Don’t get fancy on me

Word“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
― C.S. Lewis

Love. This. Quote. It reminds of my favorite quote from Antoine de St-Exupery:

Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

But–confession–I also love fancy words. I really, truly do. The way they sound. The way you feel when you discover them. The way the letters organize themselves into an unexpected result.

Pernicious for harmful.

Leitmotif for theme.

Gihugic for big. (Okay, you caught me. “Gihugic” isn’t really a word. I made it up. Or someone else did and I heard it and loved it. But isn’t it fun?!)

Fancy words delight me. But I don’t use them much when I write. That’s because fancy words aren’t a super good choice if you’re looking to connect with someone. They’re often a barrier. Rather than being dazzled by your intellect, the person on the receiving end risks being confused or dumb-founded. Neither of which moves your relationship along.

Bonus factoid: Did you know there is actually a Plain Language Law? That’s a real thing. Enacted in 2010, the law requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

Pretty sure fancy words aren’t encouraged by the Plain Language Law.

So loverize yourself silly using fancy words when you’re writing for yourself, or for other people who love fancy words, or when you’re looking to impress your boss with your vast linguistic repertoire (aka big vocabulary). Or when you want a word to pop out and surprise a reader. (Wordifier, anyone?) But make sure that fancy word is surrounded by plain language that is a snap to understand.

*****
Post Readability Stats: Reading Ease: 72, Grade Level: 5.3

**Want to learn more about finding the very best words to advance your mission? Sign up for Winter Quarter at Claxon University!**

 

Jargon: It’s More Prevalent Than You Think

67bd[This is the latest weekly post from our intern, Tessa. You can find all her posts here.

If you work for a 501(c)3 and you are not a private foundation, your nonprofit is deemed a public charity. By definition, that means you exist to serve the public. Yet, so often, you use language that is meaningless to people outside our organizations. It’s called jargon, and we’ve advised against it in the past.

What you may not know, however, is that jargon takes another dangerous form: pretentious and/or vague language. What if I told you words you use daily, words like community, impact and partnership, might be alienating the very people you’re trying to engage?

For example, say you tell someone that you are “serving the community”. You know exactly what community you’re serving. But an outsider would have no idea if you’re talking about the immediate neighborhood, the city, the county, or perhaps even another location all together.

If you’re unsure if you’re using jargon, just step back and ask yourself if someone who is not familiar with your organization would know what you mean. If the answer is no, find a more specific word. You can also check out this nonprofit Jargon Finder.

Remember, public charity workers:

“The repetitive, habitual use of insider lingo undermines the inherently public nature of the issues under discussion.” – Tony Proscio

What Twitter Taught Me About Writing

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern, Tessa. You can find all her posts here.Delete Button

Twitter has forced me to learn something valuable. Its 140 character per post rule has shown me that, more often that not, I’m using more words than I need to.

When Twitter isn’t monitoring what I type, sometimes I don’t even know I’m using too many words. And I’ve never been the verbose type. Those who have met me know that I won’t talk your ear off without some coaxing (or without some wine). I always struggled to meet minimum page number requirements in school. Yet, even I say much more than I need to.

Take, for example, this article I shared the other day via social media. I started by quoting the article and adding my own thoughts:

Nonprofits win awards for clear communications. Why? “If there’s any (common) thread, it’s they keep in mind the needs of the reader.”

Twitter wouldn’t let me say all that and include a link to the article and a shout out to the person shared the article with me. After some deliberation, I ended up with:

Nonprofit clear communication winners “…keep in mind the needs of the reader.”

So simple. So clear. Yet, it still conveys the same information. Remember, the clearer your message is, the more people will read and understand it.

Writing concisely is not easy. In fact, it’s very difficult for most people. As Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

The good news is, concise writing is a habit that can be learned. A good place to start is with your organization’s mission statement. Challenge yourself to say the same thing with 3 less words. Depending on your organization, you may be able to get to 5, 10, or even 15 less words! Also, look critically at the next thing you write for your organization. It could be anything – even an email. See how short you can make your message while still keeping the original meaning. You’ll notice you often eliminate the same filler words or sentences over and over. “I just wanted to let you know…” is a common culprit. Pretty soon, you won’t even try to type those extra words.

No matter how good you get, you’ll always need to stay conscious of the words you’re using. They’re what connects you to your audience. Make the most of them.

Check it Out: How to Make Your Writing Error-Free

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern, Tessa. You can find all her posts here.

Editing (improving your initial writing) and proofreading (final reviewing before publishing) require much more than finding grammar or spelling mistakes. You have to remember to pay attention to flow, keep a consistent voice, eliminate jargon, etc. It’s a lot to keep track of. Even the experienced writer can forget to check for everything when reviewing their (or others’) work.

