Top 5 Words to Avoid to Achieve Messaging Awesomeness

Erica Mills

Last week on the main Nonprofit Marketing Guide site (you are reading the blog now), I published an article called, “Blah, Blah, Blah: What to Do When You Write Too Much.” In today’s guest post, Erica Mills of Claxon Marketing takes it to the next step by showing how specific words can actually debilitate your messaging.  ~Kivi

Guest Post by Erica Mills of Claxon Marketing

We all crave an awesomely compelling way to talk and write about our organizations. But finding the right words is hard. It’s easy to convince yourself that your messaging is ‘good enough’ and move on. Alas, if your words miss the mark, you miss the opportunity to connect with people passionate about your cause. No people, no progress. So you’ve got to make your words work.

Every year, we get help in our efforts at messaging awesomeness from Words to Avoid Lists. These are pure gold. They include words that become so trendy and overused that they end up on Lake Superior State University’s List of Banished Words or Big Duck’s Words to Avoid list.

The following is a little different. It includes five words you must forever avoid you want to create compelling, action-inspiring (a.k.a. awesome) messaging. Not just this year, but every year.

Use this list as a filter: Look at what you have and if you see any of these words, get rid of them. Not saying it’ll be easy (and you might want to dust off your thesaurus), but it will definitely be worthwhile.

1. ‘Provide’: If you have the word ‘provide’ in your tagline, top-level message or elevator pitch, you’re being lazy. Sorry to be harsh, but it’s true. There’s always a better word. Wondering how to find those words? Ask the people you serve what you do for them. They will naturally use verbs that speak to the impact you are having, rather than the actions you are taking to have the impact.

2. ‘Just’: The word ‘just’ downplays your work and your impact. “We’re just eradicating extreme global poverty.” “Our organization just helped 5, 462 elementary school students learn to read last year.” Really? You just did that?! You did it and you’re doing it. Own it! People are energized by your passion for what you do. The word ‘just’ is a passion-killer. Just stop using the word ‘just’. Eradicate it. You won’t miss it.

3. ‘Trying’: This word lets you hedge. Stop it! Compare:

“We’re trying to get junk food out of schools.”
“We’re getting junk food out of schools.”

Sure, you might not have gotten 100% of the junk food out of the schools yet, but that’s the goal, right? That’s what will be different because of your work. People want to be involved in making a difference. Not in trying to perhaps, kinda sorta make a difference. (Note: Substituting ‘striving’, ‘endeavoring’ or any other synonym for trying isn’t going to help. The point is to avoid this whole category of words.)

4. ‘Self-sufficiency’: Gasp! How can there be something wrong with this word? Let me share a quick story: I was board chair for an organization that helped low-income women become self-sufficient through business training and loans. One day, a group of clients came and asked us the following: “Is your personal goal to be self-sufficient or to be successful?” You see their point. Self-sufficiency is a step on the success ladder. It’s not the top rung. When re-working your messaging (which all of you using ‘self-sufficiency’ will now hustle out and do, right?), the question is: What’s the top rung of your ladder? For inspiration, the organization mentioned above switched up their messaging to be: “We help low-income women become successful entrepreneurs”. See the difference?

5. ‘Thriving communities’: Okay, this is two words. They’re fine on their own, but not together. Why? Because every nonprofit is “building thriving communities”. (Do you know of any organizations who want to build withering communities? No.) It doesn’t distinguish you in any way from other organizations. You want your words to help you stand out, not blend in.

If you diligently avoid the words above, you’ll be well on your way to Messaging Awesomeness!

Erica Mills heads up Claxon, where they craft messaging that connects people who care with causes that matter. She has spoken about nonprofit marketing and communications across North America and is an Instructor at the University of Washington. Visit her blog for more on using the power of words to advance your mission.

© 2007-2017, Nonprofit Marketing Guide. All Rights Reserved.

Author: Kristina Leroux, Community Engagement Manager

I am the Community Engagement Manager at Nonprofit Marketing

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  • Sarah

    Excellent points! I am guilty of using “just” and “trying” too often in my first drafts, but now when I revise and edit, I consciously watch for them and give them the boot. 

    The other word I consistently edit out is very.   Mark Twain once said, “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your
    editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ”

  • guest

    Please fix : ” It’s not the top wrung”; it’s hurting your message

  • Hey guest, saw that–i thought it was a play on words of sorts

  • @8da8b1fdda4832f3653766f5eb3b3e73:disqus –Thanks for catching that I had the wrong (w)rung! Appreciate you taking time to point it out.  
    @twitter-91486964:disqus Wish I could say it was a play on words, but alas, it was just a straight up mistake. If I come up with a way to make it a play on words, I’ll let you know!

  • Hum… Interesting article!

    I think I have to disagree with one word: provide. We provide food hampers at Christmas. We provide assistance to low income families. We provide backpacks and other school essentials to children in need.

    What would you replace “provide” with? Thanks for the feedback!

    • Sometimes provide is your only option, but there’s usually a more specific, action-oriented option out there. For instance, with your examples, you might say:

      We distribute food hampers at Christmas. (Or use another verb that describes specifically what you do with the hampers.)

      We assist low-income families. (No need for provide at all!)

      We outfit kids in need with backpacks and other school essentials.

      Does that help?

  • Pingback: One Less Word Challenge (#onelessword)()

  • Can I throw in “the”?  This word is usually little more than filler and can be eliminated to create a tighter sentence with more impact.

    • So, so, so true! (Going to watch my ‘the’ usage today.) Thanks for this addition!

  • Pingback: “Top 5 Words to Avoid” Featured on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog()

  • Rookright63

    But my organization is just trying to help communities thrive by providing them with self-sufficiency.