10/05/2017 12:31 EDT | Updated 10/05/2017 12:44 EDT

Humanitarians Are Too Caught Up In Talking To Ourselves

The way we communicate with the outside world is holding us back.

Photo by journey cloud on Unsplash

In a world of increasing emojis and decreasing attention spans, the way humanitarians communicate with the outside world is holding us back, and preventing us from delivering even more life-saving aid than we could.

I write this midway through a communications and brand-building workshop in Budapest with global colleagues, an opportunity to strengthen our message in support of vulnerable children around the world. Several years ago, I would have said "kids in need," but today, they're "vulnerable children."

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That's part of the problem, and part of why we've gathered here in Budapest — to learn how to escape the complex language that plagues the development and humanitarian worlds. Some organizations do it better than others, but the UN, across all its various bodies, is particularly afflicted.

Several of our presenters this week — outside experts in the field of branding and marketing — agreed: ours has the potential to be a huge brand but we're not there yet. The challenge? Unlocking our sexiness. Case in point: even that word, "sexy" was too risky for some colleagues. "Attractiveness" was better, they agreed.

One expert especially hammered the point home. Search for #children on Twitter and you won't find our organization, one that is solely focused on helping children. Why? Because all of the hashtags we use tend to be complicated, campaign-specific and awkwardly long.

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A colleague from Côte d'Ivoire recently opened up about the challenges she was facing to this very end. Just a few months on the job and she was still lost in all of our acronyms. "What is WASH?" she asked, "I still don't know." (It's the term we use for water, sanitation and hygiene services). "Before I used to be able to just say, 'People need clean water.'"

But language is only part of the problem. When we were asked this week to identify the two most appealing messages around child survival (every year, nearly 45 per cent of all under-five child deaths are newborn infants) that we could take to our various national markets, the ideas that popped up centered around immunization, breastfeeding, child-friendly policies and parental support.

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That's when a colleague from the U.S. raised her hand, and asked whether or not any market research was needed to determine which messages would actually work in each of the countries. You can imagine that in a country currently knee-deep in issues of gun violence and extremism, getting people to care about breastfeeding could be a challenge.

Shouldn't we be taking advantage of the conversations that are already taking place instead of trying to create new ones, she asked? How much of this was really just us talking to ourselves?

I've met so many passionate people this week, people who are clearly committed to the cause of helping the world's children survive and thrive. But many are bogged down in cynicism: We're not doing as much as we should; we have too many constraints; we can't use a one-size-fits-all model.

When we stop talking to ourselves, and start engaging in the real world around us, we can begin to unlock our potential and reclaim our brand's sexiness. After all, there's no shame in being sexy, and nothing sexier than helping others.

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