Recently, I stumbled across some articles that offered such a simple solution that I was surprised I hadn’t though of it sooner…. The ever-handy checklist!

Check Mark

HubSpot and Quick and Dirty Tips put together these amazing checklists (one even printable) to have by your side while editing and proofreading:

Your Essential Proofreading Checklist: 10 Things You Can’t Forget

Grammar Girl’s Editing Checklist

Bookmark them and/ or print them. Now. You’ll thank me. Happy revising!

Words of Gratitude – Use Often [#WordsThatWow]

[This is the last post in our #WordsThatWow series. Read the rest of the posts here.]

nonprofit, nonprofit marketing, fundraising, language, best practicesI would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. ~G.K. Chesterton

Right, so, here’s the thing–we simply don’t show enough gratitude. By ‘we’, I mean pretty much all of us. Not just nonprofits. Many times in any given day I think, “Dang, I am grateful to that person/ organization/ company/ whatever for that bit of goodness they are putting out to the world.” But thinking it isn’t the same as saying it or showing it. As G. B. Stern said, “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”

Words of Gratitude come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s some inspiration!

In short, show gratitude whenever possible. So many people contribute to your nonprofit’s success–donors, volunteers, community supporters, etc. etc. Make sure they know how much you appreciate them. And remember that expressing gratitude not only makes the person you’re talking to feel good, it makes you feel good, too.

Thank you for reading this post!

 

For Your Mom Only: The Spelling of Mother’s Day

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern, Tessa. You can find all her posts here.

Let’s go there. Apostrophes.

I’ve seen so many misplaced apostrophes in my life. Contractions and abbreviations aren’t usually the problem. Most people understand that when cannot becomes can’t and about becomes ‘bout, that little floating comma comes into play.

It’s apostrophes’ possessive function that usually causes confusion. The reason? Based on whether a word is plural or singular, the positioning of the apostrophe changes. For example, if I were talking about only one apostrophe in the first sentence of this paragraph, apostrophes’ would become apostrophe’s. This causes a lot of questions. What happens if singular word ends in s? (Answer: Still add ‘s to the end). What happens if the plural doesn’t end in s? (Answer: Same thing: add ‘s).

These variables seem to cause other issues. Apostrophes show up where they don’t belong at all. For a thorough yet quick guide on proper apostrophe use, visit Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips: Apostrophe Catastrophe.

Anyway, back to the original purpose of this post: Mother’s Day is this Sunday May 11th! Believe it or not, the apostrophe in this holiday is intentionally placed. Mother’s Day was created in its singular possessive form as an indication that each and every mother should be individually honored.

Since so many mothers are celebrated on this day, yes, it technically should be Mothers’ Day. But there’s something sweet about the idea of giving each mother her very own special day. We all know they deserve it. So, happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

My beautiful Mama and me.

 

Want Your Writing to Flow Better? Try These Five Things.

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern, Tessa. You can find all her posts here.]

Typing

Did you ever read a letter from a nonprofit and feel that something was not quite right? Maybe you found it hard to read and weren’t sure why. When writing, you want your flow to be as “on” as possible. Here are five things to remember that will make your flow as smooth as possible.

1. Be Consistent

Inconsistency is one of my pet peeves. If you capitalize a noun in one place, make sure you capitalize that noun every time you mention it again. For example, The French Club shouldn’t evolve into the French Club or the French club throughout your piece. The same goes for abbreviations. If you introduce an abbreviation at the beginning of a letter, don’t start referring to it by its full name again half way through. People will get confused.

2. Don’t Liberally Toss Your Articles Around

I read a cooking article the other day that mentioned four things: The peppers, the onions, the carrots, and the garlic. Four words there are unnecessary. The whole thing is bulky. Keep it to peppers, onions, carrots and garlic. Only use articles like the, a, and an when they’re required.

3. Alliteration is Nice

If you can swing it, throw some alliteration into your piece. Clear, concise and compelling flows better than clear, brief and engaging. (By the way, you should be all of these things.)

4. Write in Threes

I’ve done a whole blog post dedicated to this topic, but I’ll summarize here. There is something about the number three that sticks in people’s heads and makes your writing or speaking sound better. If you have two and can come up with a third reason, adjective or example – do it. The same applies if you have four and can eliminate one.

5. Split Up Your Sentences

There’s no benefit to a sentence with three conjunctions, six commas, and endless words. When you can, split up your clauses into independent sentences. It will be easier to read and understand, I promise!

8 Quick, Easy Tips to Boost Engagement

8 Quick Tips

Crafting messaging for your nonprofit can be hard work. How do you get someone to hear your message, let alone remember it?

No one-size-fits-all formula for engaging writing exists– especially since each of us have a different audience. However, these 8 easy-to-follow tips will likely increase your listeners’ engagement, no matter who your audience.

