Please Stop Saying That – 2021 Edition

Scrabble pieces intersect and spell "Choose your words"

By Sara Veltkamp, Minerva Vice President


As communicators who work with funders, nonprofit organizations, and coalitions consisting of both, the team at Minerva is in a good position to spot words and phrases that are losing meaning and specificity or can advance harmful narratives that make our work more challenging 


I was excited to include “Now more than ever” and “pivot” to this list of words and phrases I’m so tired of hearing. Fortunately, between thinking about this blog and writing it, fellow nonprofit communicators at the New York City-based company Big Duck covered these brilliantly. Check out their post on words to avoid in 2021 for some excellent recommendations of phrases to think twice about using. 


The Minerva team has a few of our own to add to this list. In addition to the unnecessary and muddy use of the words “help” and “work” that we’ve covered in previous blog post, we offer the following suggestions for 2021: 


1. War words. I recently wrote a post against the frequent use of war metaphors to drive behavior change. Since writing this piece, I’ve started noticing this language everywhere, including in my own writingFrom tackling an issue “on all fronts” to describing calls to action as “rally cries” our language is battle-ready.   


While this may seem innocuous, these words further a mindset of good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, and zero-sum situations. People with differing opinions on how to solve a challenge become enemies instead of people to persuade, compromise is seen as a loss, and we stop thinking of ways to work together and find common ground. Other times, they can be down-right violent.  


While wars have motivated unity, so have many other moments. We weep together with the birth of a child, even if we do not know the family; we sing along to love songs and know every word; we shake hands with opposing players after a loss on the football field; and we dance at weddings, even if we have two left feet. These moments, if more mundane than war, are also human, urgent, and powerful. Let’s consciously choose words that call up this energy, compassion, and empathy.


2. Narrative change. Don’t get me wrong, I think obsessively how we can effectively change the narratives that drive destructive behaviors and thinking around some of the most critical issues we face—COVID-19 safety, racism, climate change, homelessness, to name a few.  


The problem is thamany organizations are dedicating their work to “change the narrative” without doing the necessary thinking about what narrative(s) they want to change, how they want them to change, and actionable steps to further this effort. This article in Stanford Social Innovation Review(PDF) shows the successful efforts to change narratives around ingrained issues—teen smoking and equal marriage—and gives insight into how communicators can do this work with issues they care about 


3. Using the pandemic alone as a lever or an ask. I’m tired of readinghearing, and, yes, writing some variation of this line: “We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and now more than ever we need your support.” Not every action needs to be tied to the pandemic. We had societal challenges and equity gaps prior to COVID-19, and they are still urgent.  


Living through a pandemic does not give license for communicators to get lazy. Be sure to share how your work is supporting those struggling with the effects of the pandemic, the economic shutdowns, and social distancing measuresSharing the positive impact of your work and focusing on the path forward is always a great practice.  


Do you have any phrases that need to stop? Let us know by emailing sara[at]minervastrategies[dot]com.  

About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.