Why ‘provide’ is the lamest verb ever

provide, language, verbs, nonprofit communications, nonprofit marketingLast week, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Food Lifeline conference. Everyone in the room worked or volunteered with a food bank/pantry. They are, as I like to say, foodies.

As I usually do when I have a captive audience, I was harshing on the verb ‘provide’. I explained, as I have many times before, that ‘provide’ is quite possibly the lamest of all verbs a nonprofit could use. It’s boring. Everyone uses it. And, therefore, it does nothing to differentiate you from every other organization. Bad verb, bad.

I have publicly pontificated about my disdain for ‘provide’ in front of thousands of people. Grad students at the University of Washington, Seattle University and the University of Chicago. Hard-working do-gooders in Arizona. Executive Directors visiting from Russia. All of them, plus a whole bunch of others, have heard me go off on ‘provide’. People general nod and agree that it is, in fact, rather lame. No one has ever questioned my vehement disapproval of this seemingly innocuous verb (possibly because after my anti-‘provide’ diatribe they are afraid of me, but let’s assume it’s because they agree that better verbs abound).

So imagine my surprise and delight when a woman came up to me at the Food Lifeline talk and said, “I get that provide doesn’t necessarily differentiate us. But beyond that, why do you dislike it so much?”

Since no one had ever asked me this before, I hadn’t given it much thought, to be honest. I just really, really, really don’t like it. Once asked, I realized it was a bit weird to dislike a word as much as I dislike ‘provide’. Her question forced me to think more deeply about why ‘provide’ gets me so riled up. It’s not like it’s the only lame word out there.

I started to feel badly for lil ol’ ‘provide’. I thought to myself, “It’s just a verb trying its darnedest to be useful, Erica. Stop picking on it.” Then I snapped out of it.

The brave woman who asked me about ‘provide’ made me realize that, in addition to being overused, the reason I don’t think ‘provide’ is a good word choice is because it implies a one-way street. You provide something to someone. No reciprocity. No two-way street. 

And yet, most nonprofits exist to make the world a better place for a group of people–kids, cancer patients, low-income people living with HIV/AIDS, homeless families, victims of domestic abuse, etc etc etc. These people deserve the dignity of a verb that acknowledges that your organization gets as much from them as they do from you.

And so I’ve come full circle–I’m back to really, really, really disliking the verb ‘provide’. There are better verbs out there. Pretty please with sugar on top, go find them!


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]

Three: The Magic Number

Power of Three

During my Catholic upbringing, I was taught that three is a magical number. It took three days for Christ to rise from the grave, God himself exists as three separate entities in one (i.e. the Holy Trinity), and any Catholic church has sets of three everywhere you look.

Religion aside, the number three is a magic number – in communications. Look at the paragraph above. I gave three examples of how the number three is relevant to Catholicism. Look back at previous blog posts I’ve written. You’ll see more often than not, when I use examples, or even adjectives, I use three. This isn’t a coincidence.

I won’t pretend to understand the psychology behind it, but there’s something about three that helps your language flow better, your message be remembered, and your listeners take action. There is evidence to suggest that anything more than three will overwhelm your listener – it’s too much information to take in quickly. On the flip side, two doesn’t give them enough evidence.

Let’s look at an example:

Mindy Cat copy

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr, adorable whiskers, and the softest fur I’ve ever felt.

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr and adorable whiskers.

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr, adorable whiskers, the softest fur I’ve ever felt and a sweet personality.

(I have to work Mindy into my blog posts whenever I can. Let’s try again, sans Mindy.)

She won the award for her clear, concise and compelling speech.

She won the award for her clear and concise speech.

She won the award for her clear, concise, compelling and competent speech.

What do you think about the above sentences? I know at this point it’s hard to be impartial and decide which one you would best remember if introduced to them individually. So you’ll have to trust me on this one. Or trust these guys: The New York Times, Business Insider, Forbes (Really, check out those links. There’s some great additional info there, such as how Thomas Jefferson used the rule of threes).

While this post is on language use, I will briefly mention that the rule of threes isn’t limited to writing and speaking. Designers use it in the number of colors and fonts they choose. Many websites (especially news sites) use three columns to report their stories. Our favorite books and stories have a beginning, middle and end.

See what I did there?

The Beauty of Rhetoric

Last week, I wrote about the various words for love in Ancient Greece. Today, I continue my homage to the Greeks by attempting to revive the honor of a word that often stirs up negative feelings. A word that every marketing professional should be familiar with, including nonprofit marketers. The word is rhetoric.

