Tony Proscio Deconstructs Word Salad in the Philanthropic Jargon Space – Transcript
Kirk: And welcome back. You found us. It’s another episode of Let’s Hear It. Thanks for coming in. Thanks for finding us. Thanks for being here. And most importantly, Eric, thank you. Thank you for being here.
Eric: It’s like we have a little storefront. You invite people in and you thank them. That’s awfully Midwestern of you.
Kirk: And we serve them little dishes that they’ll hopefully appreciate. So this is a good one.
Eric: You should serve them a hot dish.
Kirk: Hot dish, cold dish, you know, hors d’oeuvres. Little snacks. Okay, but this is a meal. You’ve got quite a meal ready for us this time. Tell us what we’re about to listen to.
Eric: We are going to hear from somebody, I hope – Well, if you haven’t heard of Tony Proscio, welcome and be excited because Tony Proscio is one of those people who touches your life, and once he touches your life, you can’t be untouched by him. He is, when I first started way back in the beginning of my career in philanthropy, I was invited to read books by Tony Proscio who writes about jargon and clear writing and foundations. And let me just tell you the three titles that I am familiar with. One is called Bad Words for Good: How Foundations Garble Their Message and Lose Their Audience. Then there is In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations and then the coup de grace, When Words Fail: How the Public Interest Becomes Neither Public Nor Interesting. If you are catching the trend, here it is. Tony Proscio’s Sisyphusian pushing of the stone of jargon up the mountain, or this trying to keep it from falling on his head, or, I don’t know, the metaphor falls apart, but Tony has been working on this for a long time and I am most certainly a disciple.
Kirk: It is so kind for Tony to come join us. I’m not gonna give you any identification for Tony where you can find him. I’m not gonna tell you about his website. It doesn’t exist anymore.
Eric: It’s a black – it’s black! If you go to tonyproscio.com, you’re not gonna, you get a black screen. That’s laying low, my friend.
Kirk: There are two firsts that we’ll talk about when we come back.
Kirk: Two firsts that we’re getting on this podcast.
Kirk: But let me just give you this little intro. From Tony, written in, I don’t know, in the early two thousands: “Much public affairs lingo, such as capacity, signifies nothing in particular.” So this is Tony Proscio with Eric Brown. Let’s hear it. Let’s listen and we’ll come back.
Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It, folks. You’re in for a treat. My guest today is the legendary Tony Proscio, a man who I have to say has influenced my work over the years probably as much as anyone. And Tony, his reputation precedes him, as they say. He is a consultant – is, was, we’ll talk about that a little bit – a consultant of foundations and nonprofits on strategic planning and evaluation and communications, but he is known to many, and certainly to me, as the master of language. He’s the author of two very important, painful, and often hilarious books on writing for nonprofits and foundations. One is called In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations. And then, of course, for many of you, a seminal work When Words Fail: How The Public Interest Becomes Neither Public Nor Interesting. Tony Proscio, it’s an honor. Thank you so much for coming on Let’s Hear It.
TonY: Thank you. The honor’s mine. This is my, not only my maiden voyage in podcasting, but also I think my first opportunity to work face-to-face with you in almost 10 years. It’s, this is a great adventure and an honor.
Eric: It’s been a minute, as the children say when they don’t mean that it’s been a minute. And we’ll get into that as well. It’s, it’s a real pleasure. You, I, I’ll just get right into it. When I started at the Hewlett Foundation in 2003 and was digging into the world of foundations, one of the people I met was a guy named David Morris, who I know you know very well. And he said, Eric, just read Tony Proscio and then, and do what he says. And I did. I think you had written In Other Words for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
Tony: That’s right.
Eric: And I read it and I went, oh my, I’m stepping into a minefield of crazy jargon and language, and you not only take on these many dragons, but you do it in a really funny way. How did you get, how did you become the language guy for foundations and nonprofits? What a weird little niche to be in.
Tony: It actually started in graduate school when I, one day, maybe out of exhaustion or just adolescent hubris, had a temper tantrum in the middle of the complex of graduate carols over a stupid social science article. I had just read, I honestly don’t remember the subject. I don’t even remember the article, but I remember it amounting to, the message of the article amounting to, something like “when you insult people, they don’t like it.” And it went on for 20 pages of almost in penetrable, incomprehensible language, much of it misused, all to prove a point that was so spectacularly obvious that it, it was embarrassing to have wasted time reading the article. In fact, I’m now almost reenacting the temper tantrum I had 40 some years ago. It still makes me angry. And then I discovered the wonderful magical Edwin Newman whose book A Civil Tongue – I think may be out of print, and if so, it’s a tragedy. When Edwin Newman died, I literally wept. The book is a masterpiece of temper tantrums against the pomposity and impenetrability of social science writing. So he inspired me way back then. And then in 2000, I guess it was 1999, Mike Bain, who was then the president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, had a similar temper tantrum in my presence where I was able to join him and we became a duet and we spent a good hour just pounding the table over stupid stuff we had to read until he finally said, why don’t you write something about it? And I did. I essentially put portions of my temper tantrum into print at their, with their support, and, I have to say, great encouragement and guidance.
Eric: A nice paid temper tantrum, then, it was.
Tony: It’s, some people just are blessed by the gods in this life. I got paid to vent my spleen and really there’s nothing better than that.
Eric: That’s a very good point. Needless to say, the foundation world, I’ve, uh, railed against how the foundation world and the nonprofit world uses language for a long time, mostly just channeling my inner Proscio, which can cause for, it’s a good thing I have a nice thick stomach lining because the channeling one’s inner Proscio can cause a little bit of roiling down there, but it was a target rich environment to quote that great philosopher, Donald Rumsfeld. Where did you get started and what did you, how did your spleen venting go? What was your process?
Tony: I started with words that I thought were actually jargon. That is, technical words that are used in ways that ordinary English speakers don’t use them. I started chasing after things that made the business of philanthropy and the public interest incomprehensible to outsiders. I started with words like capacity, which foundations and nonprofits use to mean all kinds of rather technical things about how organizations are put together and grow and get stronger and better. But the word conjures an encyclopedia of different meanings to insiders and absolutely no meaning to outsiders. That was the kind of thing I got started on. I was really looking for words that are used in an, almost used in the nonprofit sector in a way that’s almost incomprehensible to people who are on the outside. But what I learned after writing the first essay was that people out in the field were seriously irritated and rightly irritated by a lot of words that aren’t actually technical, they’re just overused or pompous or repetitious or just boring. And it was the steady, insistent, hypnotic use and reuse of the same old words that really got people fired up, and it was the reaction to my first essay that got me to focus on that. So you’ll, you may or may not have noticed as I wrote more, the words got less and less technical and more and more abstract and boring and repetitious. That, to me, is what I think really destroys the writing in the public sector and in the nonprofit world.
Eric: Here’s where we start to embody the two Muppets in the balcony, because I totally share your frustration. I know that neither of us, I don’t think either of us has a degree in psychology or psychiatry as the case may be, but why do you think people do that? What is behind trying to obfuscate?
Tony: I think there are three things that kind of drive people who are, let’s stipulate from the beginning, good people doing good things and trying to inspire other people with the good work they’re doing. So we’re going to just set question of virtue and sincerity aside.
Eric: No evil motives are behind this. Okay, good.
Tony: Uh, I don’t think there are any illuminati out there trying to destroy the nonprofit world with ugly language. I’ve been thinking about this. It seems to me there are three basic impulses, uh, drive people to use ugly, boring language and overuse it. And the first and most obvious one is just habit. People don’t have a lot of time where at least they don’t wanna spend a lot of time formulating their thoughts. Once they’ve found a way to say something that works for them, they may not even know whether it works for anybody else, but they’ll just stick with it and say it over and over again, never realizing that the formulation they’re so in love with might not be very interesting or accurate or useful, but also not realizing that they’re now overusing it and repeating themselves. I, I saw on a website recently, it’s a good example of this, a very prominent foundation, that part of what they do is re-imagining philanthropy to catalyze leaders and organizations driving social justice and building movements. Don’t ask me to begin to explain what that means, but, but look at all those words that you hear all the time. Reimagining. Everybody reimagines everything. Catalyzing and driving. These are just, they’re the standard verbs. Like a, it’s like a, a jellybean jar. You just reach in the jar and you pull some out and you get some re-imagining and you get some catalyzing and you get some driving.
Eric: It’s just a gerund pile-up is what it is.
Tony: Exactly. And it’s all the same gerunds over and over. But I liked the – I actually stumbled over how, how you catalyze leaders. And then I’m trying to picture the chemical process involved in the analysis.
Eric: I believe it happens at conception.
Tony: It may very well at a moment that should not be public matter. But anyway, that’s what this foundation claims to be doing, and it was for me, the perfect example of just writing by habit. I’m sure they reimagine and catalyze and drive everything, but there’s a, there’s another impulse that I think has really grown in the last several years since I’ve stopped writing those essays, that’s fear of saying the wrong thing. You fall into a kind of a timid crouch and say the things that Twitter approved of that never got you in trouble. Say them over and over again for fear that, God forbid, you say some new thing, and somebody might object to it. I’m not even talking about political correctness, I’m just talking about covering your own backside. Many years ago, in an experience that was, at once, alluring and terrifying, I worked for a couple of years for the United Nations.
