Erica Mills Barnhart talks about the power of words

Episode aired Dec. 16, 2020: The Power of Words

Erica Mills Barnhart isn’t just the founder of Claxon Marketing and an Associate Teaching Professor at the University of Washington. She’s also a master wordsmith. She understands how each word affects how supporters view our organization. In this episode Erica discusses

  • why your mission statement needs to be MUCH shorter!!! (HINT: A mission statement is not about the staff’s view)
  • why the words ‘provide’, ‘community’ and ‘we’ need to go 
  • dropping boring words and using words that engage and educate and
  • why certain terms (e.g. food insecurity) don’t say what you think they do.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us one of the smartest nonprofit people I know, an expert in marketing, communications and wordsmithing, my friend Erica Mills Barnhart. Erica, how you doing today?

Erica: I’m actually… I’m fantastic!  

Ephraim: Excellent. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Erica is an associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. In addition to teaching classes on nonprofit marketing, philanthropy and social innovation, she co-directs the Nancy Bell Evans Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. Erica is also the founder and CEO of Claxon, a company that teaches those doing good how to get noticed. Her clients have included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bellingham Food Bank, Group Health Foundation, King County Library System and hundreds more.

She is the author of Pitchfalls: why bad pitches happen to good people and the creator of the Wordifier, an online tool that lets nonprofits amplify their words.

The Power Of Words

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss the power of words. Let’s dive right in. Erica, do words still have the same power they once did, given the current age of short text messages, tweets, abbreviations and emojis?

Erica: I would say they actually have more power and I would say that, there’s this expression: I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time, which in the United States we attribute to… oh my gosh… Mark Twain but actually he was paraphrasing Blaise Pascal. Just to set the record straight on that. But the idea is, a short format is actually harder than longer format and this is when I teach almost every class that I teach, I have my students do a 280 character- so same as Twitter- their key takeaways for the week. And at first they’re like, oh, that’s great, it’s only 280 characters. So I’m like yeah, just wait for it, wait for it. And what I hear consistently is that was one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever had because it forces parsimony, right? When you have like a little swath and you can say whatever and go on and on, in some ways that gives you the luxury of like, oh I didn’t quite mean that.

Let me true that up a little bit. I mean to a certain extent I would say more with specific regards like emojis and sort of symbolism that we’re bringing into language, there’s a raging debate about this as you can imagine. Some pros and cons. You know the job of language and the job of well… words are part of language and if the job of language is to communicate, sometimes what we’re communicating about is an emotion. And so in a lot of ways emojis are really advancing us in terms of language.

I would just say obviously, sometimes an emoji isn’t appropriate. Just like you’re going to calibrate your language for context… I was just grading policy memos for my students and you pretty standard piece of feedback I give is this sentence is just fine. Policy memos are pretty formal, so you probably want it to be a little more… you want to elevate a little bit and have it be a bit more formal. But assuming you’re doing that and you’re not inappropriately sending emojis to people, I actually view it as one of the things I love about language. And what keeps me hooked is that it is always evolving and I find that exciting. It frustrates a lot of people but it sort of depends on your philosophy about the role of language and what it can do.  

Say What You Mean

Ephraim: Excellent. There are organizations that use food insecurity instead of hunger or people with autism as opposed to autistic people. It’s an argument over being direct with donors, say what you mean or being more PC, more people first. Where do you stand on this issue in terms of messaging and fundraising?

Erica: It’s a great question. Also I have to say I’m facing my window and as you can tell, we’re having like some sunshine and then not sunshine. So sorry I end up looking a little ghost-like at times but it’s probably better than me hopping up and trying to adjust the blinds all the time.

So that’s a really interesting question but your examples are actually not apples to apples, right? It’s an apple to an orange. So one with food insecurity is actually one of my all-time biggest pet peeves. I’m like, you’re talking about hunger. Just say hunger. Like the food isn’t insecure, you know? The eggplant isn’t sitting there like, oh I’m having an existential crisis. I’m insecure. That’s actually what that pairing says, that the food is insecure. The food’s not. The food’s fine. You are saying hunger. So in that instance I’m in the camp of say that.

With your second example, at least to me that’s a different thing, right? This has to do with how we identify people and whether or not that is by their context or not. It’s not just about being direct or not direct. At least in the United States you really saw an evolution and your example with autism would be similar but we used to refer to foster kids… you would hear oh, they’re a foster kid. Now you don’t hear that quite as much and the reason for that is that the foster kids were like, I’m a kid and I happen to be in foster care right now. It’s a circumstance and don’t define me by that. So I think with that, when there are people involved, the question to ask is: Do these people want to be defined in this way? And the only way you can find out is by asking them. Don’t hypothesize. If you’re not in that camp, just ask and see what feels right to them, what is respectful. Yes, still accurate. I mean you don’t want to go into weird euphemisms like food insecurity. What bugs me is that it’s kind of this euphemism for hunger. But with those others, you don’t want to get into weird euphemisms but also you want to be really respectful of how those people want to be referred to. So yeah, my answer is it depends. 

Words Not To Use

Ephraim: Okay. Today’s actionable item: You created an amazing tool called The Wordifier which allows people to enter words and check how often it’s used by other nonprofits. Using the same words as everyone else won’t help you stand out. Could you please tell us three to four words or phrases that many nonprofits use and what you would substitute in their place?

Erica: Yeah, another great question. My answer to this one is also it depends. I’ll just give a little bit of the findings. You have heard me harsh on the verb ‘provide’ for a long time. The question I get… the deal is ‘provide’ is dependent is the fourth or fifth most used verb by nonprofits. It comes behind ‘is’ and ‘are’ and verbs of being and stuff like that. So it’s just not very interesting. Verbs are action words, so that’s your way of saying this is what we’re creating in the world.

For nonprofits… verbs are always important but for nonprofits they’re like really really important. Provide is a very flexible word. You can provide anything to anybody, which is why it ends up there but it’s also just so boring, right? Part of the idea of getting people engaged or interested and then keeping them- but you know marketing sort of ends up being a bit more in the acquisition space since we’re thinking about fundraising- so you want to be picking words that are going to activate someone’s brain and this is biochemical. We love novelty. Our brains love novelty, so it’s playing off of that research and that sort of fundamental truth about how our brains work. But the thing is I can’t just say, well you should swap that out for… clearly you shouldn’t say that provide, you should say this. That depends entirely on context and when I say to organizations, once they get over their disappointment that I’m like, I don’t have the exact answer for that for you, the work is like, what are you really trying to say? What is the change that you’re creating in the world? Those aren’t easy answers, right? So there’s some work underneath that has to happen with that.

I will say though, one of the best things you can do is, if you work for a nonprofit, go through all your marketing materials and your fundraising and every time you see the verb ‘provide’ ask yourself is there not a better verb? Because in general- every once around there’s an exception- but in general, if you see ‘provide’ there is a better written sentence to be had.

There is I would say another one that comes up a lot, is the word ‘community.’ This is a toughy because it’s a little bit similar but the thing with community is the attention test. You want to bring to that is, you may say ‘community’ and you are like, well clearly everybody’s gonna understand who ‘community’ is for us. But especially if it isn’t somebody who’s involved in your organization yet, they’re just getting to know you. They may not in fact know how you’re defining ‘community’ and what I see oftentimes is organizations just like assuming that everybody defines ‘community’ in the same way that they do and that assumption is dangerous. I mean you know assumptions are in a continuum of like “danger to like, oh that’s a bummer. We didn’t define it as clear as we could have.” But it becomes dangerous early on when somebody’s getting to know you, because they can feel excluded. It is similar to the use of the word ‘we.’

This is another red flag word in acquisition, in particular. If it’s an acquisition missive in fundraising, unless somebody has already given to you, they are not part of the ‘we’ and oftentimes you’ll see letters… I mean you’ve seen this many many times I’m sure. The ‘we’ but the writer, the organization says to me and they’re like, oh they’re going gonna feel a part of this. But on the receiving they’re like, I’m not I’m not a part of you yet. I haven’t given. I haven’t volunteered, haven’t done these things and so it actually creates distance when you’re trying to do is bring somebody in. It actually does the opposite. It creates distance, it makes them feel even further away in terms of engagement. So those are three.