While studying Public Relations and Communication Theory in college, I ran into the word rhetoric a lot, as well as the negative reactions that come with it. (I also faced a lot of negative reactions to the term “Public Relations”, but I won’t get into that today). Clichés such as “empty rhetoric” have emerged in the political arena and elsewhere. Misuse of the word has made it nearly synonymous with manipulation. Even Merriam-Webster has added a dimension of dishonesty to its definitions of rhetoric.

Let’s put thoughts of spin, trickery and dishonest politicians away for a minute and take a closer look. First emerging as a word in Ancient Greece, rhetoric literally means the art of rhetor, or, the art of oration. Essentially, it is the practice of effective communication. You don’t even have to have persuasion as a goal to practice rhetoric. You can educate. You can motivate. You can commemorate. In short, you can get people to listen to your message. And that’s important when you have a mission you care about; a mission others should know about.

The Ancient Greeks viewed rhetoric as an art form to be learned. While the concept didn’t start in Greece, Greek scholar Aristotle famously studied rhetoric and coined these terms closely associated with rhetoric: Ethos, pathos and logos. You may feel like you are reliving your Public Speaking 101 course here, but for those who aren’t familiar with the terms, this is the breakdown summary:

Ethos, pathos and logos are components to include in speech to make your message effective. Ethos means demonstrating your expertise of the topic on which you are talking. Pathos is an appeal to your listeners’ emotions, to get them to connect to your message in a personal way. Logos means ensuring your message is logical. If your message is lacking one of these components, it is less likely to be remembered, and less likely to be successful if your goal is to change opinions or behavior. While rhetoric’s origin is in speech, these same concepts can be applied to your writing as well.

If you still aren’t comfortable calling your organization’s communication rhetoric, that’s okay. Word meanings change constantly and quickly in our society, and this one may be a lost cause. But I encourage you to remember Aristotle’s advice the next time you are speaking or writing about your organization: 1. Establish your credibility, 2. Include a story or something similar that your listeners can relate to, and 3. Make sure what you are saying makes sense rationally.

While there are many language tools you can use to make your message more effective (some of which I will cover in future blog posts), ethos, pathos and logos are a good three words to keep in mind. And this may be my inner history nerd speaking, but isn’t it cool to know that the same techniques that were used over 1400 years ago are still relevant today?

Let’s Talk About Love (and Philanthropy)

I have to jump on the Valentine’s Day bandwagon and dedicate this week’s post to love.

2013-08-23 20.46.30-1

You might be wondering what love has to do with your organization. In a few weeks, in our #WordsThatWow series, I’ll post about how using more words of love and gratitude can help your organization in a big way. But today, I want to focus on the language of love.

Love, as it exists in the English language, has the habit of causing some confusion. This is because it covers a wide range of feelings and emotions. You can use the same word to indicate a type of toothpaste you prefer as you would to describe how you feel about the person you have chosen to spend the rest of your life with. Something about that doesn’t seem quite right, don’t you think? And don’t get me started on the confusion it causes in relationships. We’ve gone so far as having to distinguish between “love” and “being in love”. But even that means different things to different people.

The ancient Greeks knew better than to have one word to describe such a range of things. They had at least four separate words to describe different types of love: Spiritual love (agápe), physical love (éros), familial love (storgē), and mental love (philía). Philía is often translated into English as brotherly love or friendship. If this word sounds familiar to you, I’m not surprised. Ever wonder why Philadelphia is the “City of Brotherly Love”? Philía is the root of many other words we use today: Philosophy (love of knowledge), philology (love of learning), and basically any word that ends in –phila or –phile (bibliophile, Anglophile, etc.)

My favorite philía word, however, is philanthropy (love of mankind). If you are part of a philanthropic organization, this may resonate with you as well. We are doing what we are doing because of a love of mankind. When someone makes a donation to our organization, it is because of a love of mankind. We want to make the world a better place because of a love of mankind. And that’s something to keep in mind not just on Valentine’s Day, but every day.

Happy loving, everyone!

Use These Words with Caution – Part 1 [#WordsThatWow]

[This is the next installment in our series explaining each of the words on our 2014 List of Words that Wow. We covered the ‘Never Use’ category. Now were moving into the ‘Use with Caution’ ones. It’s a long list, so we’re going to split this into a few different posts. First up, inspire and impact.]

Inspire: Inspirational quotes flood our Pinterest boards, Facebook walls, and desk calendars. Artists need inspiration to create, entrepreneurs need inspiration to succeed, and many of us need inspiration to feel fulfilled in our lives. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, right?

Absolutely. It’s for this reason that many organizations are excited to use it in their mission statements. “We inspire change.” “We inspire hope.” “We inspire (insert group of people here).” I’m sure you’ve heard all these before.

