This episode of Marketing for Good is all about words, words, words! Erica takes a deep dive into Dictionary.com, Big Duck, and Lake Superior State University words to avoid lists. She talks about overused words and phrases specific to marketing, ableist and racist language, and explains function words versus content words. Erica particularly looks at ‘we are all in this together’, ‘tribe’, ‘best practices’, ‘new normal’ and deconstructs why these might not be the best terms for you to be using in your marketing.
This is a transcript of Erica Mills Barnhart on the Marketing for Good podcast. You can listen to the episode here and listen to more episodes on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. Enjoy!
SUMMARY KEY WORDS
words, people, normal, list, marketing, tribe, best practices, norm, community, question, pandemic, mindfulness, term, point, phrases
Erica Mills Barnhart
Like many of you, I look forward to the words to the words to avoid advantage lists when they come out every year. They offer a super interesting snapshot or retrospective of the year in our rearview mirror, and 2020 being what it was, this year’s lists are like, they are like a magnifying glass for the weirdness that was and still lingers. So I thought it’d be fun for us to spend a little time with the words and phrases that are on a few of these lists just to see what we might learn from them. So Lake Superior State University has compiled a list every year since 1976. So they’re the senior ranking member of these lists. Big Duck has been specific to nonprofits and social impact organizations, and since many, if not all, listeners care about making the world a better place, I thought that would be a good one for us to take a look at together. And then dictionary.com and many others, but you know, I happen to kind of resonate with with dictionary.com‘s list this year, for reasons that we’ll we’ll chat about. So we’re gonna look at these three lists hear where words they come up with, but first, I think it’s important to, like, look at what do these lists really mean? Because it’s not actually, despite the name, about banishing or completely avoiding so much as being mindful. By the way, mindful is something we’re going to talk about in our next episode, when I share my conversation with Jeff CrasnO. He’s the CEO of Commune, which is a mindfulness and well being community online and also there’s an app for that, which if you haven’t checked it out, and you’re interested in, wellbeing or being healthy, or mindfulness or any of those things, I highly encourage you to check out. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you might just look at their resources on yoga nidra game changing. Okay, I digress. So the list, you can interpret the information from these lists as you might information you get when you use the wordifier. Alright, so the wordifier is the online tool that I created, which tells you which words if you’re a nonprofit, so it looked at all the words on 2503 nonprofit websites, because that allowed us to generalize at a 95% confidence interval to the entire nonprofit sector. So you clack in a word, and it will say, should you, you know, use it as much as you want, use it with caution, or avoid it. And again, similar to these lists, when we say avoid, basically what it’s saying is, Hey, that word is used a lot. Okay? And the reason that matters is because the more something is used, including words, the less we notice it, the less we notice it. So for instance, how many times have I used the word and in this podcast so far? You probably haven’t even noticed or notice the word you know, or, and that’s because those are function words. They’re functional, like a comfy, well worn sofa, you don’t really like notice it when you use it. But it’s there for you whenever you need or want to. And you don’t really have to give it much thought, right? It’s just there. So these words actually make up the vast majority of the words we use. According to James Pennebaker, who’s a professor at a University of Texas, Austin, or Houston, I forget UT, function words account for less than one 10th of 1% of your vocabulary, but make up almost 60% of the words you use. So these are ubiquitous and you don’t notice them. So if you’re thinking about trying to get somebody’s attention, right, with your marketing and your messaging, yes, you’re gonna have to use them. They’re functional. However, you just need to know that folks aren’t going to pay attention to them. What about the word mindfulness or mindful? You might not know exactly how many times I’ve used it in this episode. But you know what? You probably would be able to guesstimate pretty darn well, because mindfulness and mindful are what’s referred to as content words, and therefore they’re used much less often, and therefore, our brains notice them. Alright, make sense? So as we think back on 2020, and we move forward to 2021, what can we learn in terms of which words and phrases will pique the brain’s interest and which might be ignored or worse, which might just straight up irritate your audience when you use them. Single words off these lists will be content words, whereas the phrases