Actions speak louder than words, they say. But I’m not sure that’s always true. I believe that language does matter. It has always fascinated me that two people can essentially say the same thing, but if they use different words they can have a completely different impact on their listeners.
It can seem that every time I switch on the news or open a newspaper, I’m faced with ever-more dispiriting stories of things that are going wrong in the world. I don’t believe that’s the whole story. So I’ve been thinking about how we can use language to change the world.
Examples of powerful, world-changing language
Civil rights movement
There’s a great example of the world-changing impact of the right word in the fantastic employee engagement book ‘Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk’ by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden:
‘Martin Luther King Junior didn’t launch an entire movement with the words “I have a strategic plan”, did he?’
That’s essentially what he had, but he chose to tell the world about his “dream”. He made his words far more powerful and compelling and did indeed change the world.
At the Reading Climate Fayre in 2022, one of the speakers spoke about the power of language to drive behaviour change (or not).
Akhil Handa, founder of sustainability consultancy Earth 51, talked about his belief that we should stop saying ‘Save our planet’ and start using ‘Save ourselves’. The planet will continue in some way, but we won’t be able to live on it. This language, in his view, will resonate more and drive more, faster behaviour change.
Words have personalised meanings
I carried out a quick straw poll of my friends, asking them if they had to pick a word to sum up an ideal world for them, what would it be? The words they chose included peaceful, kind, fair and idyllic, with a few off the wall suggestions, such as bedtime and giggles.
Mostly the words could be summed up as concerning the way people treat each other and get along.
What was most striking was that out of the 29 responses I received, very few were duplicates. Although the sentiment was largely very similar, the devil was in the detail. The character, experiences and general interests of the individual responders influenced the words they chose.
Inclusive language and communication
As communicators, it’s important to take time to understand the words and phrases that include and exclude groups and individuals. The power of language is especially significant in this context.
This can be a complex area of communication. But that’s no excuse for ignoring it. You won’t get it perfectly right every time, but you can educate yourself – there are a whole lot of resources available to help you. Here are a few suggestions to get your started:
- Disability: https://fightingtalk.uk/thoughts/disability-is-not-a-dirty-word
- Gender: https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/index.shtml
- LGBTQIA+: https://fightingtalk.uk/thoughts/language-that-liberates-10-practical-tips-for-lgbtq-inclusive-language
- Free inclusive communication training: https://communication-access.co.uk/
- CharityComms starting point for accessible comms: https://www.charitycomms.org.uk/accessible-communications-a-starting-point-for-fostering-more-inclusive-comms
- Tips for creating inclusive guidelines: https://www.charitycomms.org.uk/keeping-up-to-date-with-inclusive-language
These examples are taken from a list of recommendations I was given by fellow communicators.
Connect with others
Words can help us to connect and collaborate with others. This seems an important way to use language to change the world.
We can all think of times when we have been persuaded to start or stop an activity, such as to campaign on a topic, to give up a bad habit or to take on a challenge. Without the words that explained and persuaded, connections would not have been made; our world may not have changed. But if our world changes, then so does the world at large.
So choose the right words to connect and collaborate with your audience and you really can make the world a better place.
Get in touch if you would like to have a chat about how I can help you to include inclusive language in your communications.
Until next time
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash