Donovan Group Insights

Choose Your Words Wisely

There are many different words that mean the same thing. While any of them would work just fine, some will yield a more favorable reaction than others. That’s why school leaders have to think carefully about the words they use in their communications. Keeping stakeholders’ thoughts and feelings in mind can help you choose the right words for what you have to say.

Keep reading for more insight on how to choose your words wisely.

Same meaning, different connotations

Many words and phrases share the same meaning. Words like “sports” and “athletics” are often used interchangeably. A school leader might use “fundraiser” or “charity event” in promotional copy about an upcoming car wash, bake sale or food drive. There might not seem like much of a difference between these words. At the end of the day, though, school leaders have to make a decision, and connotation can influence that decision.

Words with the same meaning often come with different connotations. In the case of “sports” and “athletics,” choosing one word over the other isn’t a big deal. However, there are times when connotation plays a big role in word choice. For example, “janitor” and “custodian” mean the same thing. While either one would work, the choice is pretty obvious. School leaders need to think beyond a word’s dictionary definition and factor in the cultural significance behind it.

Put yourself in the stakeholders’ shoes. When you hear a certain word, what emotions does it bring up? Do you feel joyful and inspired, or do you feel discouraged and irritated? Even when school leaders address negative topics, they need to use words that make the topic sound less scary and more approachable. Using words with a more positive connotation can help reassure stakeholders and ease the tension of an otherwise uncomfortable conversation.

Connotation does more than provoke certain emotions. It can influence how stakeholders perceive your district. If the communications provoke negative emotions, stakeholders will associate those negative emotions with your district. On the other hand, if the communications make people feel secure, hopeful or proud, they will positively associate those feelings with your district. Even during tough times, words have the power to rally stakeholder support and preserve your district’s reputation.

You can’t control every single person’s thoughts and feelings. What you can do is nudge them in a more positive direction. It all comes down to the words you choose.

Choose your words based on the audience

Word choice heavily depends on who’s receiving the communications. One stakeholder group might not bat an eye at a certain word. Meanwhile, another stakeholder group might take issue with that same word. Different people have different life experiences, and this influences how they interpret a word’s connotation. If you’re not sure which word to choose, knowing your audience will give you the answer.

Imagine one of your schools is advertising a program that focuses on building relationships between students and older adults. The school leader who’s in charge of advertising this program is stuck between using “nursing home” or “senior living community” in the communications. Students probably wouldn’t think twice about “nursing home.” However, the phrase has a slightly negative connotation that could be offensive to older adults and those who live in a nursing home. “Senior living community” would fit better in the communications, especially if the school is trying to engage an older audience.

School leaders should also choose words that make stakeholders feel included in the conversation. Complicated jargon makes it more difficult for stakeholders to understand what you’re trying to say. This can leave stakeholders feeling confused at best. At worst, stakeholders might develop a sense of distrust because they feel like your district is hiding something. Simple, easy-to-understand words have a more positive connotation because stakeholders will feel empowered to participate in the conversation.

Before you start writing, ask yourself this question: “Who is my audience?” More often than not, your audience will comprise of several groups. They could be students, teachers, parents, alumni, business owners or any other community members. Next, consider how each of these groups might feel about the topic you’re going to address. Is it a sensitive topic, or is it a topic they’re excited about? Understanding your audience can help you make informed decisions about the words in your communications.

Examples of effective word choice

By this time, you should have a clear understanding of why it’s important to choose your words wisely in district communications. Now, let’s go over a few common scenarios that demonstrate how to choose words that resonate well with your audience.

Example #1: “There was a fight on the playground.”

In this example, the word “fight” has a negative connotation. Parents will likely be startled to hear that their children were in close proximity to an altercation. Also, naming a specific location—such as the playground—could make students and families afraid to go near that part of school property. A better way to phrase this sentence would be:

“There was an incident on school grounds.”

The word “incident” sounds less alarming. Choosing that word in place of “fight” can reduce the amount of panic in your school community. We’ve also replaced “playground” with “school grounds” in order to keep the exact location private. Oversharing can do more harm than good. The general public doesn’t need to know where the incident took place, so it’s okay to leave out that information.

Example #2: “Our test scores are problematic.”

The word “problematic” is itself problematic! It can make students feel like they failed or that their efforts weren’t good enough. This word also reflects poorly on the teachers who work so hard to prepare students for their exams. Rather than focusing on the negatives, choose to focus on the positives. Let’s rework the sentence:

“There’s an opportunity to improve test scores.”

Words like “improve” and “opportunity” have a much more positive connotation. These words can encourage teachers, students and families to leave shortcomings in the past and focus on creating a brighter future. They do more than simply call out the problem. They get stakeholders to think about solutions that will boost students’ academic success.

Example #3: “Our team lost the volleyball game.”

Again, the word “lost” has a negative connotation. Sure, the team might’ve lost, but that word doesn’t sound the greatest. Much like the previous example, “lost” draws attention to the team’s shortcomings rather than all the great moments that happened during the volleyball game. Try phrasing the sentence like this:

“Our team tried their best at the volleyball game.”

This sentence is framed more positively than the first one. It’s not about hiding the fact that the team lost. It’s about highlighting what the athletes did well so they can feel the support of their school community. While the facts are important, school leaders need to communicate them in a way that takes the audience’s feelings into consideration.

Word choice matters

Words hold more power than you might realize, so it’s important to choose them wisely before sending out district communications. You have to consider not just a word’s technical meaning, but what it means to the people in your school community. Choosing your words wisely shows stakeholders that you’re keeping their thoughts and feelings in mind.

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