Words matter more than ever – for brands, for causes and for us all as human beings. The problem? We need to get better at using them.
There’s never been a time when words and language didn’t matter. Verbal communication has been at the heart of human development pretty much since the beginning.
But when the stakes are as high as they are now – in the midst of climate change, war, instability, polarisation – then it’s even more vital to think about how we use the most important tool we have.
It’s not the only tool of course, but all the others depend on it. Just try to imagine collaborating on any of these big issues without language. This might all sound a bit highfalutin from someone who writes poster headlines and comes up with names for fizzy drinks. But for me, it’s all connected.
Words are important
Like, really really important. I mean really, really, really important. Do you know what I mean?
Well, no. You don’t know what I mean. You’ve got an idea. You’re in the ballpark. But you can tell I’m stuck. I can’t get beyond really really as a way to try to make my point, or impress you with its value.
How often have you heard someone say, ‘I can’t find the words’? Clients tell me all the time, ‘We know what we want to say, but we can’t find the right words.’ Those two things are the heart of this subject. Knowing what you want to say, and knowing how to say it.
Whether you’re selling baked beans or campaigning against climate change, language is the heart of it.
And the trouble is, even when people tell you they know what they want to say, they often don’t. They think they do, but if you sit them down and ask them what it is, they’re lost. Not just because they can’t find the words, but because they haven’t actually done the thinking.
And that’s a language issue too.
In this case, it often turns out that people are trying to use words to do the thinking for them. They’ve tried to shortcut the process, by diving straight into the big words, the ones that feel most important and serious.
In branding, those tend to be words like:
That last one is a real doozy. ‘We’re human’. Possibly the most generic term for a brand ever.
Words can’t do the thinking for you
If you haven’t worked out what you think, you can’t possibly know how to express it. Which drives you back to those big, broad, generic terms – words that are hard to argue with, but equally hard to give much of a shit about, frankly. That’s bad if you’re selling products and services. If you’re campaigning against climate change, it could be catastrophic.
If you say you’re innovative, explain why. Tell me how. Tell me why that matters. Why should anyone care that you’re innovative?
And that’s where people often get unstuck. Firstly, because they realise they haven’t thought the thing through. And secondly because they struggle to find language that’s more meaningful, more precise, more compelling.
This is why brand language workshops are often described as being ‘like corporate therapy’. Asking these questions, and forcing people to think hard about why they’re using certain words, is very akin to therapy. And I know from experience how valuable therapy can be, how much it teaches you about the value – and difficulties – of language.
You can’t say, ‘I’m sad’ in a therapy session, without your therapist saying something like, ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ Or ‘Why do you think that is?’
‘Sad’ is a word like ‘innovative’. It’s too generic to be really useful. If all you know is I’m ‘sad’, you can offer some equally generic solutions, like a cup of tea or a cuddle. And those are nice things. But if you’re really going to help me, you need to know more about what’s going on.
If all we know about a client is that they’re innovative, we can only offer equally generic solutions to expressing that. The copy will become broad, bland, tiresomely familiar, and essentially meaningless.
So your brand is innovative. Why do you feel that way? Tell us more about that. Why do you want it to be that way? Brands are something we deliberately create and shape over time. So why is the client so sure that innovative is one of the fundamental bricks they want to build their brand with?
These questions can get quite uncomfortable quite fast. Especially if they expose gaps in the strategy. But also because people quickly realise how difficult it is to put their thinking into words.
Good language is not just about brands and comms
Everything we do as people depends on language, so everything an organisation does depends on it too. If the leadership are fuzzy about how they want things to run, no one quite knows where they are, or what’s expected of them. If emails are dense and complicated, things get lost or misunderstood, and time gets wasted. If customer service teams don’t come across as clear and helpful and sympathetic, you get complaints and lose sales.
A survey in 2016 by Josh Bernoff of 574 business people estimated the cost of poor writing to US businesses at around $400 billion a year. Everything your organisation does depends on language. It holds everything else together. So the better your language is working, the better everything is working.
The better we all are at language, the better we can be in every sphere of life.
In our relationships, better language means being clearer about how we feel, or what we need. That includes your relationship with yourself. Language is such a powerful way to investigate and clarify your own feelings and motivations – and think about how to change them.
We all understand how important language is in politics. Those who can wield language most confidently, most precisely, and most affectingly, tend to win the debates – for better or worse. Attention to political language is just as important for us citizens. The better we understand it, the better we get at spotting when it’s being used to manipulate us.
Some examples are obvious – talking about asylum seekers as ‘invaders’, for example. But others are much more subtle and devious. The more you can tune in to the slippery ways language is being used, the better you can judge what you’re being told. That’s pretty empowering.
And when it comes to those huge issues we’re facing, like climate change or inequality, it’s language that clarifies them, crystallises solutions, and inspires action.
The greatest campaigners are the ones who put things into clear, precise, compelling words – language that avoids the clichés and generalities, and gets straight to the point.
None of this is easy, of course. But it’s something we can control, and we should look to control – arguably much more than we currently do. And as difficult and complex as language is, there’s one rule that helps unlock it most powerfully. Whether we’re talking about ad concepts or overcoming poverty. And that rule is, ‘Be specific’.
Specificity is what gets you past the clichés
It stops your message, or your argument, from becoming bland and easily ignored. It’s what gives your language an edge, and takes you from the simple facts to the compelling truth.
Think about charity fundraising appeals; it’s always the specifics that work. If you say that so many millions of people are at risk of starvation, or have died in a war, those are abstract facts. But they’re not the truth. In marketing jargon, they don’t ‘land’.
That’s why charities tend to tell you about one person, or one family’s experience. One real-life story that literally brings those abstract statistics to life. The specifics of what malnutrition is doing to a child, or how it feels to be a displaced family shivering on a hillside – it’s these specifics that compel us to reach for the credit card.
It’s the same with language. Words like Innovative or Human are abstract. They’re factual, not truthful.
If you’re trying to get people to believe in climate change, talk to them about the changes they’re starting to see in their own lives. Have they noticed the flowers are blooming earlier in the year, or that there are more floods in their region than there used to be? Literally bring the problem home.
These are dramatic examples, of course, but it’s true everywhere. From global challenges to marketing tactics.
Stopping climate change is not on a par with selling mayonnaise, or whatever, but there’s one tool that drives the solutions to all these challenges, and it’s language. Because it’s language that helps you work out what you think about something, and language that helps you get that thinking across to the people you want to hear it.
We can control language, but it’s not easy. So we should all try to get much better at it. Because it makes everything work better. It can even change the world.
Cover image source: Chirawan