The Montana Budget and Policy Center’s littlest staff member featured in Wonky Word Wednesdays, explaining the difference between a tax credit and a tax deduction.

On our trip across Montana last week teaching nonprofits about clear, consistent, and compelling messaging, we heard some great examples of nonprofits doing their best to make the complicated work they do more easy to understand. One of those examples came from Tara Jensen, director of public affairs at the Montana Budget & Policy Center (MBPC).

MBPC recently launched Wonky Word Wednesdays on their blog – an attempt to explain in plain English what those wonky words they throw around all the time — like Centrally Assessed Property Taxes and the Federal Poverty Line —  really mean.

I asked Tara to share some background and insights that you might find helpful in your own quest to explain your jargon . . .

Why did you decide to start Wonky Word Wednesday?

I started working at MBPC in March of this year. I quickly realized that there were many words that our organization used frequently that I generally knew the meanings of, but couldn’t define – things like federal poverty line or centrally assessed property tax.  Then during a strategic planning session, our board and staff discussed helping our allies and the general public better understand the state budget so they can engage in the process more effectively.

These two things got me thinking about ways to do both. I came up with the idea of doing a weekly feature on our blog about some sort of word. It would help me get a better grasp of complicated issues and would be a great tool for educating others. It was important to me that it was written in my voice. I wanted it to down to earth and even a little funny.

I pitched the idea at a staff meeting and everyone loved it. We quickly named it Wonky Word Wednesdays.

What’s been the feedback so far?

We have had much more feedback than I thought we would. It is one of our most viewed and liked Facebook posts each week, and I have received many emails from people saying how helpful it was. An attorney even called to say he better understood centrally assessed property taxes.

Although we want to be seen by our followers as experts in our field, we also don’t want to stay in our ivory tower. We think people will better use us as a trusted source of information when they feel our work is accessible, and that they don’t have to have special knowledge in order to understand us.

Are these hard to write?

They are a bit tricky because I am trying to write them in a light hearted way and have it be accurate. Even so, I’ve discovered that I look forward to the process each week.

I start by writing a paragraph about why I picked the word – what makes it hard to understand, what is going on in our state that makes it timely, and what even makes it funny. Then I do my research. I try to do the majority of the reading on my own before asking our super smart staff for help. Part of this exercise is for me to understand ideas better and then explain it to others.

After a first draft, I give it to our wonderfully wonky staff to ensure its accuracy and to get general feedback. We go back and forth 2 or 3 times to refine style and maximize the broccoli without diluting the cheese.

What other ways have you tried to help people understand your jargon?

In general, we started the blog as a way to get information out quickly and so we could talk about complicated issues in bite size pieces. Even when we release big reports or statements on complex tax and budget issues, we try to write them in a way that most people can understand. However, I think this is the first time we are actively trying to explain the jargon itself rather than the policy implications behind it.

What about you and your organization? What are you doing to explain the jargon you just can’t avoid? Share in the comments.

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