Why we don’t use the word “staff” – how copy communicates value

The words we use make a big difference to how people perceive us – and it’s no different for brands. In today’s blog post, RH&Co founder Rin picks through the vocabulary choices she has deliberately made in order to make a subtle statement about our values as a business. What impression do the words you use make about your brand?

You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just get a feeling about them that you don’t like? You might not quite be able to put your finger on what it is, but you just sense that they’re a bit arrogant, or condescending, or untrustworthy. 

Chances are that if you were to analyse the language they used in their conversation with you, you’d be able to spot a few words that helped you make this impression.

The words we use are incredibly powerful in communicating our personalities and our values. Naturally, as a writer, I find this fascinating. But is it something that you as a business owner or marketer should care about? I would say yes.

Building a brand one word at a time

Brands are built on a million small things. Just look at how much thinking goes into the colours in a logo, for example. Businesses can spend thousands working out whether a particular shade of green is likely to be seen as trustworthy or whether a sample group of clients feels a  certain shade of red feels aggressive rather than bold.

Language is similarly important. Your brand voice says a lot about who you are as a business. Are the words you use passionate or playful? Sassy or serious? Are you informative or irreverent?

Today’s consumers care about company values in a way they haven’t in the past and they’re more likely to spend their money with businesses that have similar values to their own. So it’s vital that you are clear about who you are as a business and what you stand for. And that you communicate this not only in what you say but how you say it.

Here are some of the language choices we’ve made at RH&Co and the reasons why we’ve made them.

A statement about relationship

There’s something about the word staff that makes me think about Downton Abbey. If I were to talk about “my staff”, I feel like it would immediately place them below me. It would suggest a hierarchy that simply doesn’t exist at RH&Co.

Instead, I always talk about the team, because that’s how I see us all. Yes, technically they’re employees and I’m the “boss” (another word I can’t abide!) but that’s just not how we work. We operate as a cohesive whole. No one tells anyone what to do. We respect each other’s positions, skills and experience.

In the same way, I always talk about the people who work with me rather than for me. The way I see it, we’re all working for the business, because the business is all of us. The better the business does, the better we all do, and vice versa. Again, it’s a team effort.

Creating a positive impression

At RH&Co, we try to speak in a positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t say things that might inherently have a negative aspect. It’s just that we try to use language and phrasing that presents it in the most positive way possible.

For example, when talking about our website health check, we might tell prospective clients that this service will help them identify what’s working and what’s not. But we don’t want the focus to be on what’s not working, which is negative.

Instead, we talk about where there might be room to get their copy working even harder for their business. In this way, we keep the focus on the positive end results of changing that copy which isn’t working.

What does this have to do with values? Well, as a business we want people to feel encouraged rather than disappointed. Yes, there’s a lot of really terrible website copy in the world. Yes, there are many businesses that aren’t blogging strategically. But being critical isn’t in our DNA. Instead, we’re enthusiastic about the possibilities for improvement and the benefits this can bring to our clients.

Language, gender and equality

There’s no getting away from the fact that we live in a world dominated by white, middle class men. In order for this to change, we need to make changes ourselves, both big and small. Language may not seem like a priority, but it can be powerful for shaping hearts and minds.

For example, as a society, we tend to default to a male pronoun. I notice this a lot when I’m talking to my children. They will often refer to, say, a toy or a creepy crawly in the garden as “he”. As a result, I make a concerted effort to use “she” as often as I can, as in “Oh look, a caterpillar – isn’t she colourful?”

In a work context, we recently had a client who adjusted a phrase we’d written, switching the original “he or she” for “she or he”. Again, an incredibly subtle difference but so easy to change and, along with millions of other small changes, important in the long run. 

Of course, this particular conversation will need to continue as more people choose not to identify with an assigned gender at all, preferring the pronoun “they”.

In the meantime, other ways we try to address the gender balance in our language include making sure never to refer to women as girls, and avoiding adding a gender reference where it simply isn’t needed. For example, there’s no need to talk about a female CEO, a female surgeon or a female engineer when CEO, surgeon and engineer will do just fine.

One or two words or phrases taken in isolation might not seem like much. But they make a difference. That’s why our strapline reads: you don’t need many words, just the right ones. If you want to talk to a professional about your business’s brand voice and core messaging, get in touch to find out how we can help.

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