LightBox Collaborative is hosting a series of skills-building workshops at CompassPoint to shed light on communications topics for nonprofits throughout the Bay Area. Our next session, Messaging What Matters: Making Meaning to Make a Difference (also the subject of this post) is coming up on December 15.
▶ Register Today!

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In order to help people understand what your nonprofit does, you have to first define the problems you aim to solve, then share a clear vision for action. In other words, you must first make meaning in order to make a difference.

Here are 6 of my top principles for meaningful messages:

  1. Perception trumps reality. A person’s opinion isn’t based on reality—it’s based on their perception of reality. Many people believe that unions are just as big and powerful as corporations, even though union influence has declined over the last few decades. This is the general public’s perceived reality, so it’s true to them. In several campaigns, rather than using the union as the message, I worked with unions to tell stories about workers, their lives, and daily struggles. Accept the perceived reality, change your messages to deal with it, and use these new messages to reshape public perception.
  2. Emotion trumps logic. Logic supports our emotions and is used to justify our decisions, but we usually apply logic only after we’ve made our emotional decisions. Logic plays a part in most decision making, but emotion is always the main ingredient. Emotions will get people passionate about your cause. Appeal to your audience’s emotions first and you’ll win them over.
  3. Brevity trumps precision. Most readers won’t make it to the end of this blog post because we’ve grown increasingly accustomed to sound bites and 140-character tweets. We sigh at the sight of lengthy text. You don’t need to accurately describe every single function of your organization in your messaging. Charity Navigator’s tagline, “Your Guide To Intelligent Giving”—one of the 2010 Nonprofit Tagline Award winners—says nothing specific about how it does what it does, yet immediately assures you that Charity Navigator will help you make the right charitable donations.
  4. Values trump features. Above everything else, your organization is founded on values. Stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Clean up the local water system. Micro-loans can solve many global economic issues. Don’t talk up services that may not matter to your entire audience, talk about the foundation of your organization and its core values.
  5. Vibrant language trumps jargon. “We build capacity so low-income families can access the vital infrastructure of the social safety net system.” What does that even mean? Whenever possible, use clear and concise (and emotional!) language to make sure your audience can understand and connect with your message.
  6. Messengers can trump the message. Athletes and celebrities are called on to endorse products simply because they can sell, sell, sell. Choose a messenger that your audience can relate to. Promoting condom use in young adults? Don’t choose your grandmother as your model (unless, of course, you’re going for messaging through humor). The Let California Ring marriage equality public education ad campaign shared the true stories of Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans welcoming newly married gay or lesbian couples into their families

(Image by stephendl, Creative Commons.)
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Amanda Cooper is a LightBox collaborator with a talent for crafting meaningful messages. She hopes to see you at her December 15 CompassPoint workshop on “Messaging What Matters.”