The power of naming: Clarify and frame your work



A week ago there was a piece in the NYT magazine about Frank Luntz, issue framer for the Republicans. You know him even if you don’t know him. He not only writes fundamental framing memos like his recent “The Language of Health Care,” recommending that Republicans link health care reform to “a Washington takeover” and other ominous forebodings. He’s also the guy who helped name many Republican policies—your know, “energy exploration” instead of “drilling for oil,” the “death tax” instead of “estate tax” or “inheritance tax,” and “electronic intercepts” rather than “eavesdropping,” among others.

I’ve marveled for years at the “opposite speak” employed in these names (e.g. the 2003  “Clear Skies Initiative“,” which weakened the Clean Air Act and required fewer reductions in air pollution). But we all have something to learn from Luntz about naming. No, not the art of opposite speak—but the power of names to shape perception.

He doesn’t just slap long, academic, left-brained names on issues and initiatives. He doesn’t rely on cute names that will amuse but also confuse. Nor does he rely on acronymns. He thinks carefully about how the language used in a name can tell the story and frame the issue. Names can even help define who’s got a stake in the story. (Only the wealthy may incur significant estate or inheritance taxes, but “death taxes” involve us all, right?) That’s a powerful practice when you’re trying to reach a populace awash in information and searching for quick filters to help them figure out what what’s relevant.

Here’s an example of how names can shape thoughts about a social issue. Take the name “domestic violence”—which is genderless (although the vast majority of such violence is against women) and places the problem—and thus the solution—in the privacy of the home. This name implies it’s a problem between two people, nothing to do with the public. Compare that with the name “wife battering”—which is more accurately gender specific and reframes the violence as brutality. With the latter, average citizens can see a prevention role for themselves. Who wants to allow the battering of any human being?

Likewise, compare the past name “day care,” which implied babysitting while parents are at work, and the current name “school readiness.” As a citizen, I may not be that concerned about helping provide babysitting services to working parents, but I might want coming generations succeed in school so they can become productive working members of society.

As I visit foundation and nonprofit Web sites, I see so many bland, generic names or long, academic names or clever but opaque names for their initiatives, projects, and research reports. And don’t even get me started on the acronyms. None of these names get at the story behind the work, frame the issue addressed in the work, or clarify its relevance for people.

Here are a few examples of names used by nonprofits and foundations to describe their important program work that I quickly pulled off the internet today.

The Home Visiting Initiative Program
Making Connections
Leadership for Community Change
Blueprint for Action
Effective Citizenry
Models for Change
Window of Opportunity
Creating Common Ground
Food and Society

Naming decisions deserve more thought, because names help frame a nonprofit’s core work. (They also can help differentiate your work from other nonprofits.) Names are the first filter that your audience uses to figure out whether something is relevant. They will be repeated far more than the rest of your content. Make it easy for people to understand what your work or information is really about and why they should care.

Even if it takes more time and effort to come up with a clear, concise, meaningful name…do it. The sector should use every opportunity to help people grasp the meaning and value of its contributions. More thoughtful naming would be a good start.

NOTE: A few days after I wrote this post, Andy Goodman’s newsletter called for nonprofits to reconsider their organizational names. I couldn’t agree more, but probably would never have been as optimistic as Andy that nonprofits would seriously consider such a big change. I’d just be happy if nonprofits chose better names for their programs, issues, and products. Anyway Andy, bold move and good for you!

CC photo credit: THEfunkyman



2 Responses to “The power of naming: Clarify and frame your work”

  1. Derek Gwinn Says:

    Working in a non-profit that has dealt with the issue of naming programs for greatest effect, I very much agree with the statement that “(n)ames are the first filter that your audience uses to figure out whether something is relevant.” However, I think that your description of of domestic violence is problematic.

    “Domestic violence” is a catch-all phrase, which includes wife battering and other acts of aggression between intimate partners. But it is inaccurate to state that “the vast majority of such violence is against women”.

    Research has continually indicated that the overwhelming majority of REPORTED cases of abuse between intimate partners involves male-on-female aggression. These, obviously, are the “wife batterers.” But data also suggest that men are significantly more likely NOT to report acts of violence on themselves.

    Studies of domestic violence have indicated that men make up one-third to one-half of all domestic violence victims, even if their experiences are under-reported. What is often missed in abusive relationships, however, is that the partners are mutually abusive. It is not a happy, healthy, or safe home for anyone.

    * * To be clear, male aggressors ARE more likely to do serious damage to female victims. That point is beyond dispute. * *

    To focus only on the reported victims, however, dilutes the severity of the problem and, often, hides responsibility of women for their own contributions to violent homes. We, as a society, cannot address the problem of abuse by removing the larger abuser from the home and ignoring the abusive behavior of the other, leaving her to perpetuate the cycle in her next relationship.

    The unfortunate reality is that some people act in violent and aggressive ways, but that behavior is not limited by gender. Treating “domestic violence” as primarily a women’s issue ignores the experiences of men and children who receive or witness the behavior of an abusive female.

    That said, I do agree that the use of the term “domestic violence” leads people to think of the issue as “a problem between two people, nothing to do with the public.” This euphemistic effect may contribute to men being less likely to report instances of being abused – “it’s just a problem at home.” The reality is that relationship problems at home don’t stay at home.

  2. IMPACTMAX Says:

    Hi Derek. Thanks for making this point!

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