might be a combo, like we will be a combo of content and function words. Okay? So each list is a little bit different in it’s intent. So, let’s start with Lake Superior, again, senior ranking member. So they say on their website that they curate a list a list each year, and I quote, “to uphold, protect and support excellence in language by encouraging avoidance of words and terms that are overworked, redundant, oxymoronic cliched, illogical, nonsensical and otherwise ineffective, baffling or irritating.” Oh my, with that, here’s their list, in the number one spot COVID, COVID-19 and all variations thereof, social distancing, we’re all in this together, in an abundance of caution, in these uncertain times, pivot, unprecedented, sus as in suspicions and then last but not least, I know, right. So that’s their list from Lake Superior. We’re gonna get back to a couple of these terms after but I want to get through the list first. So so you know what they are. Dictionary.com hones in on and again, here I quote, “words that were once cool, become obsolete, meaning shift, and sometimes we realize that words once thought of as harmless, are actually inappropriate and even offensive.” So their list goes like this dumb, psycho powwow, lame, crazy, OCD and tribe, you likely hear a theme. This is largely words that in line mental health issues dumb, psycho crazy OCD or physical issues such as lame. Those make up the majority of the list. And the two remaining words, powwow and tribe are now inappropriate because of their origins. We’re gonna talk more about tribe here in a second. So if you’re interested in diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, any any of those and hold those as values. This is a really interesting list to spend a little more time with. And if this isn’t, you know, new territory, new territory for you and are intriguing, I’d encourage you to listen to episode 15 from this podcast with Elizabeth Ralston on making marketing accessible to all and or depending on how much time you have, episode 29 with Ian Adair, who talks about the stigma around mental health needs that still persists. Okay, let’s turn our attention now to Big Guck. Their focus is on the fact that their quote, “everyone may read the same sentence slightly differently, but the goal is that they will all leave with a shared understanding or connection.” So words that I may intend one way you may hear differently, and they’re looking for examples of that, so that we can be attentive to those missed opportunities. So their list is as follows: pivot, unprecedented, now more than ever, diversity, best practices, master, tone deaf, blind to, other ablest language, again, episode 15 with Elizabeth Ralston is kind of a masterclass in this so great one to listen to, they go on to have low hanging fruit. And they also include change maker or change making. This is in there, they say this specifically it they have a long list because it is like mission driven. So for their audience, which is nonprofit and social impact organizations, their point is, this should be pretty obvious and so maybe there’s a better way to use the real estate. So get specific about how your change making or what your mission is, as opposed to just saying it. One thing I appreciate about all of these sources is they explain why the words and phrases are on the list, how they are explained how they source the words, each of them uses a slightly different method. And they offer alternatives to these because like you, at least I end up reading then I’m like, Well, now what for a number of them. So it’s awful, right, it puts the wheels of linguistic change in motion. So let’s talk about three of these words in a little more depth. And then one word that I was surprised wasn’t on any of these lists. Because it was hard to pick to be honest, like really what I want to do is talk about each of these. However, what I was focusing on is words where there’s an element to them, that is very specific to marketing. So the first one from a Lake Superior’s list is we’re all in this together. Now anytime you see the word we anytime see pronouns, and this is, you know, right back to James PenneBacker’s wonderful work, you really want to hit the pause button. And you want to be asking yourself, when I say we does the person receiving this or hearing this, do they see themselves as part of the we, right? Or not? If they don’t with pronouns, you always run the risk of actually alienating people further who aren’t part of the we yet part of your community, part of your organization, part of your mission, whatever it’s going to be. Okay. So be attentive to that. The other thing about this phrase, so there’s the pronoun piece, there’s also we’re all in this together. Yes, true, globally, we all went through this pandemic called COVID and it impacted different people differently. Communities of color, people of color, those living in marginalized communities, those living with invisible abilities or disabilities and challenges like this just really had a disparate impact. So to glibly say, not that any of you would glibly say this, however, I have seen this a lot, right? We’re all in this together. And