Word Salad: The Perplexing Language of the Common Good


Steve & Connie Ballmer. Steve is the  former CEO of Microsoft.  Working to fight Word Salad. Photo credit: StriveTogether

A few months ago a delegation from Toledo attended the StriveTogether National Convening. This is an annual conference that the StriveTogether organization hosts.  StriveTogether promotes a “collective impact” approach to improving a community’s educational outcomes.  It got its start in Cincinnati. Because the approach led to results, a group of large national foundations made grants to help the model go national.

At the conference, some major news dropped. Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, and his wife, Connie, would donate $60 million to StriveTogether through their foundation, Ballmer Group. In investigating potential strategies for their philanthropy, Steve and Connie had heard a lot about “place-based” work and “collective impact” work. It brought them to Cincinnati, where they learned about the StriveTogether approach. They were hooked by the fact that StriveTogether is hell-bent on using deep data analysis to drive improvements to educational outcomes.

I didn’t attend the conference this year, but I did watch Steve’s keynote address on YouTube. He described his journey from the top post at Microsoft to retirement to becoming deeply involved in philanthropy. One of his observations stood out for me.

The words we use in the social sector are ridiculous.

“I hate the words, by the way, in this business,” Steve chided.  “You find about ten different words to say exactly about twenty percent different things. So nobody ever knows what anybody else means.”

“If you ever want anybody to listen to you, you’ve gotta get your narrative straight. You’ve gotta get the words right.”

“Collective impact is another word that, blah, blah, blah, I don’t know what it means.”

We do this all the time in the social sector. The words we use put up fences. They don’t build bridges to understanding.

Let me explain how this jargon works in the case of StriveTogether. In 2012, Toledo became a site of the StriveTogether initiative. All around the country, different cities joined in.  The national StriveTogether organization puts each community through something like an accreditation process to ensure that each community is following the model consistently. There are now over seventy different cities or metros that have a version of StriveTogether.  Here they all are:


It’s just that they all have different names. In Toledo, it is called Aspire. In Dayton, it is called Learn to Earn Dayton. In Akron, it is called the Summit Education Initiative. And that’s just Ohio. Every community names and configures the initiative in a slightly different way – based on local preferences and assets.

How would any outsider ever understand what these initiatives are? Or that they are all connected to each other? Or that they promote an approach that is meaningful and effective?

And that’s a problem for democracy. How can you civically engage if you can’t tell what’s going on in your civic environment?

Through our language, professionalization and specialization, we make outsiders of everyday residents and citizens who want to help improve their communities.

We make it so hard to talk about the improvement of our communities. Steve used the example of going to speak to a legislator. He said, “I know each of the local communities needs a local presence. Seeding Success. Graduate Tacoma. But if the whole here is not bigger than the sum of the parts, there is no way to have a narrative. There’s just no way if you go to speak to a legislator to say: this is a real methodology, this is part of a movement. This is a real professional group. “

“It makes everybody have to work harder,” he added.

Steve went on to explain that a stronger brand would, “make it easier for guys like me who want to tout the great work.”

“You know I have to say ‘Strive Together. Oh, by the way it’s called Seeding Success in Memphis,’ ” he said.

Steve gave an example from his Microsoft days with Intel. He made the little “hum” sound that everybody knows. Powered by Intel. Everybody knows that Intel processors are an integral part of a PC. They might not know what they do, but they know that their PC is powered by one. That’s what national initiatives like StriveTogether need. That kind of recognition. Local Initiative ABC, powered by StriveTogether.

If the former CEO of Microsoft cannot explain an important initiative clearly enough to another person to form a meaningful understanding, there isn’t much hope for everyday residents in seeking and encountering information that will help them understand what is going on in their communities.

I am not sure why we do not see this as a “hair on fire” type of problem for democracy.

Through my work, I’ve been in so many situations where jargon creates obstacles to participation. I’ve been guilty myself.

I remember sitting in a room with a group of generous civic leaders a few years ago. All had been successful in business. They wanted to help our community.  We were beginning a conversation about ways they could support education. I launched in to some details about early childhood education programs to explain the landscape.

Examining some data I had provided, they were stunned about the costs per child in high-quality early childhood education programs.  I kept repeating this inartful, yet commonly used string of terms: “high-quality center-based early childhood education.” They were astonished to see that costs ranged from $7,000-$12,000 per child, per year for the highest quality programs.

“How can this be?” they said.

“What the heck are these programs doing?”

“Just how are they using our tax dollars anyway?”

That’s when I realized it. My audience didn’t know what I was talking about. I had been communicating for about 20 minutes, but not effectively – at all. I was guilty of using jargon to build a fence.

Switching gears, I said, “Guys, this is like preschool.”

“Ahhhh. OK. Preschool. Now I know what you mean,” they said.

Preschool.  I could have chosen an easy to understand term.  But, no.  I went for the technical one. If I had been sitting in a room with nonprofit staff, or school district personnel, they would not have batted an eyelash at my use of the technical term, but to anyone outside of the sector, it really doesn’t mean much. In my case, it really obscured the extent of services we were talking about: the full-day education, care and development of young children, often in poverty, delivered by credentialed teachers and in settings with low student-teacher ratios.

This group of individuals I was with were deeply engaged in their community. They gave to many organizations. They were politically active. They just did not know much about this particular domain.  They didn’t understand the types of organizations in the mix.  They didn’t understand the types of interventions out there. They didn’t understand how they were funded. Who can blame them? There just really isn’t a place to go in the community to help you piece together an understanding of all these components.

The names we use to describe things create huge obstacles for those who try to figure it out on their own.

In my community, we have a great organization called St. Paul’s Community Center.  The only trouble is, it’s not what you think of when you think of a community center – a neighborhood resource center where you might turn for summer camp for your kids or knitting classes. It’s a homeless shelter that specializes in serving those with severe and persistent mental illness.  It can be hard for newcomers to the civic conversation to figure out who does what.

This issue matters a great deal for democracy.  Every year, decisions are made at the local, state and federal levels of government, which impact the availability of funds for programs like these. How many people in the electorate know they exist and understand them well enough to effectively engage with their legislators?

Civic understanding is largely an afterthought for modern democratic institutions. A free press was thought by our Founding Fathers as key to an informed electorate. But the complexity of our civic ecosystem has outgrown the ability for our shrinking local news outlets to monitor, explain and interpret relevant systems and their gyrations.  Those involved in the delivery of programs and services are often too busy delivering programs and services to focus on this challenge.

But we must. If we want our democracy to thrive, it’s time we reorient our civic and democratic institutions so that they can effectively generate shared understanding around our public goods. We need to simplify our lexicon. We need to break down the taxonomy. We’ll need to embed the best learnings from the field of communications, marketing and adult learning into democratic practice.  We need to make it interesting, attractive and, dare I say, fun.

Or, we just need to listen to Steve: “Simplify the communication!”


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