Plainly Speaking: Revisiting Tony Proscio’s “In Other Words”

One of the first requisite readings for my Grants class at Columbia University is the treatise “In Other Words” by Tony Proscio (link to download at the conclusion of this post).  As early as possible, I want to make the case for my students that simple language can be more motivating and directive than catchwords, buzzwords and jargon.

In preparing this post, I took time to read through Mr. Proscio’s excellent piece which was penned around 2001.  A little voice kept saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”   Consider these bon mots from the author’s “Devil’s Dictionary” of grants:

  • Empowerment.  Used liberally, it shows you care
  • Proactive.  Aggressive in a passive sort of way.
  • Site.  A place that talks.
  • Targeting. Sounds long and military, like a guided missile.

At the heart of Mr. Proscio’s piece is a pretty simple truth that makes the avoidance of this type of language difficult for grantwriter.  He says:

“Foundations, working in many fields, also tend to absorb the argot of all the other fields into which they  wander. New phrases and trendy or obscure coinages stick to foundations like briars to a long-haired dog.”

In other words [pun somewhat intended], the more we feed foundations buzzwords, jargon, argot the more they give back the same to us in the same guidelines, application forms, annual reports that we so carefully glean for clues as to what to say and how to say it.

So, how to break that vicious cycle.  A few thoughts.

  1. Learn from the smartest communicators on planet earth — kids.  Ever notice how incredibly plain spoken children can be.  So adorable in the early years, so maddening and shocking when the teen years arrive.  But there is no mistake as to their opinions, their wants and their needs.
  2. Chop the log and let the chips fall where they may.  I heard this one a lot growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  Sometimes the direct approach is the best approach.  We oftentimes spend a lot of space, time and words talking around a problem than speaking to it.  If the children in your program are failing, say they are failing.  Not that they are “academically challenged.”
  3. Don’t waste words telling the reader what you are going to say anyway. David Fricke, editor of Rolling Stone says “We have people standing downstairs talking on cell phones saying ‘I’ll be there in five minutes.’  Who cares?  Just be there in five minutes.

I will be assigning “In Other Words” to a new class of students this coming semester.  I will ask them to read it, digest it, agree with it, argue with it.  All in hopes of getting grant writers to think about what is being put on paper (or an e-form) to convey hard truths, real needs, great opportunity and greater hope.  Link to the essay below — and read on.

Learn more about Tony Proscio at




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