by Marilyn Murray
Language is about communicating – and many of us would agree one of the most important things is to understand your audience. Who we’re speaking to and who we are centering in our language will impact the audience that gathers. People pick up when they’re being considered or aren’t being considered. I think it’s important to be thoughtful and sensitive in our language.
For many of our organizations, the people who gravitate towards our mission are those who make some personal connection to it. You know; It’s rare to find someone running and fundraising for Pancreatic cancer who doesn’t know someone impacted by that. And so at Love146, we’re fighting child trafficking and providing care to survivors. Not that everyone has a direct connection to that kind of exploitation. But we see a lot of people coming to the table connecting with their own adverse childhood experiences and trauma.
In thinking about the most helpful way to speak to that audience, I have a lot to learn from my coworkers in programs who are working with clients. “Trauma-informed care” is an approach that’s used in direct service with those who’ve experienced trauma, but I’ve never seen it applied to marketing and I think there’s a great case for doing so.
At Love146, I assume trauma in my audience. And even if you’re not an organization working with child sex trafficking — 1 in 3 women in your audience experience sexual assault alone. That’s only 1 kind of trauma. Across many dimensions: assume trauma. So when we’re handling heavy topics, when our nonprofits are marketing about the world’s issues — are we using language that’s sensitive to people’s individual issues? Because that’s how we’re going to make our storytelling connect.
In school, when I was being trained to do advertising work, we were taught to highlight a pain point, and then provide the solution. All in a matter of seconds. Create an itch, and tell someone how to scratch it. Applied to social issues, this often looks like making audiences as uncomfortable as possible using the most intense details in a client’s life. This approach to storytelling certainly isn’t sensitive to our clients, but it can also harm the audience. In a trauma-informed organization, “vicarious trauma” is a conversation we have often amongst staff. Vicarious trauma is when someone else’s story is having a traumatic impact on you, too. I think sometimes in storytelling when we’re looking to create “that itch” — what we actually do is USE vicarious trauma as a mechanism. This can seem “effective,” at raising money in the short term, but we’re nonprofits, and money isn’t our bottom line. In the role of working in marketing and communications, your language can deliver vicarious trauma to tens of thousands of people in a minute – or, you can deliver vicarious hope and healing.
Bringing folks storytelling that helps them, not harms them. Going back to our audience, and their connections to the issue that brought them to you in the first place, if we give any itch that speaks to their needs, the best itch we could give is hope. And the language we use matters tremendously.
Keeping those impacted by our mission as the most centered stakeholders will lead us to using language that dignifies them. Being cognizant of that audience – a wider audience with a personal connections to the problem — will allow me to do the most important thing: which is put our actual clients as the #1 stakeholder. In my case, trafficked children are the bottom line. They are my #1 concern, without exception. Not just their fundable needs, but them as human beings. I do my best to look at storytelling and marketing materials through that perspective.