Monday, September 24, 2007

Using Words to Capture a Revolution

It's only words, and words are all I have,
to take your heart away

The long journey to Lovemarks has taught me the importance of language, and (as important as it is) I’m not talking about the ability to communicate clearly. I remember talking with Alan Webber way back in 2000. He had co-founded Fast Company in 1995 with the determination to create a different kind of business magazine and he turned out to be one of Lovemarks' early supporters. He printed one of my early forays into how to transform marketing. “There are only two things wrong with brand management. Brands and management.” Alan and I are both passionate about how the market can engage with people in more authentic and inspirational ways. He was convinced that whoever controls the language controls the debate. In The Lovemarks Effect he said: “If you get the language right, if you can change the way an issue is framed, you can begin to woo people into thinking about things your way because language is so powerful.”

I was reminded of Alan’s comments recently by the phenomenon of ‘greenwashing’. Apparently the term has been around since the early 1990s, but has gained huge momentum in the last few years. I guess it’s because business and governments are scrambling to enhance their green credentials by taking short cuts and their critics are less than impressed. It’s easy to ‘go green’ by making claims, but it’s a huge challenge to ‘be green’ for real. Greenwashing is a powerful word carrying all the baggage of ‘whitewashing’, plus the bad karma that goes with it. Its limitation is that it is a label, not a call to action. It points out what’s wrong but doesn’t show us what’s right. What I’m after are those rare words that capture a major shift in attitude and truly change how we think and act.

One of the most compelling examples I know of is the way New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport changed from reporting car ‘accidents‘ to reporting car ‘crashes‘. A single word transformed crushed metal and broken bodies from an unexpected event that was no one’s fault, to a devastating result. If you have any words that have unleashed authentic emotional responses, let’s share them.


Susan Plunkett said...

Wow. Both an evocative and provocative lead today. I believe the 'call-to-language' vital and yet let's caution a moment about language exclusiveness. I observe huge assumptions in some societal movements that the general populace will naturally know a term and that simply isn't the case.

So term creation and mash-ups (here I'm applying a jargon term) can be vital and wonderful and bring intrigue just as much as they may confuse and alienate.

"It's only words, and words are all I have,
to take your heart away"

These are simple words and yet words connected into (for me anyway) an identifiable rhythm that gives rise, not to memories directly, but to echoes of emotion and sense making. So if we choose words for impact, lets not always look to complex but words that sing rhythmically when we score them with others.

When you look at wall graffiti or messages - given they are one of the true open public media - what words are repeated most often? Live, love, die, power, 'for'..

As you point out in your lead, accidents-to-crashes removes a euphemistic layer and drops the issue back to what it really is. Let's take away "road toll" and talk about "death" directly as another example.

I have no singular word I currently consider worth throwing on the table to meet your challenge. However I'm arguing a return to roots, use of rhythmic language, explanation of terms when they are created so that the power inherent in words is not always kept exclusive.

Emotions are words and they carry all the outlined criteria. Match emotions with reality words and you've probably got a potent mix?

Fear love.
Smile at hate.
Sad at silence.

Susan Plunkett said...

killjoy had power as a single unit.
And don't they say that in a written advertisement the most powerful word is:

Susan Plunkett said...

This is sure a thinking topic. I opened a news site and saw a campaign against anorexia which an emaciated model and the word "No!" written on the side.

I have been thinking that in addition to the criteria I offered earlier, the juxtaposition of word and image is so very important. Context means a LOT.

"Sorry" can be flaccid or powerful depending on context. "Hear me" can be potent if placed against a visual of a blind person (yes, I meant blind person). "I've not forgotten [you]" can be magic when placed well. "You've changed or challenged my thoughts"..ahhhh.. :)

Context helps address the con job or what is trite.

Susan Plunkett said...

Full metal jacket

It came to me. This was a name or phrase that really 'unleashed' within. And that was well before I saw the movie (which I cried over and could not bear to watch again).

As a phrase or term this said, sex and power and intrigued.

David MacGregor said...

Kevin, you are right and that is both good and bad at the same time.

The phenomena of UnSpeak is on the rise. Stephen Poole has written an excellent book on the topic. he describes Unspeak as 'a mode of speech that persuades by stealth'.

Organsations and individuals reframe a topic with language that is intended to distort or pervert understanding in order to promote their own agenda or mitigate actions or inaction.

For example Global Warming was the convention for describing 'the inconvenient truth' that the by-product of human activity is an increase in greenhouse gas and a correspondent increase in temperatures on earth - with an array of negative consequences.

