Language leaves a lasting impression
08/10/10 in Communications
I found myself working on developing a language guide for a client’s business this week. It’s going to be a tool that will engage people within the organization, encouraging them to have confidence in their own writing abilities. We tend to trust people more than we do organisations, so this is going to be quite an important piece.
As you’d expect from a creative agency we’re long time advocates of the power of language and we spend a lot of time focusing on how our clients can realize their own voice. It is one of the few distinct and unique traits that your competitors can’t influence but audiences can recognise.
The brief I had in front of me, the one that charged me with this task, had the word ‘campaign’ writ large. It was one of the first words that I read and it prompted me to take a look at my thesaurus. The thesaurus equates "campaign" with synonyms like "lobby," “contest,” “canvass,” and "electioneer". It re-affirmed what I was thinking. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the word “campaign” because it has always made me imagine something different to what is intended. I think of politicians and with that campaigning, political manifestos, posing, opportunism and broken promises. It’s transient, here today, gone tomorrow and with that people talking at you, rather than engaging in a conversation.
As the campaign visuals show, politicians continually try to find a language that they believe will create engagement. It’s simplistic and banal, or as the Nixon example shows doesn’t quite hit the mark.
None of the above is very positive, is it? The aim of communication is to create something that will engage with people, build a relationship and initiate a dialogue. People want to know they are been listened to, that there is a conversation between the product or service you are offering and it is something that recognizes who they are. Maybe that’s why Obama stood out as somebody different, listening to what people had to say and reflecting what they were thinking.
Credit: Aimee Mullins, photographed by Nick Knight for Dazed & Confused, September 1998
I’ll quickly move on to another word. Look at the image above, the beautiful, talented Aimee Mullins. Aimee has built a career as a model, actor and activist for women, sports and the next generation of prosthetics. She had both her legs amputated below the knee when she was an infant but she didn’t let this adversity hold her back as her career illustrates, oh yes and she was a record-breaker at the Paralympic Games in 1996.
Aimee is disabled, yet the thesaurus equates "disabled" with synonyms like "incapable," “powerless,” “ wrecked,” and "infirm," but does that fit with the Aimee I’ve just described? I think we need to think again about the impression that this word conveys.
I must admit I have two personal interests with the word “disabled” too. Firstly, my wife is “disabled”; like Aimee a few years ago, she had the first of what would prove to be several amputations due to the cancer she has fought. So I have had the experience of seeing the word used first-hand on almost a daily basis. I can assure you that she is far from “weakened” or even worse “mutilated” nor has it stopped her continuing a successful career where her intellect can shine through daily.
Secondly, we have been fortunate and truly inspired by our work with the Thistle Foundation. Thistle are a pioneering charity that works with people with disabilities and long term health conditions, they support people to lead great lives where they are in control. Working with the Foundation has been a privilege, it led us to create the following value statement for them “We believe that life is for living” – a simple empowering use of language that galvanizes those within the Foundation and creates the right kind of impression for everyone who meets them. One that truly reflects who they are.