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The power of language

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The power of language

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”

Wise words by J K Rowling and particularly relevant following recent events in parliament where the language used has hit the headlines.

As internal communicators we are often the guardians of the language used inside our organisations, and current events are an important reminder of the impact it can have. So how can we ensure that everyone understands what language is appropriate and avoid causing offence or distress to people inside our organisations?

Reflect your values

One way of ensuring the language inside your organisation is measured and appropriate is to ensure your tone of voice reflects your values and culture.

For example, your company wins a big piece of work with a new client where you pitched against a competitor. Your sales manager wants to share the news with employees on your social collaboration tool. Depending on the values and culture, they might approach this in different ways:

We have once again triumphed over our rivals to win a contract worth £X!’ Or Congratulations to the sales team who won an exciting new contract with X. We were up against some excellent competition who pushed us to think differently.’

The first one can obviously be tongue in cheek if there’s a shared knowledge of a friendly competitiveness between companies. But without that knowledge it can come across as arrogant and boastful. Or it could be an accurate reflection of the organisation.

The second one is softer and more respectful of its competitors with more of an emphasis on learning rather than winning.

Neither is necessarily wrong but by being clear on your values means you will attract people who share them and are likely to use the type of language that reflects the business and what it stands for.

Consider your tone

Words should always be chosen carefully especially when creating content that could be controversial or emotionally charged for employees.

For example, a serious incident has occurred in a factory and an email is sent from leadership with this sentence:  ‘We are investigating the cause of the incident and will take the necessary measures to ensure this does not happen again.’

While this may seem innocuous and factual to the writer, using words such as ‘investigating’ and ‘necessary measures’ implies an assumption of wrongdoing from the beginning and could make employees feel vulnerable, defensive and concerned about their jobs.

Instead you could say; ‘We are speaking with colleagues who were on site at the time to understand what happened and how we can ensure it doesn’t happen again.’

This sounds more open-minded and collaborative and is likely to elicit a more positive and helpful response from employees, which will help the business understand exactly what happened.

Be human

When we walk inside an organisation, we seem to forget that we’re humans communicating with other humans. Whether speaking at a conference or on a webinar or writing a blog or email, remember real people with real feelings are on the receiving end.

One element of this is about sounding genuine, for example you wouldn’t turn to a friend in the pub and say ‘I regret to inform you…’ so why would you say it to a colleague? As an employee whose job is being put at risk, hearing that a senior leader finds the whole situation ‘regrettable’ is likely to make the situation worse and create division between leadership and employees.

It’s also about not being offensive, full stop. People won’t always agree, that’s fine but there’s a fine line between putting your point across and using inflammatory language.

Often, people don’t even realise that what they’ve said could cause offence (although arguably they should), which is why it’s important for internal communicators to act as the conscience of the organisation. A CEO sharing a blog about his weekend where he played ball games with his kids may make him seem more human until he mentions that he ‘throws like a girl’.

Or a finance director describing how she is looking to expand her department by recruiting the best of the best and then goes on to describe her ideal candidate as having been to a Russell Group university, completely tone deaf to the need to create more diversity within the organisation.

Break the bubble

Language can often cause offence when people aren’t aware of the wider context of what they’re saying. There’s a lot of discussion around the need for more diversity in our organisations and one of the many benefits of this will be that employees will become more aware of how they use language.

It’s easy to surround yourself with the same people, creating little bubbles and echo chambers, so it can come as a shock to realise that you haven’t understood the gravity of what you’ve said or fully understood the bigger picture.

It’s important that internal communication teams are also diverse for this very reason and, as mentioned earlier, to ensure we can ensure that others are being sensitive to colleagues from across the organisation.

Encourage employees to listen to others, be open minded and ask if they’re not sure.

J K Rowling is right, language is like magic as it wields so much power. And as internal communicators, we’re in the privileged position of using it every day to engage with colleagues. But it’s important to not lose sight of the impact it can have and the role we play in ensuring the language used inside our organisations is inclusive, respectful and appropriate.

By Helen Deverell for Alive!


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Emma Wright — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

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