Words Have Meaning

Words Have Meaning
November 30, 2016 hello@thesumof.com.au

Words have meaning
It’s easy to overlook the importance and power of words, how we speak to colleagues, clients or customers—and to the world, through emails, websites and social media, etc. While visual communication can be ambiguous and interpretive, verbal and written communication is clear and direct. We accept words for what they mean, not just for what they suggest.

When considering a brand positioning, an internal comms plan, a social media campaign, or any communications program, it’s tempting to take creative licence with truth and fact, adopting words that sound good and which position us in a favourable but skewed or inflated manner. We often refer to this as ‘spin’. But words have meaning and our audience, customers or community will quite rightly expect us to live up to what we say, to deliver on the promises we broadcast. Focusing on spin rather than truth can eventually be damaging on multiple levels, from customer loyalty, sales and reputation, through to staff morale and brand status.

In contrast, we are seeing an increasingly prevalent move from brands towards authenticity—towards being genuine, and being perceived as such. This is a positive shift. It’s also wise. These days, people are far more savvy and generally see through spin, even when there is an attempt to package it as ‘authentic’. We are suspicious of grandiose statements presented as fact, but which are actually questionable. The choice of words can be the difference between whether a message resonates with an individual or not, whether they become a customer and brand champion, or whether it prompts them to simply ignore or protest. Although society has become progressively visual, words still have the power to stir emotion, to persuade and to mobillize—for better and worse.

In broader cultural terms, we’ve seen this played out recently in the Brexit and Trump campaigns, where carefully scripted (often intentionally misleading) words and speeches galvanised communities who previously felt unheard and overlooked. However, in Brexit’s case, immediately after the vote some Britons said: “I voted Leave, but I didn’t think that meant we would actually leave”. And in the case of Trump, he is now slowly backing away from some of his incendiary and offensive language used to win the election, which will no doubt leave a dangerous and fired-up community feeling let down—angry that he didn’t mean what he said. Although softening his tone is a welcome improvement, it remains to be seen whether this will have disastrous consequences if his followers choose to react. In both cases, there has been a sudden and abrupt realisation that words have meaning.

For brands and businesses alike, adopting spin, choosing to sound good rather than pursuing authenticity and truth, might offer a short-term win. But this can quickly give way to a deep loss of respect if the audience sees it for what it is—if the experience is contradictory to the promise.

In our excitement to use words that sound good but aren’t genuine, this can quickly be exposed as being disingenuous, or worse—perceived as being misleading and wilfully unclear. Too many times we see brands, business and individuals grappling with the statement: “What I actually meant was…”


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