that the intent behind that is fantastic. And you want to make sure that for your audience, people are going to be nodding along with you like, yeah, okay, we all are all in this together, because otherwise you run the risk of sounding and I’m going to use a term from the list, no I am not, you come off as being like, inconsiderate, right? Not tuned into the needs, wants, like where your audience and your community are at. So definitely use with great caution, this expression, we’re all in this together. All right, the word that I want to focus on from Big Duck’s list is actually tribe. No. Yes.Tribe is from dictionary.com, not Big Duck, I retract. I’m a fan, and have been since it came out, of Seth Godin, his book called Tribes. And he in that book, he describes tribes as follows: “A tribe is any group of people large or small, who are connected to one another a leader and an idea. For millions of years, humans have joined tribes, either religious, ethnic, political, or even musical”. His example is think of the deadheads. So okay, that seems innocuous enough. However, dictionary.com gives a little history on the word tribes. And it goes like this “usage of tribes dates back to the 1200s and derives from Latin tribus, which originally related to the divisions of voting groups in ancient Rome didn’t know that. So that’s a fun fact. But here’s where things get dicey. “Tribe has been used throughout history by colonizers to describe indigenous groups throughout the African and American continents and many consider the usage to be offensive, because it promotes stereotypes about native cultures”. And they go on to point out that, you know, casual use of tribe glosses over these important issues and popularizes, a word that has harmful connotation for many groups. So I started using tribes when I got a little tired of the vagueness of community for and again, from a messaging perspective, I have nothing against community, I love community. But from messaging perspective, it can be so vague as to like not resonate with folks who either are part of your community or you want to invite into the community. And in the examples, they give the alternatives to the word tribe, they give four and I’ll read them just because I thought they were really interesting. The first is these people are my soulmates, find your people, we are kindred spirits, and I’m so grateful for this community. Okay, can we just, these people are my soul mates and we’re kindred spirits. I feel like this is a little bit risky territory, unless you’re like a dating site. I’m just saying those to me have a connotation could just be my mind share, I don’t know. Let’s go to communities because we’re right back there to community so safe, so cozy, so boring and vague. So what do you do about this? Right? Community is important when it comes to a lot of the work that listeners of this podcast are doing. I think the thing to be mindful of, attentive to, is what do you mean by community? How can you give it contours? How can you make it specific, so that people know if they are part of that community? And or if they want to be a part of it? I mean, are you talking about co workers, your community of co workers generally? Are you talking about your co workers who are also fellow lovers of a strong cup of black tea with a dash of milk and sugar, listeners of this podcast know that’s my favorite tea combo. Or a different type of community might be people who are hell bent on figuring out how to eradicate Follicular B Cell Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Okay, that’s a type of cancer. Now, you may be listen to me, like, Oh, my gosh, Erica, I’m not going to get that specific, that makes me very uncomfy just listening to you talk about that. That’s totally fair, right? That is totally fair. You care deeply and passionately about the work you’re doing. And often what comes with that is a yen to appeal to as many people as possible. If you’re having that moment, push pause on this episode and go listen to episode five, Who Are Your True Believers? Because in that I kind of lay out the case for specific in marketing equals effective. All right, and just I want to honor that feeling of like, but I want it to resonate with as many people as possible. Yes, and yes. And so go listen to that. And be thinking about every time you use the word community, what do you really mean? Okay, that brings us to the term best practices from Big Duck’s list. I’m shining the light on this for many reasons. I mean, we see in marketing like daily daily downpour, really of marketing best practices. And I want to say that I have put out to the world some of my own ideas about best practices. So here is why that term is dodgy. I’m going to read this from Big Duck‘s website, they explain “this is less about the phrase itself and more about the structures and norms it’s reinforcing. In most instances, whatever has been designated as best practices has been done so within the context of white dominant culture, as many of us continue learning and growing our understanding of ingrained societal oppression, it’s important to remember that these best practices come from a point of view that