Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
December 1, 2021

How do you know when your nonprofit has a jargon problem–and what can you do about it?

Bill Furmanski

Jargon is common in the nonprofit sector. For some it can communicate knowledge, but for most people, using jargon, acronyms, and complicated phrases can be alienating.. Big Duck’s founder and board member, Sarah Durham chats with Bill Furmanski, senior director of communications at the Fair Labor Association about de-jargoning the messaging in your organization and how to make sure your audiences can understand who you are in plain language.


Sarah Durham: Hey, welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I am joined today with Bill Furmanski. Bill has worked in the nonprofit sector for his entire career. He’s led communication and marketing initiatives to help families manage their money, to keep teens from starting to smoke, to help adults quit smoking, and to protect workers’ rights around the world. Currently, Bill is the senior director of communications at the Fair Labor Association, where he oversees strategic communications, including public relations, digital media, and marketing. Before that, for almost two decades Bill led public health communications at the Truth Initiative where he helped launch the lifesaving and award-winning Truth Teen Tobacco Prevention Campaign, and also two national campaigns to help smokers quit. At the American Cancer Society, Bill coordinated advocacy communications to translate research on tobacco use into practice and policy at the state and federal levels.

Sarah Durham: Bill started his career managing public relations and marketing at an association dedicated to helping families learn about budgeting and use credit wisely. He’s a native of New Jersey, the state next to where I grew up which is New York. He graduated from Seton Hall University, and he is a lifelong fan of college basketball. And on LinkedIn, one of the things I love about Bill’s profile is he describes himself as a common-sense communicator, and that is definitely true. Bill, who I’ve had the pleasure to know and work with a bit over the past few years, has a unique ability to navigate complex communications projects with clarity and with pragmatism. So I’ve invited him to join me today to discuss one of the things I consider to be Bill’s superpower, which is de-jargoning. Welcome, Bill.

Bill Furmanski: Hey Sarah, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Sarah Durham: I’m very happy you’re here. Before we get started into our topic of de-jargoning. Tell us a little bit about the Fair Labor Association for those of our listeners who may not be familiar with your work.

Bill Furmanski: Sure. Happy to do that. The Fair Labor Association has been around for just over 20 years. And unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know who we are yet, that is our challenge. But we are one of the leading organizations promoting human rights at work. We’re an international network of companies, universities, and civil society organizations, and we come together to ensure that people working in the world’s factories and farms, that they’re paid fairly, and they’re protected from risks to their health, their safety, and their wellbeing.

Sarah Durham: Bill, you and I had a conversation, which was sort of the catalyst for me inviting you on to this show, you were talking about work that you’ve been doing at Fair Labor Association to kind of identify where maybe colleagues or other people use jargon. And you’ve been noticing jargon in the sector broadly. So you’ve got this kind of eye for jargon or this ear for jargon. How do you know when you have a jargon problem?

Bill Furmanski: It’s a great question. And what I think I’ve come to realize over time is that if you have a jargon problem, it’s so obvious, you probably don’t notice it because everyone speaks in jargon all the time and acronyms notwithstanding, there are terms of art that we all use, that come to the forefront and people begin to use them and they sort of create their own meanings over time. And it’s only when I started at my current position that I scratched my head and said, “Gosh, I don’t understand what some of these terms mean.” And I was too new in the role to even ask. I thought, well, I’ll just learn as I go. But the deeper I got into a project to update the Fair Labor Association brand and messaging, I started to think, “Huh, I better ask some questions about what these words mean and why we’re using them?” And at the end of the day, I think it was a gut feeling that I knew something wasn’t right. And if you have that gut feeling, you might want to look at the terms you use, how you label things and what you call your programs, your department names, things like that.

Sarah Durham: I think listening to you talk about that experience of going to a new organization and coming across all these terms that you didn’t fully know what they meant. That’s a great inflection point, a great moment when you’re new at an organization. I mean, if you’re coming into an organization and you don’t know what certain terms mean, that must mean that most people on the outside don’t know what those terms mean either, right? I mean, you came into this job with, you know, a couple of decades worth of nonprofit sector experience. So that’s a good litmus test for whether something might be jargon.

