Our words are the ultimate tool to cultivate meaningful connection. They hold power. They can harm or they can heal.
As professional communicators, we’re in the business of fostering meaningful connection–and that starts with building trust. It’s imperative to think about how we’re impacting those on the other side of our screens.
We all come from different backgrounds, experiences and privileges. What’s commonplace for one of us may cause harm for another. The way we communicate, the content we share and the stories we tell may unintentionally trigger others. We risk alienating our audiences and breaking rapport.
Four things to always consider:
1. Can I edit to improve clarity?
In a great piece of writing, sentence structure is varied, but clarity and conciseness are what matter most for accessibility and comprehension. Hemingway Editor is a great tool to remove unnecessary words so you can ensure power and clarity. Jargon and industry lingo have their place, but they aren’t appropriate for a broader audience. Consider all those who will be reading your piece—what would be difficult for them to understand? Do you use too many?
2. Do I use confusing metaphors or violent phrases?
A powerful message starts with the right words and subject matter—take care to ensure your content is compelling for all the right reasons. The language of emotionally accessible writing is nuanced, but avoids any indication of violence, judgment, abuse or objectification. You can verify the safety and accessibility of your content through the following considerations:
- In this work, am I telling a story or depicting a scenario in which violence plays a significant role? Can the details be spared without minimizing the impact? Should a content warning be included to let the reader opt out?
- Are there indirect references to violence and abuse in this work, such as figures of speech (“take a stab at it”)?
- Do the nuances of my language imply that a particular group does not have autonomy or that they must be controlled?
- Are my words charged by judgment? Am I using language with negative connotations? Could I be implying or inferring something between the lines with my word choice? Am I operating from a place of respect and dignity for all, no matter their circumstances?
3. Am I stereotyping or making assumptions?
The virtue of inclusiveness is not to ignore the differences between us—it’s keeping those differences from becoming barriers to meaningful connection.
Powerful content is always created with someone in mind. Your content should be tailored to your audience, but not at the expense of their individuality. Remember the people that make up your audience are just that–people. They are more than a hypothesis or a sample to be studied. It’s not recommended that you write to satisfy everyone, but you should consider who can relate to your content. For all the people who will see it, who will be able to recognize themselves in the work?
No matter how specific your audience is, avoid stereotyping or pigeonholing them–for all they have in common, your ideal customers will be diverse in terms of cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Create content that honors the humanity of those on the receiving end. To do that, we must avoid putting people in boxes, making assumptions about their identities or reducing them to their characteristics. Be intentional about referring to others as people first before anything else: For example, “a person experiencing homelessness” is a thoughtful, empathetic improvement from “a homeless person.”
4. Am I taking too much credit?
There’s no such thing as a cure for all ills–especially when many of those ills are systemic, pervasive, cultural and deeply personal. Even though your work may have a hand in bettering someone’s life, assuming it has all the ingredients for happiness, health and well-being would be a disservice to your audience. Remember that you don’t have all the answers, and don’t give the impression that you do. Be humble in acknowledging your impact (including your limitations).
Our sources and more:
The Trauma-Informed Writing Guide, National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health
Inclusive Language for Marketers: A Pocket Guide, LinkedIn
What is Trauma-Informed Care? From the University at Buffalo Center for Social Research
The Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism