Making words work for all

By Peter Gilheany

We like to think that words are immutable, that when we refer to something such as a “duck”, the connotations and meaning of that word are the same for all native speakers of English. But they are not, their meaning changes over time, as anyone over the age of 30 who has tried to ingratiate themselves with a teenager by adopting some of the phrases they use will testify. Effective, persuasive communicators think about their audience and their relationship with them and to the issue they are seeking to engage on. In the context of structural inequalities and disadvantage, this also means understanding different stakeholders and considering the biases of our audiences – and ourselves.

We change, our social norms and culture changes, so it is natural that our language does too, both in terms of what we say and how we interpret and respond to what is said. It would be nice to think that these changes are generally progressive, that our language is continually evolving to be more inclusive, which from a UK perspective is exactly what has happened in terms of social attitudes and culture. All the evidence shows that we are more progressive and inclusive than we have ever been. And, for the most part, language and what is deemed accurate, relevant and appropriate does keep up. But there are two related problems. One is that many of us struggle to adapt to those changes as quickly as they happen. Everyone has someone in the family or friends circle who uses terms that make them wince and then get defensive about the fact it was fine to use them before.

What happens on an individual level also happens for organisations, with many being caught out by the gap between how they use words and the audiences they are seeking to engage. The second is that tension in the transition of language has been weaponised into the utterly tedious and ongoing culture wars being feasted on by schills of all political persuasions. Venture onto any social media platform and you’ll see words used as cudgels, flags in the sand to rally around or rant against, to the point where the actual meaning of the words becomes immaterial.

It’s no wonder that many organisations have a growing list of issues and words that they simply avoid, for fear of getting embroiled in controversy. But if you want to deliver change, you need to talk about it, so progressive organisations cannot afford to be selectively silent.

Progressive businesses and charities, particularly those working in poverty and international development, have a real challenge when it comes to engaging with the audiences who matter to them on social and environmental change. They are rightly being challenged to be as inclusive and empowering as possible, especially when it comes to communicating about the people and communities they work with and support. It is all too easy for that communication to objectify, exploit and patronise the very audiences who are central to their mission or purpose.

It’s why Forster has teamed up with Sophia Moreau, social justice campaigner and DEI expert, to develop Building Bridges – Knocking Down Walls, an approach to help organisations and individual leaders develop a more inspiring and inclusive communications style, one that really connects and motivates audiences without disempowering and objectifying the people and communities who are central to what they are seeking to achieve.

We have put together a simple half day training programme for leaders and organisations that helps them to identify the bridges they can build to their audiences and the walls they need to avoid putting up as a barrier to engagement, with a strong focus on the power of words.

Language will continue to adapt and evolve, it’s when there are attempts to block its path that problems arise. So, come and have a chat with us if you want support to go with the flow. You can reach me at or on 07798 88 11 80.

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