Bill Furmanski: I think that’s very true. You know, it took me a little while to realize that I wasn’t dealing with just a lack of knowledge. It was the fact that jargon was being used every day. That not only did not I understand, but my colleagues didn’t, our members didn’t. And if none of those groups understood, I bet 110% that consumers didn’t understand either.

Sarah Durham: Yeah.

Bill Furmanski: The other thing that flagged it for me was that I was twisting myself into pretzels when I was writing a paragraph to describe us, or planning a pitch or a presentation. And if the words don’t roll off easily and you feel like you have to explain the term over and over again, that’s probably a sign that people don’t know what it means, even if they act like they do.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I’m thinking as you’re talking about why organizations end up with jargon problems and how we begin to notice them. And I definitely have seen a lot of organizations where like the academically correct term, or the professionally correct term is sort of the inaccessible term. And sometimes in some organizations, it feels like there are people who just prefer fancier or more complicated ways to say things. I mean, one of the examples I often use is I’ve seen a lot of organizations say things like “We are a job and workforce training development group,” as opposed to just saying “We help people get jobs or learn to do jobs.” Just sort of like lots of extra words. So we’re talking a little bit about what is a jargon problem, but how and why should an organization tackle its jargon problem? Like if you’ve self-diagnosed, you know, you’re in an organization that’s using jargon, how should you tackle it?

Bill Furmanski: Well, I think you have to tackle it carefully. Look for opportunities to sort of introduce the idea into conversation. In a past life, I worked in tobacco control. It was a very narrow issue. But as you said, the professional term of art for quitting smoking is “tobacco cessation.” That’s what researchers use. That’s what practitioners use. But as we were beginning to build a website around “tobacco cessation” and thinking about social media strategies and things like that, the keywords we wanted to use, or the tag words we wanted to use work “tobacco cessation,” because most people don’t say, “oh, I’m going to go tobacco cessate today.” They say “I’m going to quit smoking.” And so that was a little more natural of an instance where the conversation bubbled up through the project and we were able to have it.

Bill Furmanski: In my current role, there’s a term of art we use for our members, which is “affiliates.” And I thought there was something golden about that term that people, everyone understood why we used it and what the history was. And when I pressed on it a little bit, and I think the best thing to do is ask questions, don’t tell. But ask questions like, “Hey, where did this term come from?” “Why do we use it?” “How long have we used it?” And if people can’t answer those questions, that’s a good opening for a conversation about, “Hey, maybe there’s a better word that we could use.” And that’s an example of my current position where we’re going to swap out the word “affiliate” and swap in “member” because people know what that means. It’s less technical and it’s basic, and they essentially mean the same thing internally and externally. And I haven’t done any formal focus groups on this, but the casual, anecdotal conversations that I’ve had with members, they think of themselves as members, not as affiliates. And they couldn’t tell you why they were affiliates either.

Bill Furmanski: So, I think asking questions and not assuming that the word is emblazoned for a reason in the organization is another thing to really think about as you go. Blow your assumptions out of the water. Don’t assume that everyone knows what the words mean because they probably don’t. And when you press on it, that creates the opportunity to talk about jargon and find ways to address it. One thing that I think the word “affiliate” translated to at FLA was sort of this like exclusive member club. And of course, you want your membership to feel special, but not to exclude other organizations. So people who might want to join an organization who might feel like, “Oh, I could be a “member, but what does it take to be an affiliate? Who knows?” And so breaking it down, simplifying it, being as clear as possible, I think goes a long way and making your organization approachable and helping people understand who you are and what you do.

Sarah Durham: Sometimes jargon emerges because of a particular person who has a preference for language. So maybe there was somebody who worked at the organization a long time ago, who just liked the word “affiliate” or had come from another place where they use the word “affiliate”, and so it sort of takes root there. And as I’m listening to you describe your experiences at the Fair Labor Association, it feels to me like there’s actually kind of three layers of stakeholders involved in the de-jargoning process. The first is you, the smart person who comes into the organization and says, “Hey, I’m not sure I understand what these words mean”, or “is this the simplest, clearest way?” Like the, you know, just sort of listening to your own intuition about language that feels accessible and intuitive. The second layer is your colleagues, the people in the organization that you might say, “Hey, what does this word mean to you?” “Or why do we use this term internally?” Because it sounds like in your experience, sometimes there’s a shared sense of like confusion or, or maybe a shared sense of alignment of like, this is the perfect word, and maybe we just haven’t properly onboarded you to understand why we love this word and why it’s the right word. But then the third layer that you alluded to earlier is the external audience. And I think your example of the term “tobacco cessation” versus “quit smoking” is a great example of that.