Eric: Ooh, yeah, yeah. That’s a special, oh, that’s the ether. That’s the ionosphere of jargon, is it not?
Tony: It, it absolutely was. You could, you felt yourself being sucked in like some great science fiction when you stepped into the place. I once asked somebody to if I could just see an organization chart of the United Nations, ’cause I was trying to figure out where all the pieces fit together. And he told me that anyone who’s ever looked at an organization chart of the United Nations has turned to stone.
Eric: When you walk in the building, all the moisture is removed from your body.
Tony: It’s true. You just, yeah, you turn into ooze. Here’s something I learned that was true then, and I think it probably still is true with the United Nations. There is such a thing there as approved language. There are certain things that can be spoken of only in approved phrases, which helps explain why nobody ever reads anything produced by the United Nations, except if they’re paid to do. But I think in a less formal way, a lot of people just naturally retreat into their own concept of approved language. Things that haven’t gotten them into trouble, and probably won’t. I had a, I won’t say an argument, I’d, say, a lively discussion with our friend David Morris some years ago when I was writing about the work that the Atlantic Philanthropies was doing in defense of gay rights, and I wasn’t allowed to say gay rights, I had to say LGBTQIA something plus over and over again. And I said, first of all, this is my own etiology. Not everybody in that alphabet soup has the same interests. Trans people have a different political, have a different political agenda from gay people and bi people probably do too. I didn’t see any virtue in that alphabet soup. I said, can’t we just say sexual minorities? Because that is the one thing they have in common, that we have in common. David said, no, because we haven’t tried sexual minorities. It might not play right to everybody, and it is true that the phrase, even though I think it’s a very good one, has never caught on, but I don’t think it would necessarily offend anyone. Trouble is, I’ll never know, ’cause I didn’t get to, I wasn’t allowed to use it.
Eric: It’s a very interesting point because you’re quite right that whereas certain communities have adopted certain terms because, for a variety of reasons, it may not say enough to be able to explain what the, what the thing is, and I think we do that, we do that a lot. I try not to, but I had never thought about that way, that formulation in quite that way. Interesting.
Tony: The only reason I wanted to do it, it wasn’t – for me, it wasn’t an ideological issue. For me, I just didn’t wanna have to say LGBTQ every single time. It was a whole paper. It was a long paper on that subject. And think how many times I’d be referring to the interested community in exactly the same way. Groaning on and on page after page. So I wanted some synonyms. Another time I worked for someone, I did a long collection of essays on community development in Washington D.C., and I wanted to refer to Washington, D.C. in multiple ways because it turned up 2, 2, 3, 4 times on a page, but I was told, no, you can’t say the district because Washingtonians believe they have a right to be a state, they shouldn’t be a district. District is demeaning. You can’t say the city for the same reason, right? So you can only say Washington. And again, page after page, Washington one. The whole thing was about Washington. Think how many times I had to say it. I did, finally, on that one, I did finally break through and get them to allow me to say the city. I still couldn’t say the district, but again, the effort was to avoid repetition. And if you’re really worried about saying the wrong thing, repetition is, uh, repetition of safe approved language is what you revert to.
Eric: We’re gonna take a very quick break and we’re back with Tony Proscio. We’re gonna talk, I wanna talk about some of your favorite words to hate and we’re gonna talk a little bit about what, how clear communications and philanthropy can potentially go hand in hand. So we’ll be right back with Tony Proscio right after this.
Eric: Welcome back to Let’s Hear It. My guest is Tony Proscio, the man who has, I think, done more for my writing than any other, or the person who has done more for my writing than any other. Someone I’ve looked up to for many, many years, and I think we have commiserated and kibbitzed in a, in a cranky way – we’ve crankied together over the years.
Tony: Oh, yeah. And, uh, we mastered cranky.
Eric: We do cranky. So obviously you’ve done a lot of work in philanthropy trying to help clarify what a foundation and, and its nonprofit partners and grantees are trying to do, one of the things that we talk about in philanthropy is people don’t understand it very well. People, uh, we wish they could better understand what philanthropy is, what it could do, and at the same time, we kind of run against that by not being clear. Is there any way to square that circle? And do you think that some folks are beginning to get there or, I’m looking for the, the merest rays of hope.
Tony: I think maybe social media, in addition to terrifying some people and forcing them to repeat approved language, social media may also have encouraged people to rely on old fashioned simple language, just because it’s shorter and simpler, easier to get into 240 characters or whatever, and conveying ideas quickly and with force in a short space is now probably a higher priority for more people than it was when, at least when I started working, I came across, uh, uh, the website of the Robinhood Foundation recently and I have to say, I, I really liked what I saw. Lemme just give you an example of how they describe what they do.
Eric: Hit me.
Tony: Getting families back on their feet, getting kids back on track, getting New Yorkers back to work. There’s a nice rhetorical rhythm to it, getting back, getting back, but it’s all ordinary English that you might actually say to somebody in a bar, not to suggest that you hang out in bars at all.
Eric: Well, well actually I was gonna say, as it happens, I’ve spent been a fair amount of time in bars. We’ve done, we’ve actually done episodes in bars, believe it or not.
Tony: See, I approve of that sort of thing. Thanks. It’s, uh, it, it was my favorite interview technique when I was, uh, an, when I was a reporter for the obvious reason that it makes people a lot more cooperative, clearly, especially by the third hour or so.
Eric: Until they get belligerent and then, dammit.
Tony: Right. On the subject of the Robin Hood Foundation, I was really impressed, but they still used impactful a lot. They described a lot of things as scalable. Just meaning they could get bigger. And they repeatedly use the verb to partner, meaning I have no idea what, because everybody partners all the time and it’s never clear. I think it just means they get along. But with all of those infractions, ’cause nobody’s perfect, it’s a really good, lively, conversational website and I was asking myself, why is it that they’re so much better than the other foundations? And one perhaps overly obvious reason is they have to raise money. The Robin Hood Foundation isn’t endowed. They need to get money every year, and that means they have to sell what they’re doing in terms that people will find understandable and exciting. They don’t have the luxury of just droning on and on because their endowment isn’t gonna go away.
Eric: I’ve long said, foundations have no enemies in nature, and so therefore, you know, they don’t have very sharp teeth and they can’t run fast, but they don’t have to, so they can say whatever they want. Who’s gonna say no? We’re not taking your money because you use the word space a lot.
Tony: Well, Worse because they give money away to people who need to persuade them to do so. Every verbal foible from a foundation gets repeated and multiplied out there among all the supplicants who feel that they have to talk in the foundation’s language. The main reason I focused mostly on foundations and not on operating nonprofits in my essays is everything they do wrong, they multiply out in the hungry world.
Eric: Right. Oh, no. I, I hadn’t thought of that either. But you’re absolutely right. Do not encourage bad behavior just because you can do it. Uh, so what, what are your, some of your favorite words to hate? Do you have any, what’s the terrible 10 or the, I don’t know, the despicable dozen? Terrible two?
Tony: I’ll, I’m going to give you a couple, and I’ve already mentioned a couple, but I also don’t want people to freeze when they come to a sentence in which the word capacity really fits, rather than to treat it as an evil word. If you really need to use it, explain it. Start off at least with ordinary conversational English that describes what capacity means and then go ahead and use it. The goal here isn’t to make people freeze up or become self-conscious. The goal is the opposite, to encourage them to say to the world what they would say to their partner or their daughter or the guy in the next chair at the bar. I want to, not to lionize the Robin Hood Foundation over much, but one of the things I admired about their website is they don’t say capacity. Here’s what they do say. “We provide grantees with assistance in marketing, board placement, whatever we can do to enable their success.” It’s an expression that’s as broad and all encompassing as the word capacity, but it gives you some ideas about the kinds of things that they actually help organizations do, and then they acknowledge that there’s also a big, broad world that we’re not gonna describe in detail. It feels human in a way that capacity doesn’t, and it provides a little bit of specificity. Now, I wish they hadn’t said, we provide grantees with assistance.
It would’ve been much nicer to say, we help grantees. There’s some phobia in the nonprofit world about using the verb to help. I’m not sure what it is. You’ve had more experience out there with this than I have. Maybe you understand it. I can’t. But still, when they got to what they do in what we tremble to call capacity building, when they got to what they talked about, actual things, marketing, board placement, and then acknowledge that there’s a lot else. So capacity would be my, is still my number one. It has been for, for many years. But I mentioned earlier to partner. People have written to me to say it’s not a verb, it’s a noun. And in conversational English, that’s true. As it turns out, there’s pretty long history of the use of the verb partner. So I can’t say that the dictionary forbids it or proper English forbids it or history forbids it. All I can say is it doesn’t mean a damn thing. If you enter into a partnership, you’ve probably hired legal counsel and the nature of that partnership is probably spelled out in some detail. If you haven’t, you should have, and that detail is probably different from one partnership to the next. When nonprofits use it, they apply it to everybody that they’re not actually suing. And it, it’s, it’s so far beyond meaningless, beyond any ability to comprehend what they’re actually talking about that I think it does real harm. It suggests almost subliminally these people are probably talking through their hat, and when foundations say they partner with grantees, they’ve really left me in the dust because the foundations have the money and the grantees have the need, and that’s the partnership.