And these phrases sound nice. But stop and think about them. Is “inspiring change” the best way to convey what your organization does, especially if you only have a few words to do it? This phrase could apply to the vast majority of nonprofits out there. It doesn’t make you stand out, or even sound very interesting. Your words should reflect the awesome and unique organization you are.

If you are adamant about using the word inspire, make sure you are not using it as a means to an end. Nine times out of ten, it’s not enough to simply inspire. Be specific about what you are inspiring people to do (and maybe even how you’re doing it). Show how the inspiration you are causing makes a difference in the world. For example, “We inspire youth to become leaders.” can change to “We inspire youth to question status-quo policies and lead their communities to progressive change.” Sure, it’s a few more words, but it’s a much more memorable and accurate description of your organization.

Impact: Like inspire, impact is a word that doesn’t mean much on its own. Your organization is impacting lives. So what? How are you impacting them? When you answer this question, my guess is that you’ll find you can remove the word impact from the equation completely.

So, the next time you’re about to tell someone that your organization is inspiring change or creating impact, stop a moment. What are you really doing?

Language Lesson: Equity vs. Equality

Equity. Equality. These two words look so similar they could be related. Actually, they are. They both come from the same Latin root word “aequus” meaning “equal”. So, what’s the difference?

At their core, both equity and equality still involve the concept of “equal”. In equity, the outcome is equal. In equality, the means used is equal.

Confused? Don’t worry. This image helps spell it out.

Equality Equity

The image to the left is equality. The same thing (in this case, a crate to stand on) was given to each child.

The image right is equity. Each child received a different amount of crates (0-2), but the end result was that all three children had an equal view of the game.

A mistake many causes and organizations make in their writing (mission statements, value statements, grant proposals, donor appeals, etc.) is using equality when they really mean equity. Imagine an organization whose mission is to make quality education accessible to all school-age children in a community. Each child will have their own circumstances, and some will need the organization’s services much more than others. Some may not need it at all. This organization is creating equity, not equality.

In short, equality is sameness, whereas equity is fairness. Remember this the next time you write about your organization’s work. A few letters can change the meaning of your message.

What do you think? Are there circumstances in which an organization really means equality, and not equity?

Confident Writing is Sexy

[Note: Last week, we said hello to Tessa Srebro, who has joined the Claxon team as an intern. This is the first of many posts she’ll be doing about language, words and how you can use them to make the world a better place. How confident is your writing?]

“Confidence equals success.”

“Be confident in your choices.”

“Confidence is sexy.”

We hear phrases like this all the time. There are countless self-help programs and written advice on how to build your self-confidence. I hear from friends, both men and women, that they want a partner who is confident. If you think about it, the same goes for the organizations we support. We are more likely to trust an organization that appears confident. Who wants to support an organization that sounds like they don’t have confidence in their programs and their ability to produce results?

We, as humans, are drawn to confidence. It doesn’t only manifest itself in the way a person speaks or carries themself. In this world where our first contact with others is likely to be through websites, blogs, LinkedIn profiles, etc., it is important to convey confidence in the way you write, as well.

Here are a few ways to convey confidence in your writing:

1. Action Verbs = More Powerful Statements.

Which sounds more confident?

a. XYZ Organization is eradicating poverty by XYZ methods.


b. XYZ Organization eradicates poverty by XYZ methods.

Eliminate “to be” verbs such as “is” as much as possible!

2. Stay clear of wishy-washy extra words.

Your organization doesn’t “attempt to make change”, you “make change”! You aren’t “working to fight injustice”, you are “fighting injustice!”

3. Make your personality evident.

There are few things that show more confidence than being proud of what you are, and letting your supporters see that. Are you and your co-workers a little quirky? Embrace that. Don’t shield your personality behind a layer of status-quo, overused language.

Grammarly Photo

4. Take chances.

Part of having confidence is not being afraid of failure. If you find that something isn’t working, simply make an adjustment. The more often you fail, the less scary it becomes.

So get out there, get writing, and let your confidence shine!


7 Rules of Thumb (plus some cats and dogs)

Embedded image permalink
Photo credit: @DressForSuccesPHX

Earlier this week, I gave a keynote for the Alliance of Arizona’s annual membership meeting. I got to talk about one of the my all-time favorite topics >> The Language of Impact: how words can make the world a better place.

We covered 7 rules of thumb when it comes to using language, and therefore words, to increase impact.