Sarah Durham: You know, I think in organizations where people do have the ability to do focus groups, or even just, you know, intercepts in programs where you walk up to people in your programs and say, “Hey, what does this term mean to you?” “Do you identify as a person who’s trying to cessate tobacco use?” Oftentimes there is a kind of reckoning that happens when you talk to the end-user. It reminds me of a podcast, I recorded a long time ago with Dan Gunderman who used to work at Big Duck as our creative director, where Dan talks about the idea of, if you could explain what you do to a small child, or if you could explain what you do to an alien who landed chances are you’re not going to use a lot of jargon. You’re going to have to use really simple, straightforward language. And that’s another good pressure test for de-jargoning.

Bill Furmanski: I think that’s right, and I think what happens as jargon builds over time, is you get further and further away from your audience. And that is the wrong direction for most organizations, that should be a guiding light, the audience. A good example in my world around a term that made sense at the time it was coined is “fair compensation”. The Fair Labor Association started using “fair compensation” because at the time, even though “living wage” was a more common term, it only meant the salary. And when we started using “fair compensation”, what we meant by it was the benefits and the salary, and all of the things that come into workers’ compensation. Now over time, the term “living wage” that most people use has broadened to mean all those things. But when we talk about “fair compensation”, we were not communicating with our key audiences because it was our term of art, and I think it’s okay as a program name.

Bill Furmanski: But what we’ve decided is to begin to transition, to use the term that is more commonly used in the field now. It now means what we want it to mean. And when we describe our fair compensation work, we then add a description calling it our Living Wage Program. And I think over time, maybe our whole program will become the Living Wage Program. But that’s an example where we had a good reason, even though it meant nothing to an audience, and the audience term that was popular started to take on more meaning. And then we curve back around and have adopted the idea of “living wage”, which is more understandable for most people.

Sarah Durham: I think that’s a great example also of what a pragmatist you are. That you’re a common-sense communicator, right? Because I think sometimes there are sophisticated reasons why you and your organization might not like the commonly used term, or it might not really embrace all the ideas you want, but there is a pragmatism to just sort of really tracking where the rest of the world is, and aligning how you communicate in some way that people can relate to, even if it’s not 100% accurate.

Bill Furmanski: I think that’s absolutely true.

Sarah Durham: So Bill, you’ve worked in a lot of different organizations you’ve become, it seems, you know, quite an expert on a lot of different things. As you think, particularly about jargon problems in these different organizations you’ve worked in, what advice do you have for organizations with jargon problems? Like if you could go back in time and meet Bill of 20-something years ago, or if you were talking to somebody who’s coming into an organization and not quite sure how to tackle this, where should they start?

Bill Furmanski: So, I’ve alluded to a couple of the things already, but one is, challenge your assumptions. Don’t assume just because people use a word that they understand it or that it’s well-loved. Second, approach colleagues by asking questions, because you may learn that they don’t like that term either, or it doesn’t make sense. The third is then, begin to engage broadly. I may be helping to lead this de-jargoning of our lexicon, but it’s not me alone. This is something that can be really well crowdsourced among a senior team and then junior staff. So create a plan that engages people, that finds space for the conversation, because I think people really get engaged with that and ideas build one off the other to get to a really good place. This is not something that happens at the snap of a finger. It’s something that good ideas bounce off one another, you try different phrases, you try different words, and eventually, you get to a phrase that people can like buy-in. And that consensus is, is another piece of advice is, you may not find the perfect word that you love, but it’s gotta be a consensus process at the end of the day. And you can get there if you use the audience and who you’re speaking to as a guideline.

Sarah Durham: I love that. I love sort of starting by crowdsourcing, the jargon in your organization with the people in your organization, or maybe even in your case, your affiliates/members. It reminds me, one of the most popular blogs that we write every year at Big Duck is called Words to Avoid. We always crowdsource it. We always ask our staff, ask our clients, post stuff on social. And it’s so interesting how language impacts people, how people respond to language. And I think we regularly see as your earlier example, highlights that you know, things can change from year to year. One year the most used term feels really jargony the next year or feels really dated or inappropriate a couple of years later. So that crowdsourcing, I think not only surfaces jargon, but it might even surface other language that’s become challenging or problematic in your organization too.