Eric: Right. Well, I think this, this point of saying what you mean is, is kind of in alignment with being accountable. Because if you say what you mean, then you have to do what you say. If you don’t say what you mean, you don’t have to do a damn thing. And I think that that lack of accountability is one of the things that plagues foundations because as we have already noted, they have no enemies in nature. The only thing that they are responsive to is, I guess, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which can make them pay out 6% instead of 5%, and maybe the IRS, which would take away their, uh, their 501c3 status, which has never happened unless, uh, you know, in the absence of, you know, criminal malfeasance. So there’s no enemies in nature. And so therefore, if, and the only thing that you need to be accountable to is your values. And for the foundations that do that, I think they’re better at being direct, they’re better at saying, here’s what we’re trying to achieve and here’s how we’re going to do it, and they’re probably less likely to lapse into that vague, you know, misty, world of space and leveraging things in the such and such space, whatever, because it means nothing. Are there, just in the few minutes that we have left, do you have any, any advice that, you know, the person coming up in, in some foundation can start to do, to begin to move this, to turn this ocean liner or the oil tanker or some other dangerous device around so that we can get to where we need to go?
Tony: I’ve started to believe that technology might be a help here. I have fallen in love with the many recording and transcription apps that have made my life much easier. One thing you can do with a recording and transcription app is talk to it the way you would talk to somebody else. Or maybe you actually do talk to somebody else and you turn the recorder on and tell this other person, presumably a real human outside of your line of work, who doesn’t speak your rarefied language. As you tell this person what you do or what you’d like to do, or what you might propose doing in ordinary English, one of these apps will transcribe it for you. You’ll be able to read how your own human soul actually talks when it’s not writing a board memo. I think it can be therapeutic and maybe even a help to good writing. But the more a piece of writing sounds like a human conversation, and the less it sounds like a mathematical formula, the more effective it’s gonna be. So here’s one way of getting real conversation onto the page and looking at it and seeing what you might learn from it.
Eric: Well, it’s, um, it is always great to talk to you, Tony, and, oh, I, I have my copy of When Words Fail, suitable for framing, but I actually thumb through it, uh, regularly as, and I, and I believe that your, both of these books are available kind of in digital form somewhere. Uh, can you, can you point us to them more efficiently?
Tony: You know, I used to be able, I have, um, I have retired and I have taken down my website for fear that somebody thinks I might be available to work and I’m not. So I used to, uh, refer people to my website for the digital version of these things, and now I fear there is no easy place to download them.
Eric: Well, I haven’t thought about that, if you, if there is a link and you send it to us, we can now house the Tony Proscio Alexandria Project and send people to places where they could download your books, ’cause they really are great. They’re fun to read, but they’re also a real reminder of how we use language and how we can do better.
Tony: It’s helpful I think, just to remember, to remind yourself every so often that words are a choice, that you don’t have to fall into some approved text that you don’t have to write like somebody you aren’t. Words can come from the soul and can speak to people as human beings, and that’s up to you. So even if you just read the book and have a good laugh at it, perhaps it’ll remind you that you do have options and that the same old language isn’t necessary. Anyway, thank you. I will absolutely send you all three of the, there are actually three of these things, and if you can make them available, I’ll be grateful. I even have, although I’m told they’re expensive on Amazon, I have a few of the hard copy versions left for people who write me love letters. So I don’t distribute very many of those ’cause I don’t get very many love letters, but they still can be had somebody really wants them, but as someone else said to me, the demand for ink on paper is declining fast. So I haven’t got much of a market out there for the copies that are left.
Eric: Well, mine is beloved. I’ve given many away. I had, at one point I had a rather large cache of them, but I’ve given them away as gifts to, to friends over the years, to truly trusted and beloved people who, uh, who I know would appreciate them. Well, Tony Proscio, what a pleasure. It is great to talk to you. Thank you for your lifetime of great work and the, I would say, enormous contribution that you have made to our field. It’s really a pleasure.
Tony: It’s, the pleasure’s mine, Eric, and it’s always a joy to talk to you. So thanks for this opportunity.
Eric: Thanks again, Tony Proscio.
Kirk: And we’re back. We’re back.
