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In times of uncertainty, now more than ever—drop the clichés. (Here’s how to break the habit.)

I’ll start by saying: look, I get it. We’ve all been there.

You’re sitting in front of a blank screen and need to say something important in this important moment. You know people care about your mission. They value what you do and they want to help. In some form or another, they need to hear from you.

But how to address this damn pandemic that’s been upending lives and institutions for months?

There’s nothing like a global pandemic and economic stagnation to bring about a bit of writer’s block. Not only is this an indisputably tricky time for communications, but also we don’t want our organizations to be branded by this moment.

So we end up with “these uncertain times” or some variation of it.

But no matter how much we’d like to, we can’t distance ourselves from what’s going on in the world. These are indeed times, they are indeed uncertain, and we are indeed “all in this together.”

If you’ve found yourself writing sentences like this, you probably already realize it’s time to stop. If that sounds like your organization, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Just remove the cliché – the idea will still be there.

Start with what inevitably must be done: highlight the phrase and hit delete.

There’s a Hemingway quote I love that helps here. If you know your subject well enough, and you’re “writing truly enough,” you can omit things you know and “the reader will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though you had stated them.”

In other words, uncertainty right now is on everyone’s mind, so there’s no need to add a placeholder platitude about it. The context of this moment will still be present in your writing. Stay focused on what you know: your mission and the impact you have on people’s lives.

An example from my email inbox to illustrate the point:

During these uncertain times, [We] are uniting to make a positive change.*

Is simpler and stronger when you do this:

[We] are uniting to make a positive change. [Then, give a powerful example or two.]
*The “we” in this case was actually the school’s mascot, which adds even more punch.

It’s not the only way to fix the problem, but I love how often the delete button works. As we can see from above, the sentiment that comes after the obligatory context, “During these uncertain times,” stands perfectly fine on its own. In fact, it’s stronger and more honest that way.

Spend more of your time on refining the heart of your message, and you’ll be in much better shape.

2. Make it about “you” (the reader).

Once you’ve shifted the focus away from “the moment” in trite terms, there’s another trap you’ll want to watch for: vanity. It’s an easy one to stumble into, especially once your organization decides to emphasize the needs it has right now.

But to illustrate the challenge here, I’ve scripted a little dramatization based on real time reactions to dozens of emails and appeals I’ve received personally:

Fundraising communication: [Our institution] has been through many changes in the past two months. Now more than ever, we need your support.

Me: “Well, I certainly feel for you. As you might imagine, things have changed for me, as well. In fact, what if I’d lost a job? Or worse, what if I’d lost someone I love to the pandemic? I know this appeal is ultimately about you, but it has to resonate with donors like me.”

If we want to speak authentically to audiences right now, we need to carefully balance the “us” with more “you” in our communications. The two should work together.

Instead of focusing entirely on institutional problems or needs, work to find a common language that captures the natural solidarity you have with your donor community. At a moment where everyone is asking similar questions about the future (even if their present situations are different), this should come naturally from the writing process.

3. Think of every message as a brand message.

Finally, this is a really good time to reconnect with what your organization represents, what it believes in, and what it does best to make the world better. Distill that message and share it – over and over again.

Doing so now may even be easier since your team is thinking in deeper ways about themselves and their loved ones. They’ll gladly do so on behalf of the organization, and it would be wise for us as communicators to tap the thoughtful energy that results.

Recently, for example, I was leading a messaging workshop with a dozen or so university leaders and was amazed by the level of introspection. I had prefaced the discussion with some exercises to “take us out of the moment and into the future.” That worked, and we all had a great chat about where the institution is headed. But as Hemingway noted, remove the obvious statements about our uncertain times and the true weight of our feelings will still show up in the conversation.

That’s exactly what happened in the workshop. In terms of diving deep into what your brand believes and exploring creative ways of expressing that message through authentic tone of voice, our current conditions are ripe for the exercise. I recommend giving it a try.

Second, there’s going to be a lot of noise out there for a long time. Consider this moment as an opportunity to turn each message into something that truly reflects your values as a brand. I know, this is much easier said than done. If you have too many other tasks to do, enlist a partner to help. Or carve out just 15 minutes each day for some critical reflection on how your mission stands out in a crowded, noisy world right now.

You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in such a short amount of time. And “amid such uncertainty” … “now more than ever,” time is something we shouldn’t waste.

For many of our GG+A clients, the pandemic so suddenly changed the conversation that they’ve been hitting pause on their annual and leadership appeals.

Here’s what we know to be true: this is not a time to stop asking for support. Your communities see the needs, and they want to help. GG+A can support your team with new messaging services that bring together our expertise in annual and leadership giving with our expertise in strategic communications.
If you want to talk about how we can help, send me a note at jshough@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Jason Shough

Vice President

Jason Shough, Vice President, provides integrated communications counsel and responsive creative services for clients in higher education, healthcare, and arts and culture. His expertise in cross-channel communications strategy, creative direction and verbal branding helps clients activate their communities of supporters, energize their advancement programs, and build their philanthropic brands. His…