reinforces existing harmful structures. Question the practices and mindsets you’re advocating for and how they may fall short, or where they can be expanded to include other ways of thinking.” In some, and to paraphrase, you know, really question best practices. Most of the time, when we’re looking for best practice, like if you really think about the Google search, you’re looking for a surefire, proven way of doing something. So the point here is, there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, we all want surefire ways of doing something, right. It’s efficient, it’s effective, it’s all these things, the question becomes surefire, are proven by whom, and for whom, and make sure that the best practices that you’re considering adopting align with your values and make sense for your community, whatever that may be. It just don’t take them at face value. Okay. So there’s also an element, just a little bit state the obvious here of gatekeeping with best practices. And I sort of said this, like who’s saying that that’s a best practice? If you’re the one saying it, you’re making determinations about, you know, knowledge and access to knowledge and who should know what? So that’s, I think that, you know, we’re, I’m hoping we’re really gonna see some shifting in this idea about best practices over the next few years, curious to see what happens with the term itself. What the best practices around the term best practices end up being, but more profoundly, how does it shift our idea about knowledge and norms. And on the topic of norms, I was super surprised that one term wasn’t more, more or less, and it was the term new normal. So Big Duck, you know, explain this a bit. But the concept of normal implies, by the name itself a norm, an enormous something that is usual typical, or a standard. In North America, many, many, many norms and standards have been largely dictated by white folks and more specifically, white cisgender men. That’s just the history of it. Right? So that is a standard against which so much has been gauged, measured, considered, adjusted, all of those things. So we’re hearing a lot about the new normal since we’re at the sort of point where we’re kind of emerging from the pandemic. But also we’ve we’ve had this dual pandemic or this racial reckoning and racial reckoning that has been happening in parallel with this health pandemic. So talking about a new normal, there’s an opening there. And it’s great that we’re questioning my concern is does this new normal move is far enough beyond the old normal? If normal, the normal is in the mix, change is hard. The new normal would I mean, it does by definition, is relative to the old normal. So how far, how far are we really going to go on that? I’ve heard better normals suggested and I like that, but it still leaves us with this issue of a standard. Similar to best practices, who decides that standard, right? Marketing normal or normalcy, historically has led to like a lot of yuckiness weirdness and straight up lies, sometimes, I mean, let’s say perfume. Perfume ads, in general send the same message like you could take off the perfume itself and sort of slap on any perfume and the ad would look eerily the same. You know, it’s like spritz of it and if you’re a woman you like, ephemeral and waifish and of course, sought after, and if you’re a guy you’re of course lusted after, what I find particularly interesting about many of the perfume ads is that they involve water, like people coming out of the water, and just, this just shows how practical I am. That just doesn’t make any sense. Like if you put on the perfume, and then you’re in the water, you’re not going to smell the perfume. So I don’t know, they lose me at that. I do understand that they are selling the benefits of looking that way to the feature, which is the perfume, but still why the water that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, what about things that are normal to put into our bodies we’ve like evolved a bit we understand that cigarettes are bad to inhale into our bodies. That’s normal. But what about like, that’s now normal, the norm has shifted over time, which is possible, right? This should give us hope. But we’re left with things like alcohol, right and it’s normal to drink alcohol and this enormously reinforced I mean, look at the ads. We just had the Superbowl recently. Look at those people. Gorgeous, happy, fit, fun loving, what’s not, you know what’s not to want in that and those Budweiser Clydesdales majestically hauling ass through the snow year after year. If you take a big step back, there isn’t anything normal that ingesting alcohol, it’s technically poison. Weird. And yet we hold it dear. I’ve just experienced this firsthand as I’m taking a protracted break from drinking alcohol for a variety of reasons, none of which are super extreme. But when I mention this, people were like, did you have a problem? And this cracks me up. And you know, if you’re interested in this, Annie Grace’s book, The Naked Mind is wonderful, very inspirational, very brasstacks, all in one. And she points out, which totally resonates. It’s like, if I were taking a break from cocaine, I was like, Hey, I’m