Melinda McKee

Does your audience understand what you’re telling them? Melinda McKee shares her tips for making sure your message is understood by the people you are trying to reach in today’s guest post.  ~Kivi

Guest Post by Melinda McKee, Public Relations and Communications Director for NCGives

Ever feel like your nonprofit’s communications are playing out like a game of telephone? (Or maybe an episode of Fawlty Towers?) You put out a statement of some sort, and it makes sense to you, but your audience doesn’t seem to be getting it. You realize they’re walking away confused (or worse — thinking that they understood you, but in reality are way off the mark).

In my experience as a nonprofit communicator, I’ve found that one of the biggest barriers to good communication is actually pretty basic: it’s the very words we’re using, and how we use them.

Clear, audience-specific rhetoric is important for any nonprofit with a message to share, regardless of how simple or complex that message may be. And it’s not just important for formal speeches or official documents; it also matters in our everyday communications, from a casual elevator pitch to an individual email.

To help bring consistency and clarity to NCGives’ rhetoric, I led our staff in a training-and-brainstorming session. First, I talked about the role of jargon, going a little more in-depth than the “just don’t do it” rule of thumb. Next, we put our heads together to evaluate the actual words and phrases in our organization’s lexicon.

That session resulted in a “Rhetoric Guidelines” document that is now part of our marketing bank. Each staff member is encouraged to review these guidelines on three types of occasions:

  1. Before public speaking engagements
  2. Before meetings (especially with new or new-ish contacts)
  3. As we write significant emails or other documents

So, what exactly should you be looking for? Here are the six main questions that got to the heart of my organization’s rhetoric issues (represented by six different flip chart pages during our brainstorming session):

  • When is it okay for us to use jargon?
  • When is it NOT okay to use jargon?
  • What are our most frequently used jargon words?
  • Which words/phrases should we use MORE?
  • Which words/phrases should we use CAREFULLY?
  • Which words/phrases do we need to PURGE from our vocabulary altogether?

I’ve elaborated on these six questions in a handy-dandy cheat sheet, taken from our own document: Rhetoric Guidelines. Feel free to adapt this template to fit your own organization (especially the examples).

Quick reality check! If at this point you’re thinking, “our staff would never remember to use this”…you’re probably right. Most likely it will be up to you to offer friendly reminders before important events, during staff meetings, etc. Make it easy for staff to find your Rhetoric Guidelines, and take advantage of opportunities to quickly reiterate why clear, consistent word choice is genuinely important to furthering your nonprofit’s mission.

(This is also why the brainstorming session needs to be a group effort. Getting buy-in at the beginning will, hopefully, help everyone take the words they use more seriously…making your message that much clearer.)

Melinda McKee is the Public Relations & Communications Director for NCGives, a statewide nonprofit on a mission to celebrate and strengthen North Carolina’s culture of giving. As a one-woman department, she oversees the organization’s strategic communications planning, print and new media content creation, brand management and everything in between; she’s also the office [Reluctantly Accidental] Techie. For more marketing and nonprofit geekery, you can follow Melinda on Twitter.