Eric: Did you leverage your capacitation in the podcasting space, Kirk?
Kirk: I got very catalyzed. I got very catalyzed by what I just listened to, and I think I’m replicating as we’re speaking.
Eric: I had a ‘69 catalyzed convertible, but it was, it didn’t run very well.
Kirk: So here are, here are the firsts we got. I believe Tony is the first ever retired person we’ve had in our podcast.
Eric: We’re all gonna be pretty retired pretty soon, Kirk, if we keep this up. Is that possible?
Kirk: Yeah, thats true. So Tony has tried, Tony has tried to sell you nothing. Tony is here selling you nothing. He’s just graciously sharing his experience. And this is the second first, this was Tony’s first ever podcast. So what a, what a gracious thing for him to say. And Eric, what a gracious thing for you to invite him. And I have to say, you know, here, this person got on a podcast whose career in this space started by pounding the table over stupid stuff he had to read. What a great introduction to Tony. I found him to be a really gracious, kind, and awesome guest.
Eric: Now I wanna talk to you about the perniciousness of language. You said his career in this space.
Kirk: It’s, it’s so hard!
Eric: If it was a football game, I would, you’d have a five yard penalty for, for something.
Kirk: I am gonna get yellow flags all over the field here, so, so can we start here? Can we start here? Sure. His whys for where this language come from, I thought were so interesting because, isn’t the heart of the matter here, partly that we use this language because we think it’s technical and it denotes expertise, but actually, and what’s what he’s pointing out, is that it’s just empty. It’s empty calories. It just goes out in the ether and doesn’t really create the kind of change we’re looking for. I mean, is that, is that part of what’s going on here at least?
Eric: I think it’s a number of things. We talked about a little bit. I talked a little bit about it. One is that if you don’t say anything, you can’t be held accountable for it. So if you can’t say exactly what you’re going to do, then nobody can say you didn’t do it. So if you say, we’re going to scale this work, which is like, I have to tell you, I’m twitching. I twitch a lot when I read and hear. Now, if you say we’re gonna scale this work that I assume that means we’re gonna make it bigger. But you never, if you don’t say how bigger, if we’re gonna double the number of people that we serve, or if we’re going to bring twice as much money into climate philanthropy or I don’t know, pick a thing and be specific. That’s one thing. If you say we’re gonna scale it, then nobody can ever say you didn’t scale it because you never said what that meant. So that’s one thing. Uh, so, so lack of accountability, and, and vaguely vagueness in general is allows you to not have to spend the time to be specific. And when you’re specific, it takes more time. It’s harder. You have to actually say what you mean. And that’s more difficult. And I think that, so some of it, frankly, some of my best friends work in this business, but we can all be a little bit lazy about what it is we’re trying to do. And then the other thing is, I think there’s just a culture. People use words and they think that they know what they mean, and so we can all kind of wink at each other. And sometimes we actually do know what we mean, but the people who we’re trying to communicate with don’t. And so that distances them from us and us from them, and that’s not what you want. You wanna build and bridge and do all that kind of stuff. So I think that’s some of what’s in it. We just kind of get used to our own nonsense and that’s not good.
Kirk: Well, you know, and Tony had that gift and he clearly still has it of that sort of discerning eye and voice as an almost an outsider, right? Like sort of critiquing from the outside what he’s reading, what he’s, what the impact of these words or lack of impact is gonna be. But you know, it’s funny, this is definitely not a Glass House’s episode because you can throw stones, I’m sure it’s all over our language all the time on, on this podcast, in the writing that we do, it’s so, it’s so second, it’s just such a habit. You know, we talked about this just being a habit. We fall into these habits and, and with the way he was talking about the work and the words he was calling out and the examples you asked him to provide. You suddenly get this image of these empty words going into these empty hallways where people nod and then vacuously… There’s a weird kind of like, you know, big brother quality to this, that I think in a weird way, we’re all responsible for, right? That we all, we all take some ownership over that ’cause we all fall into this, this kind of habit of using these words and repeating ’em back to each other time and time again.
Eric: It’s true. I am very cranky about this, as you very well know, I everyone is guilty of it, and the only thing that I can say to folks is, do whatever you can to do better and really think about what is it I am trying to say and does this thing that I’m saying do that or is this thing that I’m saying keeping me from communicating, connecting, really helping people understand what we’re trying to achieve, how we’re going to achieve it, what good thing happens as a result. That kind of stuff is how you build movements. It’s how you get things done. And every time we say we’re gonna capacitate leverage in the blah, blah, blah space, you just said nothing and you didn’t get anything done. And I, I think that that’s not good. And we have to stop that. And the problem is often when we, when we try to speak in plain English, people tell us that we’re dumbing down their work, or that we’re not serious, or we’re not, I don’t know, fancy enough or something. And that’s, I just don’t accept it. I don’t accept it. Some of the greatest communicators on the planet are plain speaking folk and kind of for good and for real, we all know what we’re talking about. But, but when you say what you mean and you’re direct and declarative you, that, that’s how you move people. Anyway, so that’s, that’s kind of my take. And like some of this stuff is, is just kind of funny, you know, his, he’s, he’s really snarky and hilariously funny. Like what he, he says, leverage is the magical multiplication of minimal force. We’re gonna do something small and leverage will happen as a result. He says partnership, a partnership is a love story with a prenuptial agreement. And I’m not sure what he means by that, but it just made me laugh, like everybody’s partnering with something.
Kirk: Well, you talked about getting his books into the, into the podcast feed, and we totally have to do that because, you know, I, I also appreciate his, his point here. The goal isn’t to freeze up, he said, right. We don’t want people to become self-conscious. We’re trying to encourage people to become just more authentic and open with how they’re communicating. And for me, one of the big challenges here is this notion he described of the fear of saying the wrong thing. That so much of this behavior, so much of this, these, it’s all fear. You’re, you’re communicating, you’re doing your best, you’re trying to change minds. You’re actually probably communicating up. Like one of the things I was thinking about is, as you guys were talking, who owns this change that we’re discussing here? You know, because so many times as communicators, we’re writing for somebody else who’s ultimately gonna have authority for approving what we’re saying, right? We’re, we’re often putting words in the mouth of another person, or we’re putting words on a website or in a newsletter. Whatever the tool or tactic is, very seldom, sometimes it’s the case, but very seldom that communications function owns ultimate authority for what’s said and what’s put out there. So I think there is an interesting dance here, isn’t there, between, let’s say leadership at large, however that gets expressed, and then this notion, this sensibility about common language, right? Because it’s like where do you find the traction? And I, and I kind of feel for, and we’ve all been this person, and in many respects we’re all still this person. You know, you’re the relatively speaking, more junior person trying to advance this thinking, and you’re kind of pushing a string uphill if you’re not actually being encouraged and invited by leadership to kind of think this way. Don’t, don’t you think?
Eric: Yeah, there’s, there’s a culture. It’s very hard to, to go against it. And if you’re a junior person and you’re trying to subvert the dominant paradigm, well, God bless you, but that might be tricky. So this is one of those things that it is true that leadership can lead. That if you actually say to your organization, we’re gonna say what we mean and we’re not gonna use jargon, and we’re gonna find ways to connect to our audiences in the ways that they understand and the ways that they speak, and using language and terms and concepts that are meaningful. I honestly, truly, in my soul, what’s left of it, believe that that is going to be more effective.
Kirk: Yeah, well, absolutely right. And, and, and you know, calling out the examples from the Robinhood Foundation, it’s just so plain. It, it enlists you behind, you know, with the mission to hear the language expressed in such plain ways. And then Tony points out, and, and maybe the reason that’s the case is because Robinhood is actually out there actively raising money and so they’re using language that can, can enlist people and get engagement. So, another kind of thing that I thought about as you guys were talking this through, is this weird, I think there’s an odd little disconnect showing up on our podcast because we, we have lots of creativity that’s been expressed on this podcast, I think. Okay. Like the people that you’ve been interviewing, right, the people that you’ve been talking to and, and the handful of times I’ve had those conversations too, but like really generative, just super cool, doing amazing things, taking real risks, right, then I think about walking into a major foundation and I’m asking myself, am I walking into a place that invites that kind of creativity? Because this plain speaking, this plain language, this way of just saying it differently so we learn and understand it better. That’s a little bit different, right? It’s a little bit new, and it’s funny sometimes I think about that, that pitch process with foundations, it’s almost like a, it’s like pitching a story. You know, imagine you’re writing a movie script and, and, or a book, a book script, and you get 15 nos and you finally get one yes. You know, and, and it’s that competitive, right? Because it’s so hard to get grant funding because there’s so many demands for those dollars. And I wonder if there’s something in that dynamic too here where it’s like, where the stakes are so high and you’re, you’re trying to raise money and you’re having to find your way into the foundation and then, and then you have to like, this notion of using approved language, right. By the time you sit down in the room, you better be using the approved language, or your idea just doesn’t have a chance.
