Words that Help Your Program, Words that Don’t

This post was created by Youth Catalytics shortly after Messages that Matter: Storytelling and Communicating for Impact, a training conducted March 29-30, 2017 for Office of Adolescent Health TPP Program grantees. Get more tips on effective communication and compelling storytelling here. 


We all know that jargon can deaden messages. It’s hard to even pay attention, let alone carefully listen, to someone who’s using a lot of technical or insider language. Take my husband. He’s a technical advisor to the nuclear power industry, and when he gets home from the office, our conversations usually go something like this:

Me: How’d your day go?

Him: I got 41-03 rev 6 wrapped up, but we’re still seeking alignment with the regulator on some of the deltas from the last cycle.

Depending on how I feel, I’ll have one of two reactions — “Huh?” or, more often, “Whatever,” at which point he stops talking and I stop listening.

So what’s this got to do with those of us who dwell in the much cozier world of youth services and teen pregnancy prevention? Surely our own language is much more accessible, right?

Well … not necessarily. With all the very best intentions and for the best possible reasons, most of us routinely use phrases that aren’t helpful in telling the story of the work we do and the people we help.

Here’s a little quiz. In each of these instances, what’s really being said?

  1. Many of the youth in my program have experienced a lack of empowerment. To counter that, we support them with a continuum of services.
  2. A young woman came to us having experienced early sexual initiation without her consent. Fortunately we’ve been able to offer her various supports.
  3. We provide support to young people so they can make wise decisions.

Each of these statements is true, at least in the most basic sense. And each reflects our field’s values. After all, we respect and honor young people, and want to celebrate their strengths. We don’t want to use sensational or lurid details in describing their lives; instead, we want to give them the dignity that others may have denied them.

Yet look at the words in blue. We have to ask ourselves whether using vague, sterile language to mask the reality of their experiences is really doing them justice. If we want people to care about our work — especially those outside our field, whose support we want and need — then we need to speak plainly and concretely, not to sensationalize or pander, but to simply tell the truth. Just as we “meet youth where they’re at,” we also need to meet non-professionals where they’re at.

So in the spirit of figuring out more powerful ways to describe our work, I offer these rewrites of these sentences. They’re in italics, below the original statements.

  1. Many of the youth in my program have experienced a lack of empowerment. To counter that, we support them with a continuum of services.
    It’s typical for the kids in my program to tell me they don’t know anyone who’s gone to college, or anyone who’s had a career. They have this idea that there’s no path to these things, that kids “like them” can’t have that kind of success in life. We tell them they can, and show them how.
  2. A young woman came to us having experienced early sexual initiation without her consent. Fortunately we’ve been able to offer her various supports.
    A 14-year-old girl came to us last month. Her stepfather sexually abused and impregnated her, and both she and her baby daughter were removed to foster care. Now she’s in high school and her new boyfriend wants to have sex. No one understands what she’s been through, so no one can talk to her. That’s where we come in.
  3. We provide support and enrichment to young people so they can make wise decisions.
    The children in my program come from poor neighborhoods where it’s common for teenagers to have babies before even finishing high school. We provide college student mentors to work with them one-on-one, so over time, they can see there’s a big world out there and lots of amazing things are possible for them. But they’ve got to protect themselves from risky relationships and unintended pregnancy so they can get there. We make sure they understand exactly how to do that.

There are obviously some important issues to think about — issues that may require special consideration, such as protecting privacy. But we can both do that and tell stories that reveal rather than obscure the issues we see every day.

The bottom line is that we want people outside our field to understand what’s at stake, and to care as much as we do about the young people in our programs. Changing the way we talk to them is hard, and it takes practice. But it’s important. If you need some help thinking about your communication style, let us know. We’re eager to hear from you.

~ Melanie Wilson, Youth Catalytics, Director of Research

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