Ephraim: Fantastic.

Erica: But anybody can go… if you’re curious, go to wordifier.com  It’s free. That’s why I made it free, so that as you’re sitting there you can have a way to go and know definitively how often a word is being used. It also breaks down by sub sector, which is helpful because if you’re in arts and you use the word ballet, that’s different than the environment. Not a lot of folks are using the word ballet in the environment. Language is always contextual.

How To Plan Messaging

Ephraim: Yes, those were three excellent examples. Thank you. At your company Claxon, you help organizations use the right words, so they go from being the best kept secret in town to world famous. A) Why is the company named Claxon and B) what’s involved in that work as far as messaging that engages more people and then helps raise more money?

Erica: Okay, so I have a prop for this that I’m trying to get a spot so that people aren’t like, what is happening? For those who don’t know, this is a claxon horn. You may have seen it. I won’t do that because that’s really blurry and annoying but this is a claxon horn. I wanted it to be one word and I wanted it to be a different word, in keeping with the idea.

So the idea that we teach those doing good how to get noticed. Fundamentally we do that by using words predominantly. To me the horn and the claxon horn, if you haven’t heard it, go and listen. It’s a very distinct sound.

I also wanted a word that could be said in multiple languages and so claxon is claxon in French and also you can say in Spanish. You can… it can be said in a lot of languages which was important to me as well. So that’s the back story on it and sort of epitomized the point of doing the work.

Then the second question is I think the mechanics of how does Claxon works with clients. I think that’s what you’re getting at. There’s a couple different ways when we do client engagements. They tend… my joke is that I start off and I want them to be democratic at the beginning and draconian at the end. The reason I say that is it bums me out how nervous organizations are to ask a wide variety of stakeholders. But let’s people who care as deeply about the mission, including the people that the organization is serving. So the work of coming up with words that are going to resonate is to know what words are going to resonate and behind that is like what do folks care about. You have to ask, that’s the only way to do it.

In general I’m going to start with a survey. For the most part there are online surveys. Every once in a while, depending on the community, if there are folks that aren’t going to be able to respond online, we’ll look at other mechanisms. But in general we’re going to start with a fairly fun online survey that asks about adjectives and verbs and nouns and those types of things and I’m looking for a couple things there. One is just what words are people actually using to reflect back in terms of questions. Also I’m looking for how far apart are things or how in alignment are they already, because that’s really actionable information.

From there in general I’m going to work with a five-to-seven-person team to evolve and refine the language. We’re going to find vision in general, vision and or purpose, values, brand personality and then all of that is gonna roll into a messaging framework. Oftentimes out of that there’s… I’ll help with website copy or bring it to life is how I think about that phase of it. But that really gets to… there you want a transition to happen. The words aren’t mine. I’m a consultant, so I’m going to come in and I’m going to… I can shepherd and facilitate but ultimately if the organization needs to feel like those are their words and so I make a very intentional transition near the end to transition into more of a coaching role or an advisory capacity. So that sense of ownership happens because otherwise if you don’t bring great intentionality to that step, you remain dependent… you can remain dependent on your consultant and that’s not all bad and a lot of consultants have said their businesses are organized on purpose. I just have a different philosophy.

I believe all of this is learnable. I know it’s all learnable because I’ve worked with thousands of people. Nothing I do is rocket science. It’s just a matter of being at a place where you’re ready to learn it. So if I do my job, they don’t contact me very much. I’m going to be talking to an organization tomorrow that I worked with a few years ago and things have evolved for them internally and so now we need to true up how they’re talking about that externally, so that makes sense because outside perspective is helpful. But that’s generally the mechanics of it and then we also have… I’m just mindful that… I mean the vast majority of nonprofits can’t afford consulting and so I also have an online school called Claxon U. We have an online self-paced online course. The complete nonprofit marketing course. So that’s another way for folks at a much lower price point, 249 dollars, for folks to learn and really go through the exact same process I do with my consulting clients and to access that same knowledge.

Stop The Long Mission Statements!

