The Power of Simple Words

With more than 10 years in PR and communications, I have drafted and edited countless speeches as a speechwriter and countless media releases as a communications manager and contractor. So I write this from extensive experience.

The power of words is seldom fully felt, until after they are spoken, or read.  The words we use can influence outcomes in organisations and governments. They can change the way people see the world and each other. They can be as sharp as a sword and as soft as a feather. They can divide or unite people. They can start wars in families and nations and around the world. They can bring peace back to the table and soften hearts. That is the powerful impact of words and that is why our word choices are so important.

In this post, I focus on the power of simple words. Factors like how it’s said, as much as who is saying it, and levels of trustworthiness with the intended audience are also important considerations.

A simple motive, word, idea can be powerful. Using plain language can be a potent device in well-written and carefully crafted oratory and media releases.

When it comes to word choices, I prefer a simple everyday word for speeches and media releases, rather than a fancy word or jargon that my audience hasn’t heard of. Why? Because you want to increase the chances of people understanding and accepting your message. Using jargon, particularly in a business and political setting, limits the pool of people who will understand what you’re talking about. (There are public examples, which I won’t go into here, where limiting people’s understanding of the issue is clearly the communications goal of the speaker. But that’s a post for another topic.)

Back to the power of plain language. Applying simple words as a deliberate choice helps to communicate clearly and concisely to people of all walks of life. It is an important lesson to grasp if you want your message to be heard and understood widely, across all levels of society including those with low levels of literacy in reading and writing, not just those who are well educated.

With large populations of people born overseas, it’s also important to consider the communications needs of people who have varying levels of English fluency, particularly if they are part of the target markets or audiences you want to reach out to.

When I have written public health communications for doctors and scientists, I focus on how to explain highly technical and often complex issues in ways that the general public will easily relate to. One way: instead of long academic sentences with plenty of jargon familiar only to scientists and specialist doctors, I take the scientific word or term and introduce a description and explanation and its relevance alongside the word or term, to help journalists and the public understand the message. That gives journalists, easy-to-understand, information they need to explain a complex issue to the public.

Because you cannot effectively communicate and persuade groups of people and communities, including those with English as a second language, to take protective actions to limit the spread of disease during an outbreak, for example, if the message is not plainly given.  Only medical and scientific professionals will understand the associated jargon but they’re not the key audiences you need to reach through the media during an outbreak. Therefore, to help people understand the risks, and take the necessary actions, keep it simple, clear and concise.

Use words to express yourself, not to impress. The latter doesn’t consider the audience’s needs. Focusing on the needs of the audience is the key to successful and influential communications.

What if you, regardless of my advice here, still want to use ‘big’ words that are highly academic or jargon? Unless you take the time to explain the word or term to your audience, describe how it applies and why it’s relevant to them, as I explained earlier in the health example, it often alienates listeners.

When you alienate listeners, you lose an opportunity to influence.

You see, if people don’t understand what you’ve said, they will stop listening, and be less likely to listen next time. Unless they trust you implicitly which means that one off speech, that didn’t make sense, may be forgiveable. But if you are new to an audience and trust is still up in the air, it’s far easier for people to stop listening, than to draw public attention to the fact that one did not understand the speaker’s message.

The power of simple words. It works.

An animated version of a lesson in simple words by TED animators.

Speaking So People Will Listen

I would describe this video, a TED speech by Julian Treasure this year, as useful for professional and personal development for speakers. He takes an holistic approach that covers personal and professional conduct with topics like trustworthiness, tone, style, pace and volume.

He recommends a series of vocal, arm and mouth exercises before you speak in front of a key audience. It is actually similar to the exercises you do if you are a singer, or taking vocal lessons.

Dan Pink on The Puzzle of Motivation

Dan Pink on rethinking how we run business and engage and motivate people. I am posting this here so that, when I finally have some spare time, I’ll come back and watch this in full.  According to Wikipedia, he has written five books on changing the workplace. I’m interested in his findings from an internal communications perspective, particularly in relation to motivating staff.

When I get a chance, I may post more, if I have time to do so.

The Internet’s Impacts on How Communities Come Together

Clay Shirky is a thought leader on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. In this 2012 TED Talk, he talks about how the Open Source community has learned to deal with a flood of new, oftentimes divergent, ideas using hosting services. I’m not sure they have learned to deal with it, as much as having to deal with it. My opinion comes from thinking about the reality of cyber-bulling and cyper-crimes on the Internet and its terrible impacts.

