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The power of words

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The power of words

As communicators, we all know the power of the written word. However, it’s sometimes easy to forget the power that can be wielded by individual words.

Fairly recently, a well-known brand was reminded of this in a very public (and expensive) way. They ran a competition to win a ‘solid gold’ version of their product. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The winners thought so too, until they received said prize to find that it was actually ‘gold plated’.

Chances are in this scenario, it was a genuine mistake, an oversight where a fact wasn’t checked. Or maybe the communicator involved did challenge it and was overruled. Whatever went on behind the scenes, it serves as a reminder of the power of words and the responsibility we have as communicators to ensure the accuracy of what we write.

So, here are a few things to consider when creating your content to make sure you avoid any embarrassing and/or costly mistakes.

 

Check your factsSpeech bubble in red and spiky speech bubble in blue with the wording 'If in doubt check'

It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to make an assumption that information is correct when it has found its way to us from a colleague or from another part of the business. But it isn’t always.

Any claims (such as ‘solid gold’), or statements of fact (the managing director of the International Monetary Fund is Kristalina Georgieva) are always worth checking, especially if it is outside of your sphere of knowledge or is a fact that is likely to change, such as presidents and prime ministers.

Sometimes content might reference websites, research or even people, so it’s important we check those references are from reputable sources and that they won’t mislead your reader in any way.

Remember, even though we may not have created the content or be the subject matter expert – factual errors will be attributed to the communication team, so if in doubt – check!

 

Resist the temptation to embellish

There will be a time in every communicator’s career when you find yourself trying to make the dullest topic imaginable interesting. Or maybe you’re trying to make your content stand out amongst all the noise inside and outside an organisation.

Whatever the reason may be, we will have all faced that ethical conundrum – where is the line between making your content more engaging to read and embellishment?

For example, you might be communicating about small changes to your HR system that people need to be aware of. To make it more interesting, you say that it’s been ‘transformed’. Not only is this misleading, but it can result in employees no longer trusting what they read. And that trust is so important – the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 found that business is the most trusted institution (no pressure!).

Don’t prioritise style over substance – yes, it’s important that your content is engaging to read, but never at the expense of accuracy.

Yellow speech mark with the wording 'Don't prioritise style over substance'

‘Spin’ is never OK

Putting a different angle on content to make it more palatable (also known as ‘spin’) is unethical at best and dangerous at worst. General Motors (GM) found this out with devastating consequences.

An ignition switch in certain GM cars fell below the company’s own specifications. However, the fault was labelled as a ‘customer convenience’ issue rather than an urgent safety problem. Therefore, management didn’t take it seriously, and 13 people died as a result.

While this wasn’t the fault of the communication team, it serves as a good example of how a few small tweaks to the language we use or the way we describe something can skew the real meaning that needs to be conveyed.

You can read more about the GM story in an article by Forbes.

 

Be intentional with your verbs

Verbs have the power to bring a sentence to life, as well as change its meaning. There are so many verbs you can choose from to make your writing more engaging so spend time considering if you’ve used the best one. However, make sure you’re not being misleading.

For example:

The CEO wants feedback on the strategy.

Vs

The CEO welcomes feedback on the strategy.

The second one sounds much more open and friendly – and you could argue might make people more likely to offer up their thoughts. However, the word ‘welcomes’ also sounds optional – so you would only use it if it was indeed optional.

 

Consider your ethicsYellow round speech mark over the top of a black speech mark with the wording 'one word could have an enormous and unwanted impact'

At the heart of this is ethics. Communicators have a huge ethical responsibility when it comes to content. We need to ensure our content is accurate, timely, and clear. It’s also imperative we don’t ‘spin’ or deliberately omit information. Sometimes this means having difficult conversations and saying ‘no’ but it’s imperative we do.

It could be viewed as petty to get hung up on one word in a piece of content, but that one word could have an enormous and unwanted impact.

CIPR Inside has a great guide to ethics for internal communicators and you can also take a look at the Institute of Business Ethics website for more information on this.

 

 

By Helen Deverell for Alive!

@helendeverell

Read more from Helen on this subject 

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