Eric: Yeah. Well, Tony also points out that for folks who are trying to raise money with the so-called general public, you speak one way and when you speak to foundations, you speak in their way and it is a little, yeah, it’s a little twisty, you know? You get a little push me, pull you to have to then repeat a foundation’s own, frankly, nonsense back to them, then it’s kind of unfair. So yes, it is true that, that these become really challenging points. All I can say is that everybody out there, if you’re a leader of a foundation, do better, set a good example, teach your own staff how to think about communicating. It matters. And if you’re at a nonprofit, well, certainly there are times when that kind of jargon doesn’t work so great. You have an incentive there, I suppose. But it is very hard not to repeat the stuff back to, to your funder. I don’t know. Mm-hmm. I, I just believe that… It just makes me crazy. That’s all. And, and it, it comes from the business world. It comes from the military. The military is brutally jargonic. The business world, here in Silicon Valley or in this, in this area, those guys forget it. They’re ridiculous. So we have it all around us. The culture is what it is and it, in many ways, I mean people make it, I think folks think that that makes them seem smart. And like, I don’t care that I, like everybody knows I’m stupid. That’s not, it’s too late for me. Maybe that’s my, that’s my saving grace. I could play the fool. Uh, it, but I also think that it works that, that, that kind of, that clear language matters and that that is how you connect with folks. It’s also a way of showing that you are kind of one of one of everyone.
Kirk: Well, that’s the, I was thinking about that. It’s like we wanna come across all, not just smart, but we want to show, Hey, we’re on the team, we’re on the same team. And I think Tony’s saying, actually, there’s a better team to be on, which is the human race. Join the human race.
Eric: That’s right. And you like, I apologize. Everybody’s like, oh my god, Eric, he’s, what a schmuck. He’s such, you know, a schmuck about this stuff. So I apologize if I am, if I’m being harsh, but I, I really do think that we can do better. And a lot of folks have, Andy Goodman has been a real, like a real champion for clear communications. Spitfire has been a champion for, you know, a lot of folks out there have done it. It’s not just Tony and I, you know, I don’t have to fall on the sword by myself, but there, but we can do better. We can do better.
Kirk: Yeah. And I don’t think anybody claims to be perfect here. And as you guys pointed out, this is about good people doing good things, trying to inspire other people with good work, right? So it’s, it’s, it’s, let’s like claim to this power we get access to, which is everybody’s access to language and how it can really help, you know, transform lives and populations if we use it more effectively. And Tony leaves us with this thought, you know, that words are a choice. It’s actually a choice you can make to speak to people as human beings. You have the option to do that. And he gave us that tip, which I love, this notion of how about just try talking about it before you write it. Just speak it. Talk to a transcription service. See what comes back to you. It’s, for me, one of the cool things about doing this podcast has been that part of it, you know, taking all this stuff that we talk about and read about and think about, and let’s just have a conversation. Let’s just see what happens when we just kind of play with it, you know, in this wordscape that we get to live in. So, I mean, so I don’t think there’s any thou shalts or finger pointing even as you, I think there’s a mirror being raised here, which again, I think it’s really incredible that Tony had that insight to say, look, actually, I’ve been staring at this and this feels a little bit, this feels a little bit tricky. So I think this was really great.
Eric: I also think that clear speaking helps you focus the mind, and in many times when you’re thinking about your strategy or when you’re thinking about what you’re just, anything that you’re trying to do on a, on a regular basis, like what am I actually trying to do? Who am I trying to reach? What do they care about? How do I create messages that are meaningful to them? What do, how am I gonna measure success? That kind of clarity is really good for an organization. And then once you have that clarity, articulating it shouldn’t be that much more difficult.
Kirk: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. So I would love to give you Tony’s website, but it doesn’t exist.
Eric: It’s a black box. It’s just blackness.
Kirk: I would love to tell you where to find Tony, but I don’t think he cares if you find him.
Eric: He’s in an undisclosed location.
Kirk: But we will, to the best of our abilities, try to find links to these publications of Tony’s and um, and really encourage you to get your hands on ’em. And, and if you can find Tony and send Tony a love letter, ’cause this is the last thing for this person who created so much, just did so much good thinking, so much good work and now is retired, Tony, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Did Tony receive enough thank yous? Probably not. For pointing these kinds of things out. Um, it’s, it’s really hard, right? It’s a painful as, as Tony says, it’s a painful thing for public affairs writers to admit that this, you know, a certain kind of awful writing really can be a hallmark, you know, of sloppy thinking. So yeah. Tony, this is great.
Eric: Well, that was great, Tony. Thank you so much. That was so much fun. We’ll never be able to do you justice, but we’ve given it our best shot.
Kirk: We will not. That was Tony Proscio on Let’s Hear It. We’ll see you next time.