Question Zero Part 3: Speaking the Right Language for your Audience

Last time we spoke about the importance of being clear on the type of story you are telling – to communicate issues, to demonstrate impact or to engage stakeholders.

This time we will talk about getting the language right for your audience. No matter how well you understand your issue, if you are not speaking the right language, your audience just won’t get it. I see this most often with environmental organizations that are heavily research based. All the data is there to prove a point regarding their issue but framed in a way that average citizens cannot understand. Another chronic failing is with financial information that is presented purely for the understanding of accountants.

The Demonstrating Value Project has been an attempt to help social enterprises better deal with this issue – not just in measuring success but communicating and using that information to better manage the organization. I have been very happy to help out the team based a the Vancity Community Foundation with this project over the past few years. There is a wealth of information on the project website, but I want to focus on one important concept: the Lenses

Demonstrating Value Lenses

The Lens concept helps frame the problem of how to best communicate information by asking two important questions: What information is important to show and how will that information be used?

For social enterprises, and in fact most non-profits and social purpose businesses, information can be grouped into three clusters:

  • Business performance looking at the financial health of the organization and revenue (for social enterprises) or donations (for non-profits), costs and expenditures
  • Mission performance demonstrating how the organization is delivering on its mission whether that is around the environment, social justice, food security, etc.
  • Organizational sustainability to illustrate how the organization is training staff, building a board and creating a plan to survive into the future

For each of those categories of information, there are three potential audiences with very different types of information needs:

  • Operational for day-to-day management of the organization. Information at this level needs to be very detailed for example showing inventory levels, staff planning and cash flow
  • Strategic information is most useful for governance of the organization, for example working with boards. Rather than the granular detail needed for making operational decisions, here the focus should be on illustrating progress toward strategic and mission goals.
  • Accountability to stakeholders is a third category of information. Depending on the stakeholder, this information could be for a funding agency showing the success of a project, to a government entity or to the general public. With this type of information, one cannot assume familiarity with the organization so you must ensure to include relevant explanatory context with the information you publish.

While these are not hard-and-fast categories for every piece of data, these lenses provide a very useful framework for presenting your data. Many organizations struggle to find THE perfect number that will meet the needs of all audiences and for all types of data. In fact this is a fruitless quest – THE number does not exist that will satisfy everyone. But if you start with an understanding of who your audience is and what their interests are, you will be able to speak their language and get your point across more effectively.

Next post we’ll sort through the confusing mix of outcomes, objectives, activities, missions, strategies and goals.

[Updated Feb 3:  Replaced lens image with better resolution]

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