining what your organization does to Aunt Edith. Does she look confused and uninterested when you spew out words like underserved and at-risk?  Imagine your donors doing the same thing.

Be conversational when you write and create a jargon-free zone.

I’d love to hear examples of jargon that makes you cringe.

Image by Gavin Llewellyn