Bill Furmanski: That is 100% true. And the thing that I promise, whether or not you were able to de-jargon your organization, you’re going to have some really interesting conversations. Because words are interesting, and they bring up history, and they bring up all the elements of what you’re doing and who you are. And so those conversations lead to other conversations, they are fascinating and can do good things. We, as a result of the de-jargoning work, have renamed a series of our materials that had names that were eight, nine, ten words long, and we’ve reduced them to two or three words. I feel like that’s good progress too because they’re clear, they’re simpler and more direct. And I’m really excited about being able to roll names outs.

Sarah Durham: You’re also highlighting the opportunity that a communications staff person has to really facilitate important internal communications too. So ultimately the deliverable or the project that you’re working on impacts external communications, particularly if you’re renaming a program, or changing language that you use externally, but really you’re also facilitating these important internal communications. And they might surface, as you’re talking about, you know, issues of identity, issues of culture, issues of how people view the work that you do in different ways. So that feels really exciting and also like a great opportunity for somebody newer in a role. I mean, in your first few months or your first six months, or even your first year in an organization, you’re so beautifully positioned to be able to do that, to question what came before you.

Bill Furmanski: I think that’s so true. And as you engage staff, the excitement really builds that people are like, “Oh my God,” it’s like sort of a knock on the forehead and say, “Oh, why didn’t we do that before? Oh, that makes so much sense.” And that leads me to one other tip that I would recommend is people when they see a good word or see something they love they want to start using it immediately, which is terrific. But my recommendation is to embargo the rollout of terms together. So you have a chance to explain it to the entire organization and train people on it as needed and guide the organization towards consistent use versus having people just start using it out of context because I think that is its own risk.

Sarah Durham: That’s a great point, and we’ve definitely seen that at Big Duck with rebranding efforts that oftentimes once an organization has something new they love, a great new tagline, or a great new logo, or something like that, it can be very tempting to just start to slip it in. And actually, a few years ago, we did a study called The Rebrand Effect, where we studied when nonprofits had rebranded, what did they self-report in terms of the impact that it had, and what worked and what didn’t work? And one of the things we found in that study was that organizations that did a comprehensive rebrand, meaning they changed many things at once, seem to have better outcomes than organizations who changed things one at a time. So your point about embargoing, I think it is both important in terms of making sure your staff understands why you’re changing the language and uses it consistently. It also makes sense is if that reinventing language or de-jargoning exercise is a part of a bigger process if it’s part of a rebrand or a part of something where other things are changing. Because you will actually get more mileage out of it if you flip the switch on many things at once, as opposed to just like changing this and changing that, and then over, you know, a few years, everything changes.

Bill Furmanski: And it’s not just the words that you’re using. You may have to update your social media channels, or your website, or the names of materials, and flow that through. So it’s not as simple as, oh, we’re just going to start using “blank new word”; there is a domino effect throughout the organization and it’s best implemented if it’s done in a thoughtful way.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, great point.

Bill Furmanski: So another thing I would say is that it is okay to start small because if you try to fix everything at once, it can feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose. And so starting small with, for, in my case, maybe the conversation about “affiliate” versus “member” opens the door to the conversation, and then there’s a ripple effect or a domino effect of opportunities and people start questioning, well, what about this term? Or what about this? And so using one or two words or phrases as an opening, I think can be a gateway to all of the change that you’re hoping for.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, sure. Any other suggestions?

Bill Furmanski: Yeah, the other thing I would say is that there are certainly natural points in an organization’s timeline that makes sense for de-jargoning when a new communications person starts, when you’re doing a brand or messaging project, maybe doing a product launch. But you don’t have to wait for those in order to start this process. It can be part of the daily work if you don’t have something like a website redo or a new social media strategy in the future in the next 30 or 60 days, there is no reason that you can’t start the conversation, ask the questions, and let that sort of happen naturally and organically, versus waiting for sort of a moment in time. There’s no need for that.

Sarah Durham: Well, Bill Furmanski, it is always a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Bill Furmanski: Thanks for having me. I appreciated talking with you and cheers to removing the jargon from our daily lives.

Sarah Durham: Here, here!