Monday, 03 October 2016

The power of words

The power of words

Words are powerful things. John Berger, in The Art Of Seeing, talks about how we use words only after we learn to see. This is true. But once we’ve learnt to use words we often fall into the trap of using them to communicate from a position of weakness.

That sounds cruel. Allow me to explain.

In marketing, communications, and PR (the spheres in which I operate) words are particularly powerful. Especially when written down. They have the ability to sway, dissuade, and influence. They can convince or hurt. Elicit joy or inflict pain. And the smallest slip can change the meaning of a sentence.

This is where the importance of proofreaders and subeditors is most acute.

What we write in a hurried state, or think will get our point across quickly, can often have a negative connotation that dwells in the subconscious of the reader. It lodges like a tick and doesn’t let go.

In marketing this phenomenon is crucial. It must be understood implicitly. Negative words generate negative thoughts. Positive words, positive thoughts. What you think is sarcastic and funny, when read in the cold light of day by a stranger, may well hurt. Who wants to admit that they’re “struggling” with a concept when they could instead “improve” their knowledge or learn a new, exciting skill?

I’m pretty crap with physical exercise. Football, rugby, running all hold a loathed, alien place in my heart. But when I saw a flyer that proudly stated “Yoga for dudes - fun, relaxing, no girls allowed” I was immediately intrigued. Here was something exclusive. Something only I could go to. And not worry about looking foolish in front of the opposite sex. Something that suggested I would enjoy a previously hated experience. I read on and it told me I wouldn’t be the “only man wobbling at the back” and it put my mind at ease by tackling that which made me most anxious (I’m not a particularly manly man, though I will readily put up a shelf). Six weeks later I was perfecting my crow and all was well.

Had that flyer said “Crap at exercise? Can’t bend much?” I don’t think I would have paid any attention.

This is wordsmithing. A skill that few can master, and those who can find themselves incredibly valuable to a business. People don’t like negativity. That’s not to say you can’t call something horrendous when it is (war, famine, pestilence etc are all pretty bad). But when it’s personal, when it’s something you’re directing to or about a reader then be mindful. Your words can have more impact than you might think.


Image by Lauren Peng from