Mark your words: three ways to write more inclusively.
Charli Nordone, Group Creative Director at The Writer
Words are powerful. They can excite, engage, entertain, inform, persuade. But they can just as easily shut people out. That’s where the idea of inclusive language comes in – avoiding words or phrases that can offend or ignore parts of your audience. And instead, writing for an audience of everyone.
Here are three things you can do to get your words working for you, and the people who read them.
1. Check your job ads for gendered words
According to Total Jobs, the five most frequently used male-gendered words in job ads are: lead, analyse, competitive, active and confident. And the most frequently used female-gendered words are support, responsible, understanding, dependable and committed.
A 2011 study by Gaucher, Friesen and Kay showed that women found job ads with male-gendered language to be less appealing, and they felt to belong less in those jobs. Men found job ads with female-gendered language to be slightly less appealing, but it didn’t affect their sense of belonging.
By using a significant number of either male or female-gendered words, you’re setting yourself up to appeal to a particular gender, and have people deselect themselves, regardless of their expertise and experience.
I’m not suggesting we do away with words like ‘lead’ and ‘support’ entirely, or that people are setting out to write intentionally biased ads. But we should be checking our job ads to make sure they’re not unfairly weighted in one direction. This gender decoder tool is helpful.
We recently put out a post looking for a Senior creative consultant, this is what it said:Sock-knocking-off creative work. Meetings that ping with lightbulb moments. Clients wooed and wowed. Briefs interrogated, solutions created, ideas generated. Find out what else makes up a day in the life of senior creative consultant.
We put it through the gender decoder and it came back as being neutral. We helped ourselves there by focusing on what that person will achieve, rather than describing the type of person they are. Achievements over traits, can help shift your mind away from unconsciously using gender-biased language.
And like with any piece of writing, we got a second opinion before it went live. You could make it the norm to even get a third or a fourth. Especially from people who can give you a different perspective from your own.
2. Ban the business-speak and jargon – it can exclude people
The problem with business-speak and jargon is that when a writer uses it, there is almost always some work on the part of the reader to figure out what it means. Who reads the words ‘synergy’, ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘holistic approach’ and doesn’t have to take a beat to translate it into normal speak? And all too often you never do quite figure out what the writer means exactly.
When you’re not in the know – when you can’t immediately call to mind what that three-letter-acronym means or why you’re being told to ‘peel the onion’ – you feel excluded.
So encourage people to do away with business-speak and jargon, unless it acts as a really useful shorthand, and you’re sure that everyone involved knows exactly what it means. You can also encourage people to ask questions, and call out that kind of language when they see and hear it.
Opting for more everyday language is going to be more inclusive, because it’ll be readily understood by everyone.
3. Be prepared to let go of language
There are words and phrases that we’ve probably all used, perhaps not knowing where they come from or the connotations they carry. Like:
- ‘Blacklist’ – lots of tech companies have moved to ‘blocklist’, and away from terminology that associates ‘black’ with something negative.
- ‘Long time no see’ and ‘no can do’ – it’s thought these phrases come from people mimicking and mocking non-native English speakers. You can easily say ‘I haven’t seen you in a while’ and ‘I can’t’ instead.
- ‘Tipping point’ – Merriam Webster has a blog on this phrase, and says “when tipping point first began to be employed in general use, it was almost entirely in reference to the propensity of white families to move out of an area when a certain percentage of the neighborhood was composed of black families.” You could use ‘turning point’ instead.
Most of these phrases have become divorced from their origins, and aren’t being used to intentionally offend or exclude people. But when it’s so easy to think of alternatives, why would you not?
There’s a reason this article says ‘start creating a culture of inclusive language’
These three tips are just for starters. You can also be looking at your tone of voice, is that set up to help your people write inclusively? Are you training your people to give them the skills they need? Are you looking back at your employee journeys, your policies, your forms, and seeing how those can improve and include?
That can sound like a lot of work, and perhaps a little overwhelming. The trick is… to start.