“If you want to go outside, you’ve got to talk outside.” A Conversation with Tony Proscio
Tony Proscio is a planning, evaluation, and communications consultant to foundations and major nonprofit organizations. A long-time contributor to The Communications Network, he is the main author of the Jargon Finder, a collection of foundation and nonprofit jargon excerpted from his three essays Others Words, Bad Words for Good, and When Words Fail. Tony joined The Communications Network to discuss the dangers of jargon and how to avoid them. A lightly edited transcript follows.
The Communications Network: Let’s talk about jargon and how you define it. What does jargon mean and how does it differ from other words?
Tony Proscio: The technical definition of jargon, the strictest, is language that is so technical that a person outside the field, the layperson so to speak, wouldn’t understand it, but that’s not the way most people that I work with think about jargon and it’s not generally the way I use the word either. For me, the definition of jargon is language that stops the reader instead of encouraging the reader to keep going, reader or listener. It’s language that either is grating or hard to figure out or seemingly wrong in some way that makes the reader or the listener stop and, instead of paying attention to your point, pay attention to your language.
- Don’t shy away from communicating the high stakes of your issue.
- Keep your audiences in suspense to keep them engaged and willing to take action.
- Use graphic and sound design to signal your organization’s “story brand.”
- Relevance is highly personal and determined by the recipient
- Segmenting your audience allows for better, more relevant communications
- Your organization already has the data to segment, even if you don’t know it
If you want to know what people think—ask them! And then listen to what they have to say. That’s what the Communication Matters research project is all about.
As communicators, we know how powerful listening is.
The Communications Network and its members have a point of view about the value of communication in creating social change. But what do our colleagues think, whether they’re making decisions from the executive suite, managing a portfolio of grants, or working in the field?
Here’s a taste of what we’re hearing.
From a small regional foundation:
“Our president & CEO gets it. When she was hired, she visited foundations of a similar asset size to find out, ‘If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?’ The consistent message was, ‘Get communications right from the get-go. Tell your own story lest someone else tell it for you.’”
We’re uncovering great examples of communication being used in strategic ways.
From a medium-sized health care foundation:
“We fund a fair amount of policy analyses and our goal is to have impact by informing and influencing state-level decision making. We couldn’t do that without an aggressive and comprehensive approach to communications. When grantees produce analytic deliverables, we invest a lot of resources in helping them to shape the story, tease out the key take-aways, develop concrete recommendations, and express their work in a way that is both compelling and persuasive.”
And we’re hearing about some of the interesting challenges, twists, and turns that communication work can take.
From a program officer at a large foundation:
“We have found that our use of communication—particularly ‘naming’ the reform—has simultaneously advanced the measurable elements of the reform discussion and annoyed allies who use different language. It raises the larger question of whether everyone working on an issue agrees on what to call things and how to talk about them, which can be either a good discussion or a distraction from program outcome goals.”
Most people don’t know much about foundations. I’ve been working in philanthropy for over 15 years, and when I first started, my parents (Korean immigrants) thought I’d be working directly for sweet, elderly society matrons in Chanel suits, who had oodles of money to give away to libraries, hospitals, and pet societies.
It is true, foundations do give away money. It is still our core defining element. But at many foundations, the act of giving away money has gone far beyond issuing a check to a deserving organization or cause. For example, many foundations invest not just in projects or initiatives related to important causes, like education or health care, but also in the people and the organizations that fuel those causes. I currently work at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and one of the many things I love about this foundation is a dedicated grants program, called Organizational Effectiveness (OE), to help current Packard grantees tackle the “fundamentals.” Meaning, things like fundraising, business planning, leadership development, and yes, strategic communications.
It is true, foundations do give away money. It is still our core defining element. But at many foundations, the act of giving away money has gone far beyond issuing a check to a deserving organization or cause.
In 2013, almost a quarter of OE’s grants supported grantee efforts to build their own communications capacity. And OE’s focus on grantee capacity is by no means unique: dozens of foundations across the country support capacity-building for grantees and some even specialize in communications capacity. When I worked at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I participated in numerous efforts to build grantees’ communications capacity, through training programs, message boot camps, and other forms of assistance that were either part of or extra to the grants they received.