Mind Your Language! Because Words Matter

Choose Your Words

Words matter more than we ever think. We may sometimes agonise over which adjective to use to bring a sentence together but do we think hard enough every time? Do we focus on ensuring that what we write is right and that it speaks to the person we are writing for?

Let’s look at how minding your language can help you connect, entertain and build a relationship with your audience.

I love writing. From captions to conference speeches, brochure copy to billboards and even weeks-worth of social media posts in advance. I adore it.

Do I find it frustrating at times? Yes, of course. Do I sometimes hate myself for the lack of creativity and sheer brilliance that should be on display in every tiny piece of writing I do? Only to come back to it and realise that it is perfect for the purpose and we can’t all write ‘The Great Gatsby’ in every tweet, no matter the florid language? Too often, yes.

I also love to read what others have written. Not just books but blogs, news reports and even social media content. As there is beauty to be found in the written word across a wide vast array of media.

However, I’ve noticed a worrying trend starting to creep ever more insidiously into the delicate ecosystem of promotional copywriting. A festering malignancy that is blighting the landscape and I’m trying my utmost to combat it.

“I like good strong words that mean something…”
― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

The Battle of Overused Words


I loathe this word.

Of course, I didn’t always feel this way. However, much like the experience of my saintly namesake, I had a profound conversion moment that changed my outlook forever.

You see, a former leader of mine, who I sincerely and will forever respect, berated me for using this very word in a piece of copy. Their words are forever burned into my psyche:

“That is a shouting word. FAN-TASTIC. We do not need to shout to get our point across.”

It was as if the scales had been lifted from my eyes. I saw this word for what it is. A powerful word, yes, but an often overused and quite honestly, wrongly used one too. In its truest form it describes something imaginative or fanciful; removed from reality.

Today it is used more as a catch-all word for something or someone that has done anything mildly positive. Don’t just take my word for it: visit your local or regional news website and read any quote from a positive news story, especially a new product launch or special event, and you will see the quotes littered with fantastics. Sometimes it will be used multiple times.

Other words (and they tend to be positive adjectives for some reason) are also suspiciously overused. This includes but is not limited to; amazing, astounding, cutting-edge and unique.

My issue with all of these words are two-fold, and it is not just copywriting snobbery.

Firstly the meanings of each of the words are specific; to be unique is to truly be one of a kind and that is certainly not possible in crowded markets. The same is true for ‘cutting-edge’ as your product or service may be innovative in its approach but if it was truly cutting-edge then there would be nothing like it out there, it would be unique. The same is true with either amazing or astounding. To be lucky enough to be promoting something that truly emulates the meaning of these fabulously-powerful words constantly would be an immense privilege.

It is not to say that many products or services on the market aren’t as brilliant as advertised. Instead, it is the frequency that these words are being used that means they’ve now lost their significance, and that is a terribly sad thing for me. As words have real power to shape minds, inform behaviours and drive change.

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Lights within a book
Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Writing for your audience

Let’s leave my considerable issues with ‘shouty words’ behind for a while (but you will catch yourself using them now, you’re welcome) and look at the most important part of the writing process: who you are doing it for.

The one thing I always say to people when they start thinking about producing any kind of content is; “think who will be at the other end.”

Looking at myself and this piece: I wanted to write about why certain words annoy me and to, hopefully, impart some of the things I’ve learnt along the way to help others with their copywriting. I’m hoping it sparks some conversation and debate, that’s why the tone is ever-so-slightly combative and playful, to cause the desired reaction.

That is what copywriting should always be about – creating an action.

You should always have this action (or reaction) in your head before you strike the keys.

Types of Action

  • To inform
  • To persuade
  • To provoke (and be careful with this one!)
  • To celebrate

Setting these objectives gives your writing a focus, and with that in mind, you can then move onto ensuring that your communication style matches your audience.

“I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

Build your connection

Words are important, just look at the paragraphs I’ve given over to talking about them in this piece, but they are not the only component in writing engaging copy. Your tone of voice, the way you shape your narrative are just as, if not more, important to the overall experience.

In short: it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

Things to keep in mind

  • Does your target audience like to keep formal or informal?
  • And, if informal are there any specific ‘slang’ words of phrases used within the community?
  • Where does your audience go to consume information?
  • This will shape the length and structure of your copywriting
  • Are you writing as an expert, as a participant or an outsider?

It is important to think about how the audience will react to your content. If you are trying to break into a new market that has an established culture and lexicon, for example, and you don’t use or, even worse, misuse a phrase then you could permanently lose respect and their collective attention.

Conversely, write too rigidly and formally and you will come across unapproachable and your audience may feel that you and your brand is unapproachable and maybe dismissive or in contempt of the wider public. As such, they may distance themselves from you.

Marketing, at its very core, is about establishing a relationship. For a brand not to communicate effectively with the written word is a concern, as we still read far more than we consume any other type of communication in media. From customer information on websites to weather forecasts on apps, we are constantly reading and consuming. So, it should be engaging, and dare I say, enjoyable too?

