June 25, 2018

What words should you avoid?

Lila Tublin, one of Big Duck’s copywriters, uncovers words, phrases, jargon, and pronouns(!) nonprofit communicators should think carefully about before using, gleaned from our popular “Words to Avoid” annual blog, plus shares tips to ensure your writing is clear and easy to understand no matter what. Click play to tune in.


Sarah: OK, today is a really fun day ’cause we are talking about words to avoid. I’m here with Big Duck’s fearless copywriter, Lila. Hi Lila.

Lila: Hey guys. Hi Sarah.

Sarah: Thanks for joining me today.

Lila: Of course.

Sarah: Lila has been on our team for a while. It’s 2018 as we’re making this recording, and she has been the author of our 2017 and our 2018 editions of Words to Avoid, which is an annual blog we produce. I think we’ve been producing it since 2011 … 2010 … something like that.

Lila: Yeah, there are around eight or so.

Sarah: Yeah, it goes way back. We’ll link to some of them in the show notes for this podcast, and Lila and I were looking over all the words we’ve recommended nonprofit communicators avoid, over these many years, and we were talking about some of the things that keep coming up again and some of the lessons learned, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Before we dig into that, just a couple of notes about the process. We have been doing this for a while, so we kind of maintain almost a kind of running list. We’re hearing people use certain jargon, certain words over and over again, and we might make a note of that, and then we kind of crowdsource these words to avoid every … what, ever Spring, I think.

Lila: Yeah, at the start of a new year.

Sarah: Yeah, so we’re gathering all this stuff and this year there were actually a couple of things that made it on the list that had been on there before. The first, which I think is a really meaty topic, is acronyms. So, Lila, why did acronyms make it back to the top of the list this year?

Lila: Acronyms made it back this year all on their own. I didn’t not look at past years to come across them, but looking through clients’ materials and hearing clients … potential clients … talk about their programs, and their names, their brand architecture, all of their services, was just very difficult for an outsider to understand. As an outsider to their organization, as just a person, and I realized that the time you save by using the acronym is not worth that confusion with a potential supporter.

Sarah: Yeah that’s often my beef with acronyms, too. Acronyms are insider-speak, right, they’re shorthand. So, if I use an acronym because you and I know the organization well, you speak that same shorthand; you know what I’m talking about. But if you’re new to the organization, it’s meaningless for you, right?

Lila: It’s totally meaningless.

Right, and I think it’s particularly challenging to get people who work in-house in an organization to train themselves to remember that when they’re speaking externally. I mean, I don’t mind if people use an acronym at a board meeting, or a staff meeting, ’cause those are all insiders, but it’s when we speak externally that acronyms get us into hot water, is that right?

Lila: For sure, and I’ve seen a lot of push-back from people internally to let go of an acronym when it’s really causing more confusion than clarity, even internally.

Sarah: Yeah, I actually just got off a call with an organization we took through our brand-raising process, probably about 10 years ago, and we recommended they not use their acronym, and we gave them a different way to abbreviate their name instead, and they said, “You know, we just still really struggle with that. We still really like to use the acronym” and I said, “OK, well how’s that doing raising top-of-mind awareness among the people you’re trying to reach?” They’re trying to reach a fairly broad, national audience, and they said, “Yeah, nobody’s really heard of us yet.” And that’s gonna make it harder.

Lila: Did you ask them to try Googling their acronym?

Sarah: I did, and there is a very handy tool you come across which is Acronym Finder. Right? Have you-

Lila: No, I haven’t-

Sarah: There is a tool called Acronym Finder and it is a great way to dissuade people in your organization from using the acronym because oftentimes when you look-up your acronym, you find hundreds of other businesses and organizations using the same acronym. What do you find when you Google the acronyms?

Lila: I’ve found the exact opposite of what the organization wants, because sometimes there’s another organization or entity that also uses that acronym that is more well-known. They’re better at SEO or something; they come up on the first page, and you’re not.

They just own it. They own the acronym.

Lila: They own it, unfortunately. They’re hard to own. Some do. It’s useful for some orgs, but not all.

Sarah: Yep. So there’s another thing that came up in this year’s Words to Avoid that has been on our list before, and it is the phrase, “now more than ever.”

Lila: Now, more than ever.

Sarah: So why not now more than ever?

