Really? Really.

This is the latest post from our word-nerd-erific inter, Vicki

Really? Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Sky, Clouds and Sunburst.

I have a love hate relationship with the word really. There are times when it is great.

Thank you very much.
Thank you, really.

Both sentences use an intensifier on “thank you” but the sentence with “really” feels more, well, real. I like that the thing it is highlighting is the authenticity of the sentence. There are many times when really is a fabulous word choice, but I have two issues it.

First, I over use it. Grossly. I annoy myself with how often I say “really.” To deal with this problem I search for every instance of the word really when editing and make sure it needs to be there. It’s at the top of my editing checklist.

The other issue I have is something I learned while editing it out. Really, like other intensifiers, often hides vagueness. As the term implies, we use intensifiers when we want to make a statement more (you guessed it) intense.  However, if the statement needs more intensity, it deserves more than just an extra word slapped on. In these instances, figure out why you need to make your words intense. Is there a more specific word or do you need to elaborate?  I’m all for parsimony, but sometimes you need a few more words to make your point.

Let’s revisit our example from above and look at the term “Thank you.” Imagine you’re thanking a new volunteer at your organization’s soup kitchen.

Thank you. We were able to feed fifty more people because you helped today. The kindness and patience you gave our clients show that you share the values that motivate us all in this work. I know Penny appreciated your help with that tray.  She hesitates to ask so it was sweet of you to jump in and offer assistance.

There are no intensifiers in that version, but it has a stronger impact because I’m showing the connection to the mission and core values as well as giving some personal detail.

Look for places where you are using intensifiers in your own writing. How many can you replace by being more specific?

Looking for more tips on “Thank you?” Erica has a few posts on the topic. This one is my favorite.

Thinking of creating your own list of things to check for when editing? You may enjoy Tessa’s post on editing checklists.

Making them think or making them feel

Part of our jobs as do-gooders is to make people feel things. Because feeling things makes people do things…good things. One feeling that is particularly effective at generating engagement and action is empathy—the  ability to experience the feelings of another person.  Helping your audience feel the feelings of those they are—or can—help helps them see themselves in the story and encourages their participation.

This mailing from the UK’s National Asthma Campaign, circa 1991, is a good example of involving an audience in the story. Few can resist the invitation to experience 30 seconds of asthma, even if just out of curiosity. And then they immediately imagine their life with asthma. And they realize that life with asthma ain’t easy.

Don’t get me wrong, making people think is important too.  But we frequently bombard people with facts, when sometimes what we need to do is help them feel.

Engagement starts with goats

goatI’ve been thinking about the concept of “engagement” a lot lately and boy do I have some      opinions on thank you notes that are engaging (or not), which I shared in a guest blog post over on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog.

Here’s a little history lesson, word-nerd style: the term engagement came into popular use in the 1600s and referred to a “formal promise”. It makes you think about the lead-up to that promise, doesn’t it? I mean, people don’t just willy nilly enter into formal agreements with other people unless they feel there’s a darn good payout on the other end.

Whether you’re talking about marriage, a business partnership, or a pinky promise at recess, when it comes to a formal promise, there’s an exchange of something that both parties value.

In the seventeenth century, when all this engagement business got its start, it could have been some goats or a parcel of land—each. But think about it today, in the context of your work. Supporters are gifting you their money, their time or their attention.  What are you doing to hold up your end of the promise?

(Image courtesy of chrisroll /

Relativity, Narrowness and Names

My son, who is three and a bit, is obsessed with organizing things by size. Cups, toys, trains. Is the red cup bigger than the yellow one? Is the brown bear smaller than the white one? It’s all about relativity. Why is this?

At a workshop I gave in Bellingham on St. Patrick’s Day, I shared that there were 36.5 million people of Irish heritage in the U.S. That’s nine times the population of Ireland. Which number do you think they remembered at the end of the workshop: 36.5 or 9? That’s right, 9. And not just because it’s smaller. But because it was relative.  We train our brains from a very early age to compare and contrast. Absolutes are tough to wrap our brains around. My son will not grow out of his penchant for comparing; he’ll grow into it.

