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Choose Your Words Wisely…it matters!

Strategic school communications = good customer service.

Are the words you are using undermining your school’s intended messages? The words used in all forms of communication can be some of the strongest branding taking place at your school. Consider this example:

School A has a sign posted, like most schools, telling visitors that they must first go to the office to sign in. The sign reads:

    “All visitors MUST report to the office before proceeding further. Violators are trespassing and may be reported to authorities.”

 School B’s sign says:

     “For our students’ safety, all school visitors must first check in at the office. Thank you for understanding.”

Which school’s messaging makes you feel the most welcome? How would a perspective parent feel? What message are you trying to send? Once, when visiting an alternative high school in an inner city area, I was greeted by such a sign (only more strongly worded). However, it was quite intentional. They did not welcome visitors as it was for a unique student population and they meant business—multiple armed security guards to prove it. Unless that is the message you intend, choose your words with your audience perception in mind.

For another personal example, we once had a school where we were writing the content for the school’s website. We encourage a welcoming and conversational tone. However, when the administrator we were working with read it, he requested that we remove anything that sounded welcoming and insisted that we remove any reference to enthusiastic staff. “We don’t welcome parents,” he said, and “our teachers aren’t enthusiastic.” We complied, of course, but I could sure understand why the staff was less than enthused!

Words and tone matter

Even the rules, like those necessary “shalt not’s” listed in the discipline section of the student handbook can be worded in a positive rather than negative way and still get the message across.

Tardies (this replaced a whole list of “musts” with an explanation of the importance of being on time and what to do if they aren’t.”

    “Tardies affect the entire class, so we appreciate all students who get to school on time. If your child must be late, we ask him or her to stop by the office and get a pass before heading to class.”

Absences (this absence process helps parents and students know why the process is there in the first place):

    “If you know your child must be absent, please send a note to your child’s teacher explaining the circumstances and the dates of absence. We will try our best to get any work together that your child might miss. If your child is sick, please call the office the morning of the absence, and let us know where your child is. Not only do we want to make sure your child is safe, we also want to mark your child as “excused.” If we do not receive a call or note explaining the absence, we will record it as “unexcused.”

Signage for how the school can accept payment for fees or activities:

    “We can only accept checks or credit cards for Activity Fees. Thank you for understanding.” (Positive spin.)

    “NO cash will be accepted for Activity Fees.” (Pointing out what you can’t do instead of what you can do.)

These are only slight variations in word choice but these first impressions can set a tone for all future communications.

Keep your audience needs first  

The example we used earlier, where the person wanted all references welcoming parents removed, was thinking only about his needs (or rather his wants). He didn’t want to be bothered. I’m sure many of us have felt this way at times. But, by creating an uninviting tone, the overall nature of all future communications can be adversely affected. This less than inviting first impression, far from saving this administrator time and bother, likely deter only the supportive parents and not the unsupportive.

In order to create effective communication, we have to keep our audience in mind. Therefore, we have to understand the various audiences in our community. Are you telling the audience what you want them to know or what they want to know? You might be composing the Open House invite with when and where but leave out the “Why Attend” and “what they will learn, or “how your child will benefit,” which may be the vital information needed to get them there.

This idea of focusing your words and messaging on your audience’s needs means:

    Avoid education industry jargon. At best, it creates confusion, at worst it comes off as condescending.

    Let your visuals reflect your audience when possible. Use pictures of students and staff (your own when possible), and parents. Be sure you also reflect your audience diversity to help create an inclusive visual environment.

    Remember WIIFM (“What’s in it for me,” but from the parent’s perspective). Using the Open House example above, parents should feel that their attendance could benefit their child. Better yet, have the students invite their parents—and that can accomplish the same thing.

When you develop your message, think in terms of one individual. The kind of individual you want to reach and imagine them reading, listening, or seeing your message. How would you feel? If you still can’t put yourself in their shoes, find someone who fits the profile of your target audience and run it by them.

This includes wording and tone in everything from your signage on your school marquee to your school websites. The best school websites will include school website content that is an inviting conversation. The same recommendations above apply to your website.

It’s a two-way street

So, you’re crafting your message with your audience needs in mind. Good. That’s a great start. But, are you the only one talking? Are you listening as well? You’re sending home newsletters, parent phone notifications, flyers, website links, and using social media. Are you also making it easy to receive communication? Are you using feedback forms on your website, social media icons like Facebook and Twitter? Are you attending community events and listening? Are you asking your staff, who has their ears to the ground in their various social, religious, and cultural communities?

If you aren’t able to answer “Yes” to these questions, it may be time to conduct a communication assessment, either through informal channels using staff and parents or more formal using a survey. However, that’s a topic for another post!

Bonnie Leedy, CEO