November & December theme:
“Choose One Thing”
Posted in :  Brain Waves
Language creates. Whether written, oral, or visual, language puts thoughts into a form that can have meaning for others. It allows ideas to be accessible and actionable. Without language our ideas don’t exist. How we choose to express an idea, then, is vital both to its existence and to the meaning it holds. 

Image source: Dr. Seuss and

How much do you scrutinize the language your organization uses to create itself? Do all your forms of outreach sound and feel uniquely you and bring the meaning of your organization into sharper focus or do they sound like something you have heard it before? Many organizations operate from the point of view that if they sound like others in their industry then at least they can’t be making any big mistakes. Two problems there. First, sounding like others does nothing to distinguish your brand so there is the opportunity cost. Second, you actually might be doing damage by saying or implying something that is contrary to what you stand for.

Take, for example, the expression “giving back.” Google it and you’ll see that it’s used by organizations across the board. But what is it saying? What meaning does it create for organizations that use it and for people who hear it?

The sentiment behind it, that an organization has enjoyed a certain measure of success and now wants to return something to the community, sounds nice enough. What can also be heard, though, is the implication of dependency. The term overtly suggests that the act of giving is contingent on first getting. I’m sure this isn’t the intention of those who use the term but it is absolutely present in the words. For that matter, so is the echo of a child yelling, “Give it back!” after having a toy stolen by a sibling. Words, images, and even behavior are all forms of language and all come with interpretations and associations that need to be carefully considered.

So, what if someone in your organization suggested incorporating the phrase “giving back” into your communications? Would the fact that so many other companies already use it be reason enough to O.K. it?

Would you be comfortable with the interpretation that you are only giving because you have first gotten? Or, would you choose to be seen as giving with no strings attached and put the extra effort into finding an expression that is right for the meaning you want to share?

We operate in an era where people want to know what it is the companies they support stand for. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss’s Horton the Elephant as he sat on egg that was not his: mean what you say and say what you mean. As an organization’s most visible representatives, senior leaders need to stay keenly aware of the language they and others in their organization use to create it. The question always has to be, “Is this language right for communicating the meaning and purpose of this organization and motivating the people we are trying to reach?”

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Posted by: Bruce Kaechele
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