Lila: “Now more than ever” has become so ubiquitous that I believe whole-heartedly people are burned out by it. People feel that it’s now, more than ever … it’s urgent every day, but, from a communications standpoint, it’s not really an effective way to convey urgency.

Why not?

It’s more of a placeholder for what is actually going on for you and your organization in the world … the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s very catchy to say. It’s got a good rhythm to it, but rather than resorting to it, say what’s happening. People can handle it, and they can understand it. I feel like it’s a real disservice to your audiences or potential new people when you won’t say what’s going on just in favor of something more brief and catchy.

So, be explicit about why there’s urgency. Don’t just buck it into something abstract like, “now more than ever,” even if it sounds good.

Lila: And when people see that phrase all the time, used in ways where maybe there isn’t any urgency, they’ll question why you’re using it if you won’t say exactly what’s going on. So, it’s mutually beneficial.

Sarah: Yep. Another thing that made the list of Words to Avoid this year that I was really pleased to see are gender binary terms … he, she, hers, his … and while we at Big Duck don’t profess to be experts in this, specifically, it is starting to come up more and more in our work, and I think it comes up increasingly in the world today. So what’s that about? How’d that get on the list?

Yeah, that one got on the list just because it’s time.

It is time.

Lila: It’s something that has needed to be expressed and unfortunately it has to be expressed institutionally by AP Style, Chicago Manual of Style, to be something considered relevant for communications. Again, I am no expert on gender expression or identity, but the binary is antiquated. It’s not real and it’s not useful. And it’s gonna go away. And it’s just a reminder to be mindful of how people identify how they express themselves and who they are as people … to respect that and to open up a conversation.

Sarah: So, as a copywriter, you sit with the Chicago Manual of Style-

Lila: We use the AP Style Book here.

The AP Style Book. So, those are both great standard style books, and if you don’t have one, and you’re a staff communicator or a copywriter, they’re both worth having, but so Chicago has I think integrated something about pronouns, and you’re saying AP Style has not?

Lila: Chicago Manual of Style has integrated the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in informal language, which is like how we all speak every day. It’s most of non-profit communications for a larger, public audience, and the AP Style Book is just kind of … they’re almost there. They’re like a couple steps behind, but I can see in a few years them budging on this topic.

Sarah: And there are two places where we’re seeing a consciousness of this come up more and more. One is in email signatures. I’ve integrated my preferred pronouns into my email signature, and we’ve done that institutionally here at Big Duck. Another place is in introductions. We went through a staff training last week where the two facilitators began as they introduced themselves by saying, “My preferred pronouns are …” Those are, I think, increasingly best practices that we recommend, and that I think we’ll see more and more of.


Sarah: OK, so bonus points if you are a Words to Avoid geek and you love this kind of stuff. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, that just came out in the Spring of 2018, included a kind of package in it for Blueprint 2018. This is the annual industry forecast by Lucy Bernholz on Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society and towards the back of that book there is a section called, “Buzz Word Watch” and this isn’t specifically for communications, but it’s sort of the Philanthropy and Digital Society World at large, and it’s got all kinds of great stuff in it like, “Explicability Gap” or “Biometrics—The Number One Buzzword for 2018” according to the author, but before we sign-off, I just want to ask you, Lila, for any tips or recommendations so that people who are communicating on behalf of their organization don’t end up overusing terms that we would recommend that they do not. What do you advise them to do?

Lila: My biggest and easiest tip is to just pretend you’re a baby. Think about the littlest person you know, and read back what you’ve written, and if you stumble over anything, or you don’t understand an idea, you gotta go back and make it clearer. Because if a baby can’t understand what you’re writing, then someone who’s not really paying attention to you that closely yet, will not either, they won’t take the time to try to understand.

So a highly literate baby, perhaps.

Lila: Yes, a learned baby.

A learned baby. I often use a similar kind of test on my own writing, which is that I am reading aloud to an alien who is highly literate, but doesn’t know our ways here on Planet Earth, and if what I’m writing or reading would make sense if I were explaining it to an alien, then it probably holds up as being relatively jargon-free, relatively straightforward and specific. But I think the common theme with both of those is obviously simplifying, right?

… and to get out of your own head and world, for a minute.

Yeah, and put on the head of somebody who’s got outside eyes, if that’s such a thing. All right. Well, thanks for joining us. We’ll link in the show notes to some of the past Words to Avoid editions, and if you’ve got any, send us your words to avoid at [email protected].

Lila: Thank you.


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