  1. Get rigorous.
  2. Focus on your verbs.
  3. Ditch the robo-speak
  4. Stop talking about yourself.
  5. Stop talking so much.
  6. Translate your taglines.
  7. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Some, but not all, of these are covered in some form or fashion in Pitchfalls: why bad pitches happen to good people, my pocket-size book about pitches.

I focus a lot on pitches because they force you to really pay attention to every single word you use. It’s a useful exercise to see if you can say what you have to say in 10 words or less. It forces you to find the very best words and to prune out the superfluous ones.

Is this easy? No. Mark Twain said, “I would’ve written you a shorter story, but I didn’t have the time.”

Is it worth it? Yes.

Because the above Rules of Thumb take a little explaining in order to embrace, over the next few weeks, you’ll see a follow-up post on each rule. In the meantime, experiment with saying whatever you have to say in 10 words or less. See what stays and what goes.

(If you know anyone else who might be interested in how to use words to make the world a better place, share/forward this post so they can get in on the action, okay? Thanks!)

A note on cats and dogs: At the beginning of my talk, I asked a series of questions so I could factor the audience’s answers into my remarks. One of the questions was whether they were a cat person or a dog person. Someone asked me later how I used that information. (They were too polite to say it, but I think their real question was: do I really use that information or do I just ask it because it’s kinda funny? Either question is totally legit.)

Here’s the answer: I commonly ask the question at the beginning of a talk and, yes, I totally use what I learn. Acknowledging that this is a GROSS GENERALIZATION (and one with which some will take umbrage), here’s how: I use it as a proxy for how extroverted/introverted a group is. I then use this to inform how much I will/can engage the group.

For this particular group, there were way more dog people than cat people in da house. I engaged the audience a whole lot. I called on people individually. I asked questions throughout, etc. If there had been way more cat people, I might not have engaged quite so much. At least not right away. I would’ve eased into it a bit more. Not because introverts aren’t social–because they can be!–but they generally have a different learning style than extroverts. (See this wonderful graphic for more on introverts and extroverts.) This cat/dog approach is not an exact science and has its flaws, but it works pretty darn well.

So there you have it: 7 Rules of Thumb, plus some cats and dogs.

Disclaimer: The above paragraph should not be taken as judgement for or against introverts or extroverts, cat-lovers or dog-lovers or animal-lovers, in general. The world needs all the above, plus the animals they love.

The quest for the perfect word (and other useless endeavors)

Gates Foundation, Jeff Raikes, perfectionism, le bon mot, words, languageI love French. I really do. The way everything sounds so sophisticated and deep, even if they’re really just talking about grocery shopping or mowing the lawn.

<start brief personal interlude> From Kindergarten through Grade 2, I was in French immersion. After a brief hiatus from Grades 3 through 6, I picked it back up in Grade 7 and I’ve been been at it ever since. This franco-focus culminated in me spending a year at the university where all French folks with ambitions of making the world a better place through policy and/or politics go, Sciences Po. <end brief personal interlude>

You think I love words? These people were/are obsessed. Obsessed! I sat, bewitched and bemused, as they debated endlessly about which word was le bon mot–the right word. And by “right”, they meant perfect.

Fast-forward a few years (or decades, whatevs, who’s counting?) to this morning when I was reading Jeff Raike’s post on perfectionism. He points out that our question for perfectionism carries a big risk: that in our effort to avoid failure, we narrow our options to those that are  low-risk and achievable, rather than risky and remarkable.

Organizations–probably yours–fall into this trap when it comes to words. All the time. Constantly. Thus all those boring thank you notes. Thus yawn-worthy newsletters. Thus homepages that you have to read twelve times in order to even kinda sorta get what they’re saying because you keep nodding off.

Words are cheap. Don’t waste your time always looking for le bon mot. There’s a time and place for that. It’s called happy hour in a Parisian cafe. Unless that’s where you work, take off your beret and get back to work.

There are two notable exceptions to this “Good-And-Done-Is-Better-Than-Perfect-And-Drove-You-To-The-Brink-Of-Insanity” rule:

  1. You’re about to invest thousands of dollars in a printed piece: In these instances, spend some QT finding exactly the right words. (And while you’re finding the right words for that piece, I’d also recommend you hack about 50% of the words you’re planning to use because people will only skim the piece anyway, but that’s a post for another day…) 
  2. Subject lines of emails: Most people agonize over the content and then dash off the subject line. Reverse that. Nail your subject line and make sure the content is good.

Aside from those two exceptions, your quest for the perfect word is in all likelihood preventing you from achieving your goals–both the little, tiny, risk-free ones AND the great, big, awesome, this-world-is-truly-better ones.

Words are cheap. Take some risks. Scary though it may feel in the moment, you’ll be happy you did.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?