The power of positive language

I spent the weekend running an awesome robot competition, so I asked Catherine Caine to write this week’s awesome blog post.  You will not be disappointed.

Catherine is passionate about helping people to start and grow an awesome website: she’s even published a manifesto about it. When she’s not adding 5 minute missions to, she can invariably be found on Twitter.

Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt

Have you ever had a four-year-old tell you about something they did? With a mystifying painting of blobs in their hands they will burble excitedly about how this is a bird and this is Daddy and this is a helichopper… Even if this isn’t your kid and you’re a professional art critic you’re enchanted and engaged by their enthusiasm.

By comparison, a fifteen-year-old telling you about their day is a monosyllabic stream of sighs and frowns. The best you get is “It was pretty good, I guess”. According to a fifteen-year-old, everything is painted in shades of suck. You tell them about something you’re interested in and all you get is shrugs and “whatever”. What a buzzkill.

So which one do you sound like when you’re talking about what you do?

“Serious” does not mean “grim”

Child abuse, poverty, extinction, homelessness… nonprofits often work in the hard places, and see a lot of cruel and depressing sights. It’s so easy to come away from the excellent work you’re doing and talk about it like you’re an undertaker. You need to consciously resist that tendency.

It hurts your donors
People want to feel they’re making a difference, that the money they give you is going to accomplish great things. If they feel everything is hopeless and grim, they’ll think “What I do doesn’t matter, why should I bother?” and stop donating.

It hurts your volunteers
Most nonprofits work for causes that are in it for the long haul. Your volunteers need to keep their spirits up so they can avoid burnout and keep contributing.

It hurts your family
Your loved ones don’t want to see you come home every day and sigh when they ask how your day went. They want you to be happy and fulfilled, not miserable!

It hurts you
Nonprofit work is emotionally tough. How you talk about your work (both internally and externally) changes how you feel about it. Your language determines how you feel about your work. Do you want to feel tired, hopeless, resigned, unappreciated and powerless? Or does fired up, grateful, empowered, proud and satisfied sound better?

What to do about it

Always write with positive language. Remember that four-year-old, so excited about the work she’s done? Ignore any voice in yourself that says that charity is Serious Business and write something that’s joyous and excited about the work you’re doing and the results it’s having. Use exclamation marks and words like:

  • fortunately
  • excited
  • happy
  • triumph
  • surprised
  • improved
  • success
  • shared
  • victory
  • empowered
  • delighted
  • sunshine
  • passionate
  • fantastic
  • saved
  • glorious
  • appreciated

And of course, my personal favorite: awesome.

Encourage your volunteers to share their best moment of the day and do the same yourself when people ask how your day was. Start with “Why, it was fantastic!”

And when you catch yourself talking about the work in downcast tones, rephrase it immediately. You are your organization’s  most precious resource, so look after your emotional well-being!

15 thoughts on “The power of positive language

  1. Maureen, what a great guest poster you found! Catherine, you should be a regular columnist on nonprofit blogs with this message of positivity. An inspiring uplift on a gloomy Monday morning…thanks to both of you!

  2. The words and language we use shape our reality. You’re right, Catherine, focusing on the negative brings us more negative.

    Non-profit or not, we would all do well to “watch our tongues.”

    Thanks for the pleasant reminder!

    • Hi Marsha,

      That’s it exactly. I see it happen most often in really important care-driven jobs like nursing and non-profits… they give so much, and work to improve negative conditions, that it’s so easy to frame everything in terms of that negativity.

      But we’re all in caring positions too! We all need to be careful!

  3. The more I think about it the more I think the real “Law of Attraction” is we find what we look for. Thanks Catherine for another example of how to make that idea work for us in our lives–no special rituals required.

  4. I couldn’t agree with this more! So many nonprofits I deal with don’t seem to have a real understanding that their “product” for me, the donor, is warm and fuzzy happy feelings.

    Make me feel amazing for the good work being done with our donations! Of course the problems aren’t solved yet, but make me feel like I’m part of a positive path headed for success, rather than trying to fill an ocean-sized need with an eyedropper.

    • Exactly! The bigger the task you’re trying to accomplish, the more small affirmations you need in order to keep going. And with nonprofits sometimes the task is ENDLESS, so you have to focus even more on the small improvements and the warm and fuzzy feelings.

    • This is really important Sonia–it’s easy to forget that donors are our “customers” too. Of course this is not to say we should paint a false picture to get more money–but it certainly doesn’t hurt to let donor’s know they are making a difference.

  5. Great post Catherine. The great comments made for a real conversation as well…Win-win. When faced with issues as overwhelming as filling an ‘ocean -sized need with an eyedropper’ small steps are certainly the surest way to guarantee success, one task at a time, within the confines of the project but also within the hearts and minds of those who want to help. Seeing is believing and belief is priceless.

  6. Yep, I agree with this – so many fundraisers are very earnest about what they do, which can all too easily tip over into being downcast about everything.

    It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by a negative environment, but not inevitable. That was something I learned from reading Victor Frankl’s amazing book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, about his experiences as a psychiatrist inside a Nazi concentration camp.

    His conclusion was the last freedom that humans have is our freedom to choose our attitude of mind. And the language you use to describe things is a big part of that.

    As a donor, I wouldn’t have much faith in the ability to succeed of someone who doesn’t have at least a tiny bit of optimism in their language!

  7. It’s great to hear from so many donors on this post! It’s so easy to get caught up in the echo chamber of being “inside” non-profits. It’s so important to hear the voices of our donors as well. Thanks for speaking up.

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