Jargon, acronyms and sad puppies
By Erin Dreiling, marketing and communications manager, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta
To my dear friends who work in the field of social good,
We need to talk. And I think you know what I am going to say. We’ve all been there. We are sitting in a presentation and suddenly the speaker uses THAT word. Or we are reading an article or fundraising appeal and come across it. THAT word is different for each of us, but it’s important because it takes us from engaged and fired up to scratching our heads. THAT word is inevitably jargon or its close friend, the acronym. For me, it’s “framework,” which seems to mean nothing and everything at the same time. Egads.
I am all for aligning “our work” strategically to move the needle with a grassroots collective deep dive at a convening about sustainable frameworks for capacity but we have got to quit with the jargon. Sure, as a field, we have our own specific terms. That’s natural. Framing our work in the right way is good and necessary. Our mission and vision drive us. Things like data, outcomes, metrics and strategy are vitally important to fuel decisions or understand how effective your organization is. You should talk about those things. But I think that all too often, we forget that not everyone works for a community organization, foundation or nonprofit. Our field is about conversations and connections, helping people, stirring passion, righting wrongs and making the world a better place. It’s important to be aware of the language we use. I’m not original in this plea. There are a million blogs on this, many of them very, very funny.
Here’s the thing – you can’t tug heartstrings with an alienating acronym. You can’t move minds with jangling jargon. Try telling a story. Or talk about a tangible difference to make “impact” come to life. Use that data we all love to amaze, shock and make your stories real but don’t get bogged down in it. A picture is worth a thousand words, so invest in some good photography that shows what you do. And please avoid those dreaded acronyms. Every time you use one, it makes a puppy sad.
Talk about your mission, but also talk about why you do what you do. You are the advocate for the people you serve. Give them a voice. That goes for causes, places and puppies too. Make them important and raise awareness. I know you are already doing this but take a moment to step back and really look at your communications with fresh eyes. Do they resonate? Are you speaking in a way that would make you laugh, cry or donate? Then chances are that someone else will too.
I say all of this with love. You are a superhero, what you do is amazing and your organization is incredible. For some of you, your mission is literally life and death. I just want other people to know how incredible you are too. An important component of that is using words people understand. I’m looking at you here, “convening”. If linguistics were nutrition, “convening” would have all of the empty calories of red dye no. 5.
But really, the problem isn’t you – it’s me. That’s right. I admit it. My entire career has been in the nonprofit field and I can have an entire conversation in jargonese. I have been known to herd cats and build planes in the air. I am in an earnest love affair with words and have never met a thesaurus I did not like. I am a lifetime jargon and acronym user and it’s a hard habit to break. But I’m trying to be better. For you, for me, for the puppies. Let’s do it together.