There have been several incidents in the last few months that have got me thinking about the importance of words. And the responsibility we all have - in business, in publishing, and in our personal lives - to choose the right ones.
Brexit means Brexit
Earlier this year, we in the UK voted on a very clear question: do we want to remain part of the EU or not. We voted to leave. Fair enough (even if you don't necessarily agree it's the right option).
However, untangling a small collection of countries from a bigger collection of countries, politically speaking, is a complex issue which requires answers to thousands more questions not yet asked. 'Brexit means Brexit' - the phrase thrown at anybody daring to start asking those questions of the government - is an attempt to rubber stamp the decision with a powerful slogan. But ultimately it comes across as a transparent grab for time, showcases that those saying it have no real idea what is going on, and makes everyone look a little silly. Because Brexit means Brexit is utterly meaningless if Brexit has never really been defined.
I think we can all agree that both the 'for' and 'against' campaigns were irresponsible with their word choices, looking to provoke fear and stimulate an emotional response to a couple of hot topic issues, rather than educate about what a Brexit actually entailed. Unfortunately this means a hell of a lot of people were persuaded to vote through emotion rather than on the merit of the case - leaving us all a little lost and angry at each other, while having no real plan to take us forward.
Donald Trump, President of the United States
I could simply finish this post after those seven words and most of you will understand what I'm getting at. That on a small scale words can affect your mood. And on a larger scale, they can affect everyone on the planet.
Again we all witnessed an election campaign fought (and won) on the basis of hot topic button-pushing, rather than through grounded, useful, logical words. Phrases like 'drain the swamp' won over a lot of people who felt there was a lot to fix at the top, while in reality it was always going to be a case of replacing any swamp with a cesspit. And now America is more divided than it has been in a long time and has to come to terms with certain dangerous factions feeling legitimised. Worse still is the normalisation of said factions by the media through the use of more meaningless words and phrases like 'post-truth' and 'alt-right', which seem harmless and valid until you remember they simply mean 'lies' and 'neo-Nazis'.
A win for word-spin and Orwellian doublespeak. A loss for logic, decency, and America as a world leader, with potentially serious repercussions for us all.
Okay this one is WAY more trivial, but it's perhaps closer to home for many businesses. Because not so long ago, the Belgian company Alpro, famous for its soya-based products (such as milk and yogurt), got in a spot of bother with this tweet:
“A healthy diet consists of 2/3 of plant based food and 1/3 of animal based. With Alpro we offer alternatives to help you set the balance!”
Well, no. Not when you consider it was a sweeping statement made about people's health put into the public domain without producing any credible sources to back it up (a marketing no-no-what-the-hell-are-you-doing). And especially not when you consider that the majority of people who buy their products to avoid dairy are vegans - who live a perfectly healthy lifestyle without any animal products.
Which means that, with just a few poorly chosen words, Alpro not only destroyed their brand consistency, but also alienated almost their entire customer base, who were certainly not backwards in letting them know their feelings (resulting in an apology a few days later).
Our words matter more than ever
I have argued previously that people in business don't always take their words seriously. Copywriting is often an overlooked skill-set to have in the office, because everyone can write, right? But now more than ever the words that we put out into the world matter - and we need to be responsible for making sure they are the most positive, inclusive, and constructive words possible. Which means making sure you have the best people around to help you craft them on behalf of your business.
The examples above provide a pretty clear case for the importance of words. Donald Trump wasn't always able to put them together in a coherent order, and they never had much valid content, and they were often offensive, and sometimes he doubled back on them without realising (I could go on and on)... but he knew which ones would hit the sweet spot and provoke the right response to get him votes.
And although this provides a great advert for cheap, vapid marketing at a churn and burn level, even more so it highlights the greater need for us to take responsibility for what we say. To wield words that can produce solid, useful content that actually wins you the popular vote, showcases you as a leader in your field, doesn't burn bridges with allies, doesn't alienate anyone, doesn't make you a laughing stock, doesn't threaten to destabilise everything you have built, and can ultimately be a force for good in a world that needs it more than ever.
So choose your words carefully.