Anny Fahey over at Sightline Institute is a communications ninja. Recently, she did a post on her messaging pet peeves for the Sightline Daily. It was so awesome, I asked her if she’d be willing to share it here. Cuz she’s so nice, she agreed. And as a bonus, she added one more. Enjoy!
I can tell you from personal experience that even seasoned communicators slip into a bad habit or two.
So, I’m setting out to tackle some of my top messaging pet peeves one by one, starting with four small-scale missteps that are easy to avoid. (I recently wrote about three of these for one of my messaging Flashcards at Sightline Institute). I call these little mistakes “pets” because they’re some of my own worst habits—and they’re easy to fix! (Apologies for a pretty terrible pun!)
The fact is that experts in all kind of fields (take my policy wonk colleagues, for example) tend to use far too many acronyms—it saves time and maybe we think it sounds cool too. Wrong! We also overuse the passive voice. And we often forget to swap lackluster articles for more powerful pronouns. Finally, if you’re like me, you cringe every time you read about “an activist” doing something in the news. It’s like activists are some kind of separate species. It’s easy to forget that they’re people! Better to call them concerned citizens, moms, dads, neighbors, community members, Washingtonians, Oregonians…anything but activists—even though they’re active.
I’m not claiming that words are magic. Even when we use all the right ones we can’t solve all the world’s problems—obviously. But words do matter; and even the littlest ones can help your message hit home.
Here’s my cheat sheet:
Acronyms. Stop using them. Even the most familiar ones—like the EPA—risk alienating. Polls show that the full name—Environmental Protection Agency—yields a bump in support.
Weed out the passive. You wield the power to name (and blame) bad guys or give heroes due credit—but only if you use active sentence construction. Think: Who did what to whom? (The climate is warming vs. We are warming our climate.)
Get possessive with pronouns. Instead of “the government” or “the climate,” try “our government” and “our climate.” Switch to pronouns like our, we, us, you, and your to make concepts less abstract and paint people into the picture.
Talk about people! Terms like activist, or even environmentalist, can alienate anybody who doesn’t self-identify as such. Activists aren’t from another planet—they’re parents, neighbors, citizens, Seattleites, etc. Local people! So, especially when you’re talking to (or writing for) the press, always refer to those familiar and broadly shared identities that make them human!
What are your messaging pet peeves?
Anna Fahey is senior communications strategist at Sightline Institute—a public policy think tank focused on policy solutions for a fair and thriving green economy. Anna oversees opinion research and distills best practices in messaging. You’ll find her writing on how to communicate about tricky issues like climate change, taxes, and government. Anna has an MA in political communication from the University of Washington. Email: anna (at) sightline.org
Sightline Flashcards are messaging memos designed as short, scannable tools for sharing effective communications strategies. Our strategic communications team digests piles of public opinion research, transcripts from speeches, expert advice, and academic studies—from cognitive linguistics and neuroscience to political science, sociology, and psychology—distilling best practices in messaging. Flashcards often focus on values-based communication: strategies for talking about important policies or issue solutions in terms of our shared values. Want to receive Flashcards by email? Sign up.