Ephraim: Fantastic. In one of my previous podcast episodes, nonprofit copywriter Mike Duerksen advocated for the killing of the mission statemen or at least moving away from the  vague, run-on sentence, undefined ones. I followed that up with a blog post where I issued the Twssion Challenge: Write your mission statement in 140 characters or less. In one of your recent Marketing for Good podcast episodes, you mentioned that you only allow clients to have 10 words in their mission statement. My question: What is it about mission statements that causes nonprofits to go on and on and on?

Erica: Yeah it’s a beautiful question and the reason I say beautiful is the the run-on mission statement comes from a really beautiful place, which is oftentimes like if you’re not really following a vetted process. But half, most mission statements are written by an internal committee, a board, maybe some staff. So it sort of ends up being written for them, people who serve on boards and work for nonprofits, as you all know this is heart-driven work. So they care very deeply about it and what happens so frequently is people want to see a little bit of themselves in the mission statement. So it’s actually a very emotional reason and not a real strategic reason for these long run-on mission statements. They have semicolons. Really? So I mean that’s just in my experience, that’s how you end up… so everybody wants to see a piece of themselves. Prioritizing doesn’t feel good, because if you say in our mission statement this is the thing that we’re really going to point to, this is what we want to be known for, if you don’t see yourself in that, if you don’t see your program, if you don’t see your service, you feel excluded and you feel left out.

And so again this is why I care so much about the education side of it. In my experience, when you explain to folks like a really good mission statement is the same as if somebody says, what does your nonprofit do? You’re gonna be able to say the mission statement and not in a way where you sound like a robot right. It’s meant to be a deal, a door opener, not a deal closer. What I say to folks is this: This is a sequencing and if somebody is interested in what you just said, then they’re gonna be like, oh that’s interesting and then we’ll get to your part of it, your specific part of it. But if you dump it all on them, they’re like I can’t remember that. I don’t even know what you just said. It’s too much. In my experience that’s where it comes from.

The eight to ten words is very much…of the sort of… unusual things but my philosophy is I want to optimize first for how you speak and then we can elevate that language. Actually and for the most part that’s very unusual to say that. For the most part, folks write a mission statement and then they say it and in my book Pitchfalls, I talk about this. It’s an itty-bitty book. It’s a seven-minute read. It’s a book- and I did that on purpose- made it short and accessible in that way really to address this issue, because it’s pervasive. Admission statements are pervasive. I mean, I wrote that Stanford Social Innovation Review article now a number of years ago but I just, for a variety of reasons, had to reread and I was like, yeah nope. I still stand behind all of this. Specifically it’s called “great mission, bad statement” and it’s all about this. Yeah it’s a bummer.

 Let’s Learn More About Erica

Ephraim: Totally agree 100%. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Erica: I don’t really know how that happened. I think I’ve always kind of been somebody who’s drawn to doing good. I finished graduate school and I was looking around and I was in Seattle- I still am in Seattle- and there was a very innovative organization nonprofit called Empower. We put technology know how into the hands of nonprofits and this was way back when. They were just really innovative and I wanted to do something interesting and innovative in the social good space and that kind of set me on my path.

Ephraim: Got it. So given all your years of experience in the nonprofit field, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Erica: It troubles me very deeply that depending on which organizations you’re looking at, 80 to 90% of all the leaders are white and yet, disproportionately we’re serving communities of color and so the fact that they are not represented troubles me very very deeply. So that would absolutely… that has  to change. That just has to change. 

Ephraim: Yup. Where does your obsession with words come from? 

Erica: Two things. I moved from Vancouver, Canada down to the greater Seattle area between the summer of grade two and grade three. I could only read and write French. I spoke English but I could only read and write French. So over the summer I had to learn how to read and write English and I think that would be… learning it with that amount of clarity like that was going to make me really unusual and I was not going to fit in. I was already new. I wasn’t really going to fit in if I couldn’t read or write. Made me have a relationship with words, especially the English language and then I majored in French and I’ve spent time in France and everything they say about the French and their obsession with words is true. So being exposed to that culturally I’m sure had an influence as well.

Ephraim: Fantastic. If you could live somewhere else besides the Pacific Northwest, where would it be?

