Spitfire Strategies

The Words We Use Matter

Kerry Leslie

By Kerry Leslie
Director

 

We’ve likely all done it. Spent 15 minutes crafting one sentence. Kicked ourselves for coming up with the perfect retort that would leave our audience speechless after the fact. Or had a full staff discussion about whether to use the word equity or equality in our new vision statement. That’s because the words we use matter.

They can trigger comradery, communicate our alliance with a specific community, signal membership to our tribe and facilitate shared understanding between ourselves and our audience by demonstrating that we’re viewing the world through a similar lens. 

They can also reinforce harmful stereotypes, perpetuate misperceptions and normalize dangerous ideologies. 

That’s some heavy responsibility to put on a word. But whether it’s deciding to adopt the singular “they” and include pronouns in our email signature, talking about “understanding” instead of “believing in” climate change or saying “gun reform” over “gun control,” it’s an exercise we should all undergo, and revisit regularly. This is absolutely the time to argue about semantics.

In every instance, we should ask ourselves:

  • What am I communicating by saying this – both explicitly and implicitly?
  • What am I communicating by not saying something else instead?
  • What values, tensions, social norms or philosophies am I harkening to by choosing this word or phrase?

For example, during the 2015 Democratic primaries, when asked “Do ‘black lives matter’ or do ‘all lives matter’?” by a Drake University law student, all but one of the four candidates who responded, answered with “Black Lives Matter.” Those three words – or in Jim Webb’s case, the wandering response that did not include them – communicated far more than their literal definition.

In the community of immigrant rights advocates, anyone worth their salt knows the words “immigrant” and “illegal” don’t go in the same sentence, let alone right next to each other. While “undocumented immigrant” is a fairly ubiquitous term, some choose “unauthorized migrant” or very intentionally use phrases that describe an individuals’ experience such as “person without the proper documents/authorization” or “living undocumented.” Whichever phrase we use, we are telling people something clear about our values and worldview.

This month’s horrifying events in Charlottesville were a jolting reminder that choosing our words carefully is more important than ever. Many responses to the events have condemned hate and racism. Some linked those evils explicitly to the terms “white supremacists” and “neo-Nazis.” Others used the label “white nationalists.” We should all think carefully about these choices. The Associated Press just took a stance against the term “alt-right” because of its euphemistic qualities. Regardless of the literal definitions, we should probably think twice about the implications of using the term “white nationalism” too – the second half of which connotes patriotism and unity. There’s probably a reason Steve Bannon still feels comfortable denouncing “white nationalism” and calling himself an “economic nationalist” in the same breath.

For many organizations these can be tough conversations and tough decisions, but they matter. And they pay off. There are upwards of a quarter million words in the English language. We owe it to the causes we care about to choose ours wisely.

 

Tags: ,

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

Getting Your Story Covered: Tips for Top-Notch Media Pitching Part Two

Mike Carter-Conneen

By Mike Carter-Conneen
Director

  In the first installment of this two-part series, I shared some insights from my years working in TV news and media relations, focusing on the best methods to get your pitches seen by reporters. In this part, I review some strategies for increasing the odds those reporters will actually… (read more)

An E.D.’s Guide to Essential Strategic Communication Know-How, Compliments of Spitfire’s Executive Leadership Program

Kristen Grimm

By Kristen Grimm
President

  I’ve been working with a number of new executive directors this past year. After years of hard work, or in some instances, after waking up from a dream about a new organization that MUST exist, these people found themselves with all eyes on them. From the moment they updated… (read more)

COAL + ICE: Overcoming Barriers to Spark Climate Action

AnaChristina Arana

By AnaChristina Arana
Account Coordinator

  “One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from the [IPCC] report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working… (read more)

Sign up to receive Spitfire Sparks

You’ll receive our latest smarts on the causes you care about and updates on our free tools.