  1. Use Active Voice
    A few months ago, I wrote a post about how to convey confidence through writing. Confidence gives the impression that you really know your stuff, and that’s important. The number one way to convey confidence is to write with an active voice. This means reducing your number of “to be” verbs such as “are”, “is”, “was” and “will be”. “We are preserving the environment” and “Our building is a safe space for homeless youth” improve with just a few minor adjustments: “We preserve the environment” and “Our building offers homeless youth a safe space.”
  2. Involve Your Listener
    We all want to feel like we’re a part of something. See my post on You and Your for advice on how to bring your listener into your story.
  3. Tell a Story
    Speaking of your story, make sure you’re telling one! You may think the facts will speak for themselves, but without a story to frame them in, people will forget them or overlook them all together. It’s in our nature as humans to enjoy and respond to stories. So, pick a good one and get writing. And promise to tell true stories, because people can see through a lie or embellishment.
  4. Be Clear
    Don’t use sentences that last for nearly a paragraph. Don’t use fancy, long words that people have to stop and think about what they mean. And don’t use jargon that only people within your organization will understand. Your listener will appreciate it.
  5. Choose Better Words
    We’ve have a whole series on word choice called #WordsThatWow. Check it out!
  6. Keep it Short
    There’s nothing worse than a three-page letter from a nonprofit, a webpage that requires an extraordinary amount of scrolling to get to the bottom, or a person that talks for five minutes straight when asked about their organization. Know your key information, and figure out the easiest way to say it.
  7. Leave Room for Inquiry
    You want people to engage with you. If you spew out pages upon pages of everything anyone could possibly want to know about your organization, you close to door to inquiry. Say enough to get people interested. Interested enough to ask more questions.
  8. Be Yourself 
    No one wants to feel like they’re talking with a robot. Let your personality and the personality of your organization shine. People relate to other people, not distant-sounding, colorless words.

Would You Say This Out Loud?

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern Tessa. You can find all her posts here.]

Simplicity Quote

“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” -Yeats

While I don’t particularly esteem this quotation because of its condescension to “the people” and its gender exclusionary term “wise man”, it does present a worthy sentiment.

For those of you that I didn’t lose already, let me rephrase that:

I don’t like this quote because it’s condescending, and it excludes anyone who isn’t male. But it does make a good point.

(You can obviously see the difference.)

To get your message noticed, it’s helpful to use unique words rather than the same old same old. However, there’s an important disclaimer to that advice: Make sure you are using words that are easy to understand. The key word is easy. You don’t want people to have to re-read your mission statement three times to finally get what you do. You don’t want to sound like you wrote your donation appeal with the help of a thesaurus. And you don’t want to overwhelm your audience with syllables.

An easy test you can use is this: Ask yourself, “Would I use this word/ phrase/ sentence in casual conversation?” Most people understand a “worthy sentiment”, but most people wouldn’t say it out loud. To make your message accessible, write like you speak. There are some exceptions that may have the opposite effect, such as using slang words and jargon that outsiders wouldn’t understand. But in general, if you can’t see yourself using it in conversation, don’t use it in your nonprofit’s messaging.

“Think complex thoughts but communicate with simplicity.” -my revision of Yeats.

[Photo retrieved from QuotesWave.com. Website:http://www.quoteswave.com/picture-quotes/2618]

When You Can’t Name Names

[Here’s this week’s post from Tessa, our word nerd-erific intern. You can find all her posts here.]

Yesterday, I was attempting to reduce the large quantities of e-mail I get from companies and organizations in the Seattle area. (I’m moving to San Francisco soon, so many will no longer be relevant to me). After requesting to be removed from a particularly large and well-known organization’s e-mail list for the Pacific Northwest (I won’t name names), I was surprised at the message I got. It started out well, taking me to a place where I could manage my e-mail subscriptions. (Only want to hear about international issues? Great, we can do that!).  So far, I was impressed. And then I hit unsubscribe for the Pacific Northwest List. It

Dear Constituent

took me to a page saying they were sorry to see me go, I could sign up again at any point, etc. And it was addressed “Dear Constituent”. Dear Constituent.

The coldness of this word may not have hit me so hard if I wasn’t a donor to the organization. But as such, it made me feel disconnected, unappreciated and just another “constituent”. Granted, I know they probably don’t have a system to determine which of their e-mail subscribers and donors and which aren’t. And maybe I didn’t enter my name when I signed up. That’s all okay. You can make everyone feel included and welcome, whether or not they have given you money or their name. Here are some alternatives to starting with “Dear Constituent”:

Dear Friend,
Dear Valued Supporter,
Dear Ally,
Sorry to see you go!

Here are some alternatives not to use:

Dear Recipient,
Dear Stakeholder, (More on why ‘stakeholder’ is such a bad word here.)
To Whom it May Concern,

How do you refer to someone in your messages when you don’t have his or her name?