Erica: Tough. That’s really tough. I don’t have one place. I really don’t. I mean I do. I love I love France, maybe since the first time I lived there, the big home which is in the north. I’d love to go back there and spend time. There’s just… there’s so many places on the planet that I haven’t been, so it’s hard for me to commit to I would live anywhere else. I would like to visit a lot of other places and spend a chunk of time. How’s that?

Ephraim: Now we’re talking. Your favorite hobby in your spare time?

Erica: Cooking and working out.

Ephraim: At the same time? Because that’s impressive.

 Erica: No. Excellent clarifying question. No no. The working action only happens in the morning. The cooking generally happens in the evening. It’s not like I’m a fabulous cook or anything. I just… I find it really almost meditative to mess with food. That’s what I think about. It’s like messing with food. At the end of the day, you can create something. It’s creative. And then I’ve always worked out. I just I enjoy it. I just got resistance bands and… it’s a full weight set. So the resistance bands are like a new thing for me and I’m kind of excited about that. They’re creative for me, so relatively healthy.

Ephraim: Awesome. Lastly let’s turn the table. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Erica: You have a unique perspective because you’ve lived in the states and clearly now live in Israel. I’m curious, what is the biggest similarity and difference that you see between nonprofits those two places?

Ephraim: Similarities are all the ills that plagued the nonprofit world in the U.S., plagued them here, plagued them everywhere. The idea of scarcity mindset, the idea of everything being about the money, not being about the relationships, the idea of constantly chasing your tail, the bad retention rates. All the issues that you have in the states and again I’m generalizing but all the issues that you have in the states, you have here. Not even a question.

The one major difference that I came in contact with is the issue of working on a percentage. So in the states AFP is very clear about that with their ethics and you know it’s something fundraisers should not do. There is no AFP type organization here and for forever organizations… many organizations have been working on percentage. Is it less today? Yes but I was offered 10 years ago and I mean the offer on the table was 49% plus expenses of whatever I raise… and you know what? You start thinking seven figures. If you can bring in a million dollars and six hundred thousand is going into your pocket, you know you start weighing things and you go, oh I could use a new house. We could upgrade the car. Maybe the kids can now go to… you know, all the things that you think about with money.

Still I don’t want to say pervasive here but there is still plenty of that when it comes to grant writing, when it comes to fundraising and my answer… I get it every now and then and I just look at them and go, you know what? Like you, I have to put bread on the table and the only way for me to do that is to know exactly what my salary is going to be or what my consulting fee is going to be and pay me. I will happily get you a million dollars even if the only cost to you is ten thousand dollars. That’s fine. I’m not going to ask for more but I won’t work for free and that has been… that’s the I would say the major difference. There are a couple more but that’s the major one.

Erica: That is fascinating.

Ephraim: Yeah. So that’s… some of it is cultural, some of it is again, there’s no AFP here, there’s no umbrella organization. They tried to start AFP here a bunch of years ago. It didn’t take. In fact, I think the closest chapter to me is in Egypt. That’s what I found out a couple weeks ago um but that’s just the culture here and not much we can do about it. So anybody who asked me, I’m like I’m not doing it. It’s unethical and here are all the reasons why it’s problematic for you and your organization. You want to find somebody else? Go ahead. I’m not going to stop you.

Erica: I love that though because it’s you living in integrity with your values, regardless of an organization or another entity, an outside entity saying that that’s how you should roll.

Ephraim: Yeah. Although like I said, that one offer really really thought about it for a whole second there because it is… it would have been 60% I would have taken home. But yeah, wow is the word because the truth is it was an organization I could have gotten six to seven figures for without a problem.

And that was the other thing, this was not a tough sell. Some organizations it’s a very tough sell. This was a much easier sell than others. Yeah exactly, gulp. Thought about it, said nope and whatever. I don’t regret it for even a second.

Erica: Good. Good for you for living your values. That’s great. It’s awesome.

 Ephraim: Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast today. You can connect with Erica on LinkedIn and on Twitter at @EricaMillsBarn. You definitely want to make sure to check out her Marketing for Good podcast. On her website is the link. You can find it at claxonmarketing.com/marketingforgood Erica thanks very very much. Have a wonderful day.

Erica: Thank you. You too. It’s great to see you.

Ephraim: Be well. Take care