Has Your Nonprofit Found Its Voice?

During a training in June, some members of YNPN LA and I explored how small nonprofits can become better publishers. Specifically, we looked at “house style” and how a “style guide” can help a nonprofit publish material that’s more correct, consistent, and coherent. However, although it is important that publications be professional, it is equally important that they are personal, so this blog post looks more closely at an element of house style that we briefly touched on at the training: the concept of voice.

What is “Voice” and Why Does It Matter?

Whose Facebook posts do you most enjoy reading? Which novelist occupies an entire shelf of your bookcase? Which broadcasters or satirists do you turn to for the latest news? The reason we seek out specific writers or commentators is that we love their style, and often our preference is based not on what they say but how they say it.

In a crowded fundraising landscape, small nonprofits need to be heard, and to be heard, their voices need to be distinctive. I’m not saying that everyone in your organization takes on a Rachel Maddow persona, but I am suggesting that your nonprofit may need a clearer way to communicate its mission—a unique worldview—that forces the reader to take notice … and then support you. And here are just a few ways you might develop a more distinctive voice.

Speak Your Reader’s Language

One way to define your nonprofit’s voice is to think about the people you’re trying to reach: your “ideal readers.” Don’t think generically; think about a specific individual—a particular client, perhaps. Who is he/she? What problem did they come to you with? What does he/she want more than anything? What impact did your nonprofit have on their life? How would they describe your nonprofit?

The best way to get these answers is to interview that client face-to-face, if possible, and listen closely to the words he or she uses and echo those words and terms in your publications. This isn’t about cynical mimicry; it’s simply about connecting with the communities you serve.

Nonprofits speak to many different constituencies—including funders, policymakers, and other movers-and-shakers—so this exercise applies to all the audiences, and the language you choose to communicate with will vary across the platforms you use. The aim is to end up with several “styles” in your communications toolbox, which will all be true to your mission and message.

Know the Lingo

To have authority and to inspire confidence and trust, a leader must have a command of language. A great nonprofit is a thought-leader and, as such, it must cultivate its image as an authority by demonstrating that it’s on top of the latest language developments. These changes often begin at the grassroots level (as discussed above), but other authorities, such as researchers or activists, can also instigate linguistic changes, so listen closely.

When you use up-to-date language, you are not only showing your expertise, you are leading through your use of language and mainstreaming new ways to talk about important issues. Nonprofits are often the bridge between the community and the people on the “outside” who need to understand how members of that community prefer to talk about what’s important to them. Therefore, make it a point to know how words and terms are being used and to help “spread the word.”

Get Creative

Your nonprofit doesn’t have to just respond to the language trends: it can create them! What better way to distinguish your nonprofit’s voice than to make some of the words it uses completely unique?

Coining a new word or phrase takes some serious thought and creativity, but it’s one way to get noticed. Smooshing together two words (making what we word nerds call a “portmanteau”) is the simplest way to invent a new word that you can claim as your own.

The words “internet” (international and network), “emoticon” (emotion and icon), and “podcast” (iPod and broadcast) are all portmanteau examples from the technology lexicon—or the “techlex,” which is a noun I just coined to prove to you how easy it is :)

I only ask that you don’t use this smooshing power for bad, like the inventor of the word “feminazi.”

Finally: Don’t Be a Snob

If you just winced at my use of a smiley emoticon, get over yourself! From cave paintings to hieroglyphics to wingdings, pictorial symbols have been a part of our language for a very long time. Love them or loathe them (I love ’em), emoticons are here to stay, and you can decide to use them, or not.

Rest assured, the emoticon revolution won’t be the last shift in the language in your lifetime, so get comfortable with the changes, however weird, because your nonprofit needs to stay relevant. And this brings us nicely back to where we began: speaking the language of your readers.

The subject of “voice” is vast, but I hope I’ve done enough, for now, to inspire you to begin thinking about the language your nonprofit uses more closely. I would love to hear some of your thoughts and ideas on the topic, so leave a comment on the blog! And if you ever need help developing your nonprofit’s house style, you can reach me at www.ideal-type.com.

About the author: Lorna Walsh spent 20 years working for nonprofits in the UK and US before setting up her writing and editing business, Ideal Type LLC (ideal-type.com). She also founded a FREE copyediting service for nonprofits called the Embark Editorial Agency. Find out more about this service at embark-editorial.weebly.com.

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