We spent a fair amount of time at Tune-Up Tuesday thinking about relativity as it relates (ha, ha) to messaging.

Lesson: use relativity to your advantage so people remember your organization and mission.

Two other key take-aways from this month’s meet-up:

  1. Personas are powerful. They are also hard to do. They force us to be specific and think deeply about one type of person who cares about our cause rather than the universe of people who might. Lesson: Deep and narrow beats shallow and wide when it comes to messaging.
  2. Names matter. A lot. If your organization goes by an acronym, be consistent about using that acronym. If you have an acronym AND you use the full name, you’re managing two brands. That’s expensive and erodes brand equity. Lesson: When it comes to names and acronyms, use one or the other but not both.

For those that were there, anything to add? For those that coudn’t join, what were you hoping to cover?

Inspirational Messaging: InvestED

This week’s bit of messaging inspiration comes to us from InvestED, a Seattle-based nonprofit that understands seemingly small hurdles can be huge barriers to student success. Formerly The Saul and Dayee G. Haas Foundation, InvestED’s message is specific and focused: Get immediate help for students in need.

Because sometimes a pair of sneakers is what it takes to graduate, InvestED encourages secondary school students to stay in school, return to school or get involved in their learning community by providing funding to schools for a range of items including school supplies, appropriate clothing, and activity or course fees.

Is there more to InvestED’s story than this? You bet. But, when it comes to their messaging, they make it easy to understand what they do, how they do it and–most importantly–why they do it. It’s inspirational in its simplicity.

Watch Naomi explain the importance of that pair of sneakers and the impact they made in Naomi’s life.

Inspirational Messaging: Treehouse

“Would you like to give foster kids a childhood and a future?”

This wasn’t what I expected the volunteer elf to ask when I was buying tickets for my family to ride the holiday carousel in downtown Seattle. But she did.

What the elf meant was that all proceeds from the carousel are going to Treehouse, a Seattle-based organization that provides a wide range of services for foster kids and families.

Now, if the elf had asked if I wanted to support an organization that provides services to foster kids and their families, I probably would have said, “Sure.” But her delivery was so much more compelling that I said, “Absolutely!!” and joyfully jumped at the opportunity to do so.

Inspired to learn more, I went online and was thrilled to see that Treehouse is extremely consistent across its many communications channels. Yeah, Treehouse–compelling and consistent! (See this post about Global Partnerships for more on the importance of consistency.)

It would be understandable for Treehouse to want to explain everything they do because all of it is critically important. Instead, they focus on their essence: giving foster kids a childhood and a future. Nuff said.

As Seth Godin recently explained, “The answer is simple,” is always more effective than, “It’s complicated.”

If you are tempted to say that what your organization does is so complicated it can’t be distilled into a compelling, easy-to-understand message, just remember: if Treehouse can do it, so can you.

P.S. If you want to give foster kids a childhood and a future, there’s still time to go ride the carousel!


Inspirational Messaging: A Child’s Right

In last week’s post, we invited you to embark on a messaging journey. As inspiration to do so, we shared a video featuring Scott Harrison, Founder & President of Charity: Water, an organization that brings clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

This week, we find inspiration from another water-focused organization.

A Child’s Right: Every child has a right to clean water.

Whether you consider this an irrefutable truth or pie-in-the-sky, you know what A Child’s Right is all about: kids and clean water. Eric Stowe, the organization’s Founder & Director, doesn’t muddy the waters (pun intended) with a bunch of details. And whether you peruse their annual report, check out their website, or see one of their water filtration systems in action, it’s always the same message. Concise, consistent…compelling.

Some of you are probably thinking something along the lines of, “Yeah but what we do is so much more nuanced and complicated.” A Child’s Right brought clean water to 250,000 in four years. And they are going to bring clean water to 1,000,000 more in the next ten years. How’s that for complicated?

A Child’s Right keeps their top-level messaging focused on the belief that motivates them every day, the ‘why’ behind their work. It makes you want to ask, “Yeah, but how?!” (For anyone wondering, here’s how.)

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?