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Language in a time of crisis: why your words matter

Right now, marketers are being called upon to deliver clear, consistent messaging at speed. It has to be both sensitive and engaging; helpful while raising brand awareness. If it’s feeling like a challenge, that’s because it is.

If you’re anything like me — or many writers for that matter — you can fall victim to being a terrible overthinker. 

No doubt, you have found yourself at least once or twice staring at an empty document on your computer screen or analysing your word choices in every sentence. 

“Does this sound okay?” “Maybe I should use a better word?” “What would Macquarie say?” 

Sound familiar?

As a Mahlab content strategist, I know the written word is a powerful thing. And so are our thoughts behind the words we select. 

We’re currently living in a time where every word and sentence a business puts into the public domain has the potential to be scrutinised. By their customers, by their competitors, by the media. No one wants to put a foot — or in this case, a word — wrong. And rightly so.  

Right now, marketers and content creators are being called upon to deliver clear, consistent messaging at speed. It has to be both sensitive and engaging; helpful while raising brand awareness. If it’s feeling like a challenge, that’s because it is. But take comfort in the fact you are not alone in this. 

I write thought-leadership pieces for B2B technology companies, but I’m not an expert in crisis communications. What I am an expert in is using language to deliver messaging, evoke feelings and drive action.  

Which means I’ve got to research like a journalist to tell the story right. I’ve got to select my words carefully and, before I put metaphorical pen to paper, I need to have a plan. 

And in our industry — where words are our business — understanding the power of them during a crisis is key. Especially if you’re writing copy for an executive or company spokesperson. 

Award-winning author and performance advisor Todd Herman recently interviewed 29 CEOs to unpack their psychology and plans for the current COVID-19 crisis. 

After analysing their word choices and language, he discovered that words create our reality. He was able to break the CEOs into three groups: the fear-focused CEO; the un-focused CEO and the strategy-focused CEO. 

The fear-focused CEO group used negative words, such as ‘struggle’, ‘difficult’, and ‘hard’, 13 times more than the strategy-focused CEO group. 

In comparison, the strategy-focused CEO group used positive words, such as ‘action’ or ‘opportunity’, six times more than the other groups. And while all CEOs said they wanted their business to be healthy, Herman believed the words they unconsciously used portrayed how they were really feeling — and eventually how they would act. 

The words we use every day have an underlying meaning behind them — usually without us even realising. While researching for a client article about the power of language, I discovered some interesting, but sadly not surprising, facts. 

Out of the 3.5 million books that machine-learning analysed, adjectives ascribed to women were about their physical appearance — think ‘beautiful’ and ‘sexy’. For men, adjectives referred more to their behaviour — ‘righteous’, ‘rational’ and ‘courageous’. Various studies suggest this kind of unconscious gender bias in language can affect decisions we make every day. 

Because words do matter.

When the Mahlab team worked with the CEO of Salesforce ANZ, Pip Marlow, for her International Women’s Day article, it was to remind the community of the power of language. For Marlow, it was all about the power of and. A connecting word that unites two ideas to deliver a powerful message and to help fight unconscious gender bias. 

To improve gender equality, we know we need to be more aware of the words we use every day. Why not apply the same conscious thinking to our word choices when communicating during times of crisis?

There may not be a playbook for communicating during this period, but, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt throughout my communications career, it is to always trust your gut. If something doesn’t read right or if you think a sentence could be misinterpreted or hold bias, then rework it. 

In the coming days, weeks and even months, marketers and content creators will be masters of one of the critical vehicles guiding people through this current time. Words. 

Use them wisely. 

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