Thought Leadership

Cultivating Trust: Insights from a Language Expert for Higher Education

A summary of Town Hall’s webinar with language expert Ben Feller of maslansky + partners


With almost daily headlines highlighting the continued decline in trust that people have in higher education, it’s no wonder higher ed administrators and faculty are feeling, at best, discouraged and, at worst, demoralized. For the record, this decline in trust is not limited to higher education. It cuts across almost every sector. And coming off of four years of intense pressure, decreased resources, and increased expectations starting with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, who could be blamed for throwing their hands up in defeat?

And yet, I continue to be encouraged and inspired by my clients and colleagues working tirelessly within higher education institutions committed to delivering exceptional educational experiences and supporting students’ evolving needs.

It’s with this optimism that I invited my friend Ben Feller to join me in conversation about higher education today and specifically how language and the words we choose to articulate our messages can help repair and build trust with our audiences. Today, Ben is a partner at maslansky + partners, a language strategy firm, where he serves as a narrative advisor to organizations like Colgate University, Syracuse University, and The Ford Foundation. Previously, he spent 20 years as a reporter, where he served as the National Education Writer and the Chief White House Correspondent for The Associated Press during the Bush and Obama presidencies. We covered a lot of ground, and I encourage you to watch the webinar if you’re feeling like the world is happening to you and you’re seeking a sense of empowerment and control by zeroing in on what you can proactively do and champion in the face of these challenges. Some highlight takeaways from our conversation include:

    • Don’t let the internal become external. Many universities are legacy organizations that have been around (in some cases) for hundreds of years. Over time, it’s no wonder they become their own distinct worlds with their own language. But as we’re trying to reach new audiences, it’s critical to remember that they don’t know what our acronyms mean, and they have no context for the way we structure our internal departments. So when reviewing any communications or messaging, it’s helpful to review with the perspective, “Have we made the internal external anywhere here?”
    • Turn jargon into plain English. As Ben shared, “Everything is a choice between saying it in a way that makes people care and not.” And this choice is really about taking the time and finding the language in plain English to help people understand the value or the impact of your programs. He shared some great examples of “corporate speak” that sneaks into messaging (i.e., “multi-stakeholder engagement…who talks like that?!”), and reinforced that this approach does not require you to sacrifice your command of the subject matter. It’s not an exercise in dumbing something down but rather distilling the ideas into concise clarity.
    • Know your audience today. Our world has changed significantly over the past four years. As I shared in our conversation, I have felt transformed on many levels since the start of the pandemic. There’s no doubt students and learners of all ages have changed too–what they value, who or what they trust, and how they consume information. This is tricky because these changes are fluid and aren’t easily captured in traditional market research or studies. The work of knowing your audience–like any other relationship in our lives–is one that requires consistent intention, listening, and nurturing.

This is just a sampling of what we covered. If you’re interested in hearing more, click here to watch our conversation in full.

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