THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN YOU THINK
Watch those words, because they might come back to get you.
“Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.” Maya Angelou
The majority of my career has been in the world of communications. And I’m still learning something new almost every day. Which is important, because as Maya Angelou says, words have power. Their impact extends far beyond the moment they’re spoken or read. Understanding that, learning about potential impacts, helps all of us choose our words with more care.
You only have to look at your favourite social media feed or the nearest gossip column to see the lasting impact careless words can have. It’s pretty common to find some celebrity or other being thoroughly dragged for careless or casual phrasing in their messaging, even if that messaging happened years ago.
Because words don’t fade away. Written or spoken, they hang around. And they’ll come back on you if you don’t get them right. Especially now, because we live in a world that’s more aware than ever of individuality. So when we’re planning and creating communications materials, it’s super important to be aware of our audiences.
Here’s a cracking example:
Back in 2015 this Twitter post made a splash for all the wrong reasons. It may have had good intentions – the idea was to celebrate International Women’s Day — but the execution (and never was the word more appropriate) was horrendous.
It’s offensive on so many levels that it’s almost incomprehensible it was ever approved. And what makes it even more astonishing is that this monstrosity came three years after international outrage over the company’s ‘for her’ line of pens. (In case you’re wondering, a pack of delicately pastel-coloured biros with a thin barrel ‘to fit a woman’s hand’. I wish I was joking. (click here to read the customer reviews...)
Now look at this Twitter post in today’s context. It’s not only offensive to women, it’s offensive to anyone who identifies as a gender that doesn’t fit within hetero norms, or who identifies with no gender at all. And this is the kicker: it’s still out there.
Bic may have removed the post within hours of initially creating it, but it was way too late. It had already caused a shitstorm so dramatic that its echoes are still going round the world. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I disagree.
The point of all this is that we need to be aware that our words have a lasting impact. We need to think carefully about our audiences. We can’t scoff at ‘political correctness’ because it’s not about being political. It’s about not alienating people. It’s about understanding — and embracing — even celebrating — the differences between genders, cultures, ethnicities, beliefs, abilities and all the rest.
It is, simply, about respect. You don’t have to actively include every individual in your organisation. You don’t need to create hundreds of messages. But you do have to look carefully at the words you use, and make sure they’re inclusive, not exclusive.
If you want people to take you seriously, you have to take them seriously. You have to remember that your words have power — power you can use to engage, inform and include, or to alienate, anger and offend. So it always, always pays to use that power wisely.