Bad language is killing your reputation

Written by Ben Skelton

At last count, I have worked through 10 crises since we rang in the new year. From clients to friends, family and flatmates we’ve had a hell of a first few months of 2019. To be fair, 2018 probably wasn’t much different.

The thing is, none of these were actually a crisis. As English speakers we have become lazy with our language. Misappropriating words like ‘crisis’ or ‘traumatic’ or even ‘amazing’. And it is all because we LOVE drama. Why else would a show like Married at First Sight be in its fifth season.

The man currently sitting in the White House is exceptional at this. Case in point – despite the majority of his constituents being opposed to it, he called a national emergency just so he could get his own way. And in doing so has made people believe that the situation is an emergency that needs drastic action, where seemingly no emergency existed before.

Now, here is my disclaimer – I am a PR professional who quite literally makes half my living from creating attention-grabbing stories and the use of hyperbole. The other half is spent on managing reputational issues so that they don’t blow up. Ironic, huh?

What I have learned in time on the front line is that it takes years to build a reputation and only a few words can tear it down.

Business culture has a lot to answer for in the war on words. We love throwing around words like ‘critical’ or ‘urgent’, but they are often used to describe things that are anything but. Do you know how many times I’ve been described as ‘essential’ when all I did was turn up to brainstorm with a few ideas?

Whilst I’m a huge advocate for positivity, I believe the incessant use of superlatives to describe products and people is driving diminishing returns. The word “greatest” is so overused, I barely register it anymore.

The real impact of this is that it discourages nuance, diversity or context and ultimately makes us all a bit stupider. When it comes to building your business reputation, this is a genuine problem. With so much competition in the market, communicating your difference is key to raising your brand’s awareness, driving consideration and trust. If words mean nothing anymore and we’re all numb to their real meaning anyway, what the hell are we supposed to do?

If reputational management was a sport it would be a marathon distance obstacle course. In other words, it takes time and a lot of effort to get through unscathed.

As Frank Cowell says, “Sexy doesn’t happen overnight”.

So, onto the ‘too hard’ or ‘not urgent’ it’s thrown, to be picked up as, and when, it is deemed a necessity. And see, right there, is where language takes over. We have conflated non-urgent with non-important and we’re missing out on building value into the foundations of our businesses

Reputation management only works if you actually plan for it. This means making business choices that will positively impact your reputation and embedding a culture that celebrates the way it articulates these choices.

In other words, build businesses that look out into the world and recognise that, in order to make a difference, you have to use the right words to capture people’s imagination.

Not taking the reputation of your business seriously from day one is a bit like feeding caffeine to your toddler.

Not only are you going to be manically chasing around after it, and constantly cleaning up the mess, you’re stunting its growth in the future.

So where do we go from here?

For starters, let’s stop being lazy about language. Let’s start taking responsibility for what we’re saying and use these words to make a difference.

Words shape our perception of the world, use them wisely.

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