After all…

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
― Rudyard Kipling

Let’s have a lot less value washing and a lot more action…

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

I’m writing this just after the end of Pride month and if I listen very carefully I can hear the sound of social media managers from across the western world taking down their specially prepared rainbow-tinted logos. It was audible due to the sheer speed that this takes place each and every year.

Why do I even care about this? In fact, you are probably asking yourself why you’re even reading this – and both are good questions, but stick with me as I want to talk about authenticity and the pitfall of value washing your brand. 

What is Value Washing?

When a person or organisation uses a political or cultural movement for their promotional activities but doesn’t act on or systemically support the ethos of the movement, that is value washing. 

This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with or celebrate brands that showcase their commitment to ideals, especially Pride, but it has to be more than changing their logo to have a rainbow filter over the top of their existing brand for 4 weeks in early summer. The same is true for important movements that have risen to prominence over recent weeks, especially Black Lives Matter.

Yes, the urge to be relevant and part of the narrative of major events feels important. This always needs to be balanced with what you are doing this for, and if it is only for shallow reasons, with no meaning or actions, you will instead be in a position of value washing your brand and this is detrimental to your long-term brand position.

Why Your Brand Shouldn’t Value Wash

  • Your audience sees right through it – not authentic
  • You will create more questions – what have you done to support, what haven’t you done before?
  • Is your brand in a position to support this cause? Have you always had the same position on the subject in question?

Without any activism or engagement in the cause, you run the risk of looking tokenistic. Indeed, if your brand has a less than savoury history in certain aspects (see Llyod’s of London and their connection to the slave trade) then your promotional use of a movement could backfire spectacularly – and rightly so! 

Think of it this way, if you are a retailer or a visitor experience you wouldn’t just wish all your customers a Merry Christmas on 25th December. No, you would spend months planning your activity – the products, the services, the experiences and ensure everything was in a place with a plan. This plan would link to tangible actions and supported by robust procedures.

Indeed, you would just limit your action to just placing two candy cane emojis next to your brand name on social media and call it Christmas. You would do more, a lot more.

It’s About Action

This is all feeling a little negative, isn’t it? And I don’t want you to feel I don’t support brands that are acting responsibly. I really do – but do you know why? Because they are doing something.

So, let’s make a deal, oh patient reader, for the rest of this article I will move away from the negative and instead focus on celebrating the brilliant and inspirational work brands have delivered to both addresses their difficult heritage and showcase the positive steps they are taking to make the world a little better. 

 Natural History Museum

Personally, I love this approach by the Natural History Museum to both celebrating Pride and addressing their institution’s record on engaging with indigenous cultures and race in general and the deep roots of colonialism. 

They are being honest about the issue and making it clear that both know they need to do more and making a promise to do so. It is a deeply complicated issue but by tackling it head-on they have the opportunity to build more supporters and advocates.

Their Pride content caught my eye too, and just because of the beautiful, bright imagery used.

What they have done here is augment their content to celebrate LGBT+ people and their contributions whilst also keeping to their aims of educating and celebrating the wonder of the natural world. The Pride flag is composed of colourful aspects of nature, creating a stunning example of the beauty of the world and the beauty of Pride in one image.

Trixie Cosmetics

You’re thinking to yourself, Drag Queen makeup?! Yes, a successful makeup range, targeted at a female audience and developed and marketed by a superstar Ru Paul’s Drag Race alum (and winner).

Trixie Cosmetics has strong values at the heart of their brand, they have been donating to bee protection charities since their inception and during the recent BLM protests, they took decisive action on their channels.

For such a light-hearted and frivolously fun brand (they have just released a series of YouTube videos where Trixie cooks using a children’s toy – worth a watch) to change their tone so dramatically showcases their true brand values and commitment.

Again, this reads authentic and is backed up by the actions of Trixie Mattel herself on her personal channels. As a TC consumer, you can trust in their activism.

What you can do to support and celebrate

  • Tell their story – promote ways your audience can support the cause
  • Tell your story – tell people what you have done and continue to do to support – the initiatives, the donations, the products that support the donations
  • Make any statement meaningful – speak from the heart and avoid meaningless language
  • Don’t just do it for the day, week or month of the campaign – embed the cause into your communications all-year-round by promoting your continued activism and support

Remember, when you align your brand to a political or philosophical movement it isn’t as easy as celebrating a season – it isn’t placing a filter on your existing logo or placing two Jack O’Lanterns emojis next to your name for Easter (I don’t have anything against emojis or seasonal activity, I hasten to add!).

It is a much deeper, more meaningful act, one that should be authentic and backed up with action. This action doesn’t have to be huge programmes or donations. Instead, it can and should be about the robust HR procedures you have in place to ingrain diversity and inclusion in your organisation or your ethical purchasing policies. Customers do care about things like this, and anything you do will put you above your competitors, so don’t be shy about showcasing what you are proud of and what you can and will improve on.

Of course, I’m all for marketing that cuts above the noise. You should absolutely take advantage of the news cycle, but only when it really means something.

Trust me, your customers and your employees will thank you for it – with loyalty.

Happy advocacy.

Practice what you preach – click here for links on how to support Black Lives Matter.