The power of words — and how to use them
The power that words can bring has never been more clearly highlighted than in the decision of social media giants to ban Donald Trump from their platforms, following the attack on the Capitol building in Washington last week. The impact that just a 280-character Twitter post can have is both amazing and terrifying.
When asked about the reports that armed protests are being planned for Biden’s inauguration, one of Trump’s lawyers was allegedly quoted as saying that his supporters “shouldn’t take his words literally”.
The implication from this is that words can = action.
Of course, words can be a force for positive, as well as negative. Sticking with Washington, Martin Luther King’s speech in August 1963, ‘I have a dream’, in which he called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the USA, was a defining moment of the civil rights movement and his words have continued to live ever since.
You don’t have to be a president or civil rights leader for your words to have impact. The key is understanding who you want to reach with your words and what impact you’re seeking.
Here’s a really simple example of this.
At the start of the UK’s Lockdown 2.0 in November, I felt very wobbly. The news was relentlessly scaremongering and everything I read filled me with greater anxiety.
Following advice, I took the simple step of starting a Happiness Journal. Every day, I would write at least one sentence in it, giving an example of something positive from that day. It could be a phone call I’d had with a friend, a piece of work that I’d enjoyed doing, an uplifting walk in the woods, or even just a happy five minutes singing loudly to a song on the radio.
Within a week, there was a significant impact. Nothing about my days had physically changed — I was still locked down working from home with just the cat for company — but those daily words were seeping in and creating a new narrative. They were convincing my brain that my life was full of lots of happy experiences. Whilst I’m not suggesting the words were solely responsible, without doubt these daily lines of happiness contributed greatly to me feeling a whole lot better for the remainder of the lockdown and I plan to keep the habit going through 2021.
So, what can organisations and businesses learn from President Trump, Martin Luther King and my Happiness Journal, when planning their communications for this year?
1. Know your audience
All organisations will have particular audiences or customers that they want to target. You might be a tiny niche business with a limited audience base or a multi-national hoping to reach millions of people all over the world. Whichever it is, you need to do some work to understand the people you are targeting. What are they interested in? Which media do they consume? Where will you find them? What are their biggest concerns for the next six months likely to be? Who are they influenced by?
Understanding your audience will help you talk in the language that they relate to, in places they are likely to be, supported by people they listen to.
2. Have really clear messaging
The most successful messaging is clear and simple. However complex your product or service is, you want to make it as easy as possible for your audience to engage. The more people have to work to understand it, the greater the likelihood they’ll disengage.
The UK Government’s messaging for COVID-19 is an example of failing to make it clear and simple. The regularly changing messages and slogans, complex introduction of Tiers, and ambiguous instructions such as ‘work from home unless you can’t, then you should go to work’ have led to many amusing memes but unfortunately have also served to confuse us and no doubt contributed to people giving up on following the rules. It’s much harder to row back from a position of confusion around your messaging — something the Government is finding during this latest lockdown.
3. Repeat and build
With so much noise to compete with from 24/7 news, social media feeds and constant emails, if you want your message to stick, repetition is key — along with its best friend, consistency. You don’t have to literally say the same words over and over again, but the messaging, sentiment or instructions behind them should be the same.
One of 2020’s true heroes who understands this so well is footballer Marcus Rashford. Over the course of the last year, his campaign to end child poverty stuck doggedly and repeatedly to its clear messages and specific asks of Government. As a result, it was directly credited for a change of national policy in the summer and an announcement in November that the Government would be putting in £400m over the next 12 months towards food and bills for the UK’s poorest households.
The point about all of this is that everything in our lives is constructed by language. Words alone don’t have power — the power comes from knowing how to use them.