Poole quotes a 2003 report by Republican Party pollster Frank Luntz in which he advised in a section titled 'Winning the Global Warming Debate':

"The terminolgy in the upcoming environmental debate needs refinement. […] It's time for us to talk about 'climate change' instead of global warming

…While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge."

Subsequently the White House adopted his recommendation and the media took the bait.

The book cites many perverse linguistic twists. After continued use they become part of the lingua franca - rooted in everyday use without question - often associated with dubious political ideas: Pro-Life,Pro-Choice, War on Terror, Anti Social Behaviour, ethnic cleansing, economic transformation…
The list is as long and Orwellian as you like.

As professional communicators we have a duty to our audience - the people who buy our client's products and who 'own' their brands.

Provoking an emotional response is not a positive thing in and of itself - learning to 'love the bomb and stop worrying' is not always good thing.

There is something to be said for straight, plain language.

I'm a fan of the classic Volkswagen ad campaigns that ran from 1959 into the 70s. I'd go as far as to say they are a Lovemark. One of them has advice that I think is germain to this conversation. It's copy , placed next to a blank VW - 3 column - big picture with logo - ad template says:

How to do a Volkswagen ad.

1. Look at the car

2. Look harder. You'll find advantages to fill a lot of ads. Like the air-cooled engine, the economy, the design that never goes out of date.

3. Dont exaggerate. For instance, some people have gotten 50m.p.g and more from a VW. But others have only managed 28. Average 32. Don't promise more.

4. Call a spade a spade. And a suspension a suspension. Not something like "orbital cushioning".

5. Speak to the reader. Don't shout. He can hear you. Especially if you talk sense.

6. Pencil sharp? You're on your own.

So you are right. Language is crucial. But it should promote trust and understanding. Not suspicion.

Kempton said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for touching on this hot topic. Love the example of images invoked by car "crashes" vs car "accidents".

Now, I am biased but for a world class documentary about global warming and the political tactics deployed by strategists and "scientists" subtly spinning the words! (note: the 40 minutes video is available as a link at the right side of the window in the follow link.)

By the way, an insidious term is "Greenhouse Gas Intensity".

"Greenhouse gas intensity is a ratio of greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions per unit of economic activity (GDP or unit of production such as barrel of oil). Because economies and many industries grow, GHG intensity can decline while GHG emissions continue to rise."

Josephine said...


well currently I've had to look at how words and communication are more powerful than we think and that before we use words whether written or verbal we need to think how will this come over to somebody else, something that I will admit I haven't done or thought about until recently.

Words I would like to put out there because I have only recently realised the importance of them and what they truly mean and how they can affect emotions,

Responsibility, Trust, Confidences,mentor, Forgiveness,Authenticity, Love, time (as in sometimes you have to give people space and time)


Josephine Fay

Susan Plunkett said...

Great thought provoking post david.

Steve said...

This a great topic - but I'd like to take a bit of a tangent...

Internal Communication!!! (cue evil music!!!)

Internal coms is the WORST form of communication ever. Most stuff I see come through my internal inbox during the day is tripe, trite and incredibly demeaning to both the reader and the author. And, most times, it doesn't even get the message across. Like in David's post, I agree that words being "climate changed" are everywhere, such as "strategic engagement survey" (a customer survey) or an "organizational development tool" (still not sure what this is).

I work for a non-profit that deals with alleviating poverty...our new internal catch-cry...

Make kids give a damn about poverty...

Simple huh. And let me tell you, it has caused a stir. But, it's great. Everything we do now, we question it's ability to make kids give a damn. It cuts through the crap - every other department knows what our game is, they now implicitly understand why we do things the way we do, and they even get excited by our work, waiting to see what we come up with next.

Imagine if the word were care

Wouldn't have turned anyone's head. Really, we should have made it f**k.

Piotr Jakubowski said...

You know, we just had this conversation today and we discussed the brand equity that one word holds (a concept developed by M&C Saatchi).

The power that one word holds is so great, that many people just don't understand it.

Speaking of greenwashing, we also brought up the fact that BP had been going green for a while. They are seen to be a "green" company. But alas, just recently they were reprimanded for dumping waste into Lake Michigan. Not very green if you ask me. In my eyes, the company has some explaining (and making up) to do.

My word:
Initiative (there are 4 i's in it ;) )

Susan Plunkett said...

Clever device there Piotr. :)

Kevin Roberts said...

To all – Thanks for your comments on this, some fabulous insights here!