But what is very interesting is that Shirky challenges governments, saying that if the Open Source world can deal with the flood of diverse opinions, why can’t governments? He presents ideas that are thought-provoking and challenging. He explains how democracies can take a lesson from the Internet and draw on the knowledge of all their citizens and be transparent.

Finding Your Imagination

This TED talk by artist Janet Echelman is a magnificent lesson in the power of imagination. Often it comes in the most unexpected ways and it stretches how we do things. I love how Janet Echelman’s mind works because she sees, dreams and creates things that most people don’t.

After watching her speak of the sheer scale of what her imagination has created, it makes me think that the human race, except for Janet Echelman possibly, clearly doesn’t use the full extent of our brain power and imagination.

That’s the beauty of a magnificent artist like her. She searches for beauty in the traditional and it is breath-taking and cheerful to watch. She shows how her mind made the impossible possible.

In the course of my work, I love exploring new ways to present information and reach out to target audiences. This artist imagination’s encourages innovation and imagination, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? I get excited seeing fresh and creative approaches unfold and being able to help someone present an idea or argument in a more beautiful or compelling way.

Her speech inspires people, like me, to keep imagining, keep pushing for creative and interesting ways to tell a story, to communicate an idea, to present the impossible. The power of the mind is limitless. Isn’t she an inspiration? Indeed.

Using Social Media to Build Community

I have posted two TED talks for a handy reference on developing online and offline communities. I’m not sure if they will provide any new insights if you are an active social media user for work and personal from the start, and you’ve already had some years of experience developing online communities. This won’t provide you with light bulb moments or new ideas. That was how I felt watching these talks. But this is a good starter if you are new to developing an online community. The first talk is very helpful in terms of breaking the ice and taking away the mystery.

If you are new to developing an online community in an area of interest, the best advice is, once you have assessed resource capacity and availability and for how long, to simply start. Online engagement and social media is one area where the best learning is from simply doing it.  Give the people information they want and need. They will come back for more and tell others.

Community Engagement Through Social Media-Sarah Lee

She makes that the key point about social media, is the word ‘social’. She emphasizes making that connection.

Online communities as sites for engagement – Rosianna Halse

Marketing: Positioning and How To Get There

One of the most commonly held assumptions about positioning a brand is that it is only a set of words put together and written up for publication. But that’s simply not so. It’s much, much more than that. In fact, that only describes the end process but it doesn’t describe the work of positioning a brand and what it actually involves.

So I’m writing this post to debunk that myth for those who are new to positioning, and positioning a brand. Positioning a brand deserves hours, days and even months of deep thinking, planning, informed by reliable market research full of qualitative data, for one. It demands rigorous debate, frank disagreement, and ruthless scrutiny.

During this thinking, planning and research process, it’s important to question and test the assumptions people hold. That helps to find gaps and weaknesses that your competitor might exploit.

Yes, quantitative data is important and helpful. But when you are counting on research to inform major decisions that have significant investments of resource and budget, then it doesn’t hurt to get qualitative information to help give a better understanding of why your audiences or viewers are making certain choices.

Qualitative information gives insightful information about the ‘why’ in people’s choices and attitudes.

When you are reaching out to hard-to-reach audiences and specific ethnic populations, qualitative data helps to understand differences in consumer behaviour.

By the way, when I’m referring to brand, I’m also referring to an organisation, a celebrity, a company or a political movement. A brand isn’t confined to just being a product, although technically speaking, one could say that an organisation is a product, so too is a celebrity.

When I am referring to markets, that is your audience, the people you are targeting, the people you want to speak to, connect with, and influence.

When I refer to the marketing mix in these conversations, it’s the 4 Ps: Price, Product, Promotion and Place.

So how do you get started on positioning? There’s a three-step process that’s tried and tested, and worth noting down for your marketing and communications discipline.  Let me start with the first step here.

  1. Segment Your Market
    This is a critical process in marketing. Divide the market up into segments into distinct subsets. There’s different ways you can segment your market, depending on a number of  factors. One thing about segmentation is that location is an important variable.

If you’d like to know more about the segmentation process and different ways to segment your markets, let me know by email.