Words, Words, Words! Introducing Claxon’s “Word of the Month”

At Claxon, we embrace our word nerdery proudly. That’s because, like you, we know the importance of choosing the right words. One word can mean the difference between getting noticed and getting overlooked.

We love words so much, we create tools and resources such as The Wordifier so nonprofits can make their messaging remarkable.

We also love diving deep into a particular word to find out its history, its evolution, and its level of remarkable-ness. And we love sharing what we’ve uncovered so that you can make informed word choices for your cause.

That’s why we’re launching a Word of the Month series!

Each month, we’ll choose a word that’s commonly found in nonprofit communications, or a word we feel is underutilized by nonprofits. We’ll explain where the word comes from, how often it’s used, and what to watch for when determining whether or not to use it in your communications.

To kick off this series, we’re starting with the one word I’ve used more than any other in this post thus far. We’re getting a little silly, as well as a little meta. Have a guess?

This month’s word is “word”.

Before beginning to research the word “word”, I made the assumption that its origins would date back pretty far. As soon as we started having elements of speech to describe objects, actions, and ideas, it would follow naturally that we have a way to describe these speech elements themselves, right?

Yep. Turns out, the word “word” has been in use since basically the dawn of the English language, when “Old English” was spoken. It’s from the Proto-Germanic “wurdan”. (Don’t worry, I didn’t know what Proto-Germanic was either.)

Here’s the coolest thing I found out: In its original Old English, it also had an additional implication: a promise. There’s something beautiful, if not a bit intimidating, about a word being a promise. (Maybe this is where the phrase “as good as your word” stems from?)

There are many variations on “word” that arose much more recently. “Wordsmith”, for example, popped up in 1896, and “buzzword” came around in 1946, thought to be originated from Harvard students’ slang for the most important words in their lectures or readings.

And unlike a lot of other words whose popularity ebbs and flows over time, “word” has stayed pretty consistent in its frequency of use. No surprise there!

Even though this month’s Word of the Month is more of a playful announcement than a word your nonprofit actually needs to be conscious of, we decided to run it through The Wordifer to see what would happen.

Turns out, a majority of uses of this word are from religious organizations. This totally makes sense. (Think: “The Word of God”).

Thanks for joining us in having a bit of fun with the word “word”! Check in next month when we explore a word that can either boost your nonprofit messaging’s remarkable-ness, or bring you down to the land of the overlooked.

Conjunction Junction & the All-Powerful ‘And’

Language Lab podcast, free tools, nonprofits, language, words, messagingSmall words matter. They can be oh so powerful. Yet they bounce off of our lips so quickly that you hardly notice them. But notice them you should!

Take for example the humble ‘and’. How many times in a day do you use it? How about ‘but’? Both have three letters. Both have two consonants and one vowel. Both are used primarily as conjunctions. And that’s where the similarities end.

And brings people, things, thoughts, ideas together. But pushes them apart. And is packed with positivity. But drips with negativity.

Take three minutes and contemplate the All-Powerful And with me in this week’s Language Lab podcast.

[If you’re like me, you totally want to listen to Conjunction Junction right about now…here you go.]

And for those of you who like to read your poetry, rather than listen to it, here is the excerpt from Richard Rohr’s book The Naked Now that inspired this week’s podcast. (Many thanks to Julie Lombardo for sending this my way!)

“And” teaches us to say yes
“And” allows us to be both-and
“And” keeps us from either-or
“And” teaches us to be patient and long-suffering
“And” is willing to wait for insight and integration
“And” keeps us from dualistic thinking
“And” does not divide the field of the moment
“And” helps us to live in the always imperfect now
“And” keeps us inclusive and compassionate toward everything
“And” demands that our contemplation become action
“And” insists that our action is also contemplative
“And” heals our racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism
“And” keeps us from the false choice of liberal or conservative
“And” allows us to critique both sides of things
“And” allows us to enjoy both sides of things
“And” is far beyond anyone nation or political party
“And” helps us face and accept our own dark side
“And” allows us to ask for forgiveness and to apologize
“And” is the mystery of paradox in all things
“And” is the way of mercy
“And” makes daily, practical love possible
“And” does not trust love if it is not also justice
“And” does not trust justice if it is not also love
“And” is far beyond my religion versus your religion
“And” allows us to be both distinct and yet united
“And” is the very Mystery of Trinity

Words that make you look dumb: alot

AlotNoALotWhether a word is “good” or not is largely a matter of opinion. For instance, I think ‘awesome’ is awesome and others beg to differ. Some people and organizations (cough, Microsoft, cough) love acronyms while others take umbrage with them.