taking a break from cocaine. I just can’t imagine anybody would be like, Oh, did you have a problem with cocaine? It’s like, well, I, you know, I’m sticking white stuff up my nose and that seems kind of not so great. Well, we would take it for granted. But alcohol is totally different. Even though if you look at the information, alcohol is really pretty darn bad for us. It’s the seventh leading cause of death and disease in the US. It’s a known carcinogen. It’s like really bad, but 82% of American adults drink it. We think nothing of it. That’s the norm. That’s the norm. The most expensive ads you’ll ever see on TV, are alcohol ads. There’s a lot of money behind perpetuating this norm. And it’s, I mean, it’s really a testament to the power of advertising and marketing’s role in dictating societal norms. Again, all of this isn’t the spirit of judgment or good, bad. It’s just like, that’s interesting. Let’s pay attention to that. And let’s wonder where our norms come from. If I mean, if we’re going to be going into the new normal, we have to grapple with this stuff. What about norms around beauty, women are told, as a woman, I’m going to speak more to this. But similar things or you know, men grew up with similar narratives. As a woman, we’re told from a very, very young age that beautiful equals thin, white blond hair and blue eyes. And we see this all around us, the preponderance of ads, and I’m saying this as a white, blond haired, blue eyed woman. Okay, so so I can tick off three out of the four. Okay, my blonde isn’t maybe what it used to be, but we’re gonna let that go. And I’m the first to acknowledge that because I take three out of the four of these boxes, just by happenstance of embodying this norm, the genetic lottery as it will, right? Yes, and I benefit, I did nothing to deserve this and yet a benefit that is unearned privilege. And even with what do I focus on? The fact that I’m not the size of the models in the magazines, right, I’m not a size zero or two, never have been, never will be. This is completely irrational standard for me to hold myself to. Rationally I know this is asinine, and yet, and yet my subconscious mind keeps circling back to the standard berating me for the fact that I do not, I am not of that standard, or of that norm is that normal, that doesn’t seem normal, right. And we could get into a whole bunch of subconsciousness, which we will, as it relates to marketing, and you know, 80% of our thoughts every day are recycled, we have 60, 70,000 thoughts in our brain, on a daily basis, 80% of those are recycled, and the vast majority are negative. That’s so messed up. Like, if you think about it, if you think about the way you quote unquote market to yourself every day, it you know, the way you want to market externally would be exactly the opposite of that exactly the opposite. Yet, that’s what we’re up against, right? So we perpetuate this singular version of beauty. When it pretty much is messing all of us up. It’s reductionist, and it doesn’t serve us we know that rationally. And yet, so it goes and this is shifting a little bit like I feel like this is one of those examples where there’s hope. And people like Katie Sturino, founder of Mega Babe, author of the 12ish blog, the genius behind #makemysize, if you want a little digression and you’re on Instagram, check out #makemysize where she’s just beautifully inviting, you know, big name fashion brands and companies into this new this new normal right saying so what she does is she goes and she tries on the largest size in any store. Usually it looks ridiculous and doesn’t fit her at all because she’s like a size 16/18 depending. And she just is like, hey, I love your stuff, could you make bigger sizes? That’d be awesome. She has such an endearing way of doing it. It’s totally worth checking out. She’s seriously trailblazing. Right? And she’s making the old normal look stodgy and irrelevant, passe. We still got a long ways to go on this but we are making a little bit of progress. I mean, I’m not saying the Victoria’s Secret Angels have fallen, okay. But that size zero standard is slipping a bit, it would see. So I add new normal and definitely normal to the list of words to which we want to be attentive going forward into 2021. Because its, its implications are so far reaching and because normal is such a normal word, we kind of gloss over it, even though it’s a content word. It’s a content word, not a function word. So our minds might notice it, and what might be surrounded with, how might we question that? As we were invited to question all the words and phrases on these lists, what they mean, what we intend, is what you’re saying, landing on the ears, the minds, the hearts of the people that you’re communicating with, and you want to connect with. No good or bad, just raising the questions right? So deep appreciation to Lake Superior, Big Duck and dictionary.com and all the others who take the time to harvest these terms and really give us an opportunity to question the language we’re using and see what we want to avoid and what we want to embrace. Let’s give all of these words a good think. Don’t good, be well, and keep being awesome.