But there is one word that is categorically a bad word–alot.

Want to know why it’s villainous? Because it makes you look dumb. Because it doesn’t exist! Nope, sure doesn’t. All is explained in this wee podcast.

Sure, when you say “alot”, no one knows you’ve mushed two words together. But you know whether, in your mind’s eye, you’re saying a non-word. For shame!

Absolutely, positively don’t write it. Ever. Please. Not even to be funny, cute or clever. Use a hashtag instead. #CuzNothingSaysClevahLikeAHashtag

**You can listen to podcasts on words like joy, gratitude, disappointment and funsies in the Language Lab Library.**

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.

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!

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?

7 Rules of Thumb (plus some cats and dogs)

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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.

Giving USA: giving is lookin’ good

Giving USA, philanthropy, fundraisingThis morning, I got a whirlwind run-down on Giving USA 2013. Tom Mesaros, of The Alford Group, gave a lively overview of all those charts and graphs. (Shout-out to Pacific Continental Bank for making this info-packed, muffin-filled breakfast possible!)

Tom made many good points. One of his Great Big Points was that, as a country, we’re pretty darn generous. Total contributions were $316.23 billion in 2012. Not exactly chump change. 72% came from individuals. Foundations account for 14%. When you figure that lots of the foundation money comes from individuals, this paints a rosy picture of our altruistic acumen.

Tom also spoke to some of the challenges we face as a sector. Terrible note-taker that I am, I didn’t manage to get them all down, but one really stood out: the growth challenge.

  • Are people still hungry? Yes.
  • Are there still homeless children on our streets? Yes.
  • Is the environment still in danger of going up in smoke? Yes.

The list goes on and on. There is still significant unmet need. If we’re going to realizing our vision of a better world, we have to grow in order to meet his need.

Although we’re making a comeback from our 2008 ‘hiccup’, the report estimates we still have six to seven years to go before we hit pre-recessionary levels (adjusted for inflation, mind you). Cramped influx of capital with high unmet need. It’s kind of a conundrum.

Broken record alert: we’re only retaining 3 out of 10 donors. I feel like there’s a connection between this stat and the charts/graphs in the Giving USA Report and the aforementioned conundrum. If we can make headway on retention, imagine what that would do in terms of growth! Makes my heart palpitate.

Smart growth is complicated. Expanding and deepening engagement is complicated. I’ll give you that. But as I was sitting there this morning, I couldn’t help but think how much we’re under-utilizing a really cheap asset–language.

We’re using words anyway (at an average rate of 15,000 per day). If we made them count more, how much would that help with retention? With meeting unmet need? With engaging more people at a deeper level in this thing called philanthropy? Even if all we did was fixed our pitches, what impact would that have?

I wonder. I really, truly do.



When personal brand meets organizational message

There’s a lot of buzz about personal brand(ing) these days. Rightfully so. The tools available make it possible for you to build your very own Personal Brand Empire. There are loads of articles on how to do this (like this one from SocialBrite).

There isn’t a lot on how the advent of personal branding impacts organizational messaging. Your message is only as effective as the people who use it. If the organizational message conflicts with enough people’s personal brands, you’ve got yourself a problem.

You have an HR problem that is rearing its head as a messaging problem.

Attract people who care passionately about your cause and your mission, and this problem will resolve itself to a large extent.

Once you have the right people on the bus, make sure they have the right words. Words that support your organization’s brand, words that are easy to infuse with one’s personal passion for the work. With this in place, personal branding can support organizational messaging. And that’s good for everyone.





Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?