Why Word Choice Matters

Photo by Erick Zajac on Unsplash

Pointing out errors in grammar or word choice on social media has become ill-advised these days. I’m an editor so it bugs me, but in those kinds of forums it probably doesn’t matter. Instead of “educating” it sidetracks discussions into just more of what social media has become: yelling, name calling, choosing sides.

Yet, the words you choose when you need to tell an important story still do matter. A lot.

Two causes, in the news almost daily, are great examples: Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police.

Right here, I want to make it clear that I back both causes. I even hesitated when naming this post because I don’t want to trivialize Black Lives Matter. Don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here. They are two of the most important issues of our time. Seeing the issues clouded by their word choice is part of my motivation for this post.

Black Lives Matter

Black activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi are credited as co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Network. They have openly stated that there is no central structure or hierarchy for the movement, and they aren’t interested in creating one.

That could explain why BLM “could be the fuzzily applied label used to describe a wide range of protests and conversations focused on racial inequality,” according to Los Angeles Times staff writer Matt Pearce.

Any of us paying attention knows that systemic racism is real. Opportunities, equal treatment under the law, even hope, are not available in the same way to people of color, compared to Whites and other people who are well-to-do simply from generational advantages and wealth.

The issues behind Black Lives Matter are real and important. But the word choice for the slogan opened the door wide for anyone wanting to distract and discredit. It’s a real problem for the movement and without a doubt is slowing down progress for the people behind it.

Wikipedia lists opposing groups who’ve jumped on with reactions: All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, White Student Union, White Lives Matter. Unfortunately, the truth of Black on Black shootings and murder, and the glorification of it in song, is the most obvious way to derail the message. If Black Lives Matter, why can Black people ignore that truth when “the streets” call for a killing?

As with any marketing brand tag line—trivial as most tag lines are compared to these troubling issues—what determines the brand is what you do, not what you say.

I don’t want to dive deeper into a discussion of the BLM movement here. My point is that choosing the words for any message is critically important. And this “fuzzy” message was not well chosen. Anyone who is fighting for the cause would have been better served with more thought put into the movement name. Now it’s become a liability.

Defund The Police

Does anyone really think the backers of this movement want to totally abolish the police? There may be a few on the fringes with that goal, but overall, I don’t think so. Yet that’s the easy hammer wielded by opponents of this message. Instead of gaining traction for the idea of taking a hard look at ever-growing police budgets, opponents can simply paint a scary picture of lawlessness overtaking our communities. The lazy slogan choice also creates skepticism about its backers since such a mission is clearly not practical. Again, word choice is distracting from the ideas being put forth rather than helping reinforce them.

With the constantly blaring megaphone of social media, that ain’t the way to get things done folks.

How to make the right word choice

What should you do to make the right word choice and create the right message?

As a WASP male from one of the most privileged places on earth, it would be absurd for me to think I could redo the messaging for Black Lives Matter. Cullors, Garza, and Tometi live in that world every day and would be right for that job.

Instead, I’ll use Defund The Police for this example. There really is a thoughtful message here, of not just pouring more money into police departments. Especially with all the issues police have to deal with these days, like homelessness and mental health. It’s about redirecting funds to probably more effective organizations. And about rethinking police mindset and tactics. But it’s hidden by poorly chosen words.

Here’s one process toward finding the right message.

First make a list of what you want to be known for and the issues you want to solve. Something like this:

  • Reform our police force from a new perspective of truly protecting and serving all people
  • Fight the militarization of police tactics and weaponry
  • Prod government to reexamine police budgets
  • Gain more visibility and oversight of police for citizen groups
  • Expose systemic racism in policing
  • Examine the role of police union control in sustaining the problem

There may be more, but you get the concept. The idea is to start to see a group of words that can come together in a simple, overarching message. Like these from the list above: reform, protect, serve, all people, militarization, tactics, budgets, visibility, oversight, racism, control. Then start a list of possibilities.

Don’t make them all angry. Angry doesn’t sell, provokes quick reaction, and is easier to criticize. Lots of your first attempts will be duds, but the more you try, the better they’ll get.

  • Defund The Police (current)
  • End Police Military Tactics
  • End Police Militarization
  • Police Reform Now
  • Reform Police Budgets
  • Cut Police Budgets
  • Reform Police Funding
  • End Police Budget Growth
  • Back to Protect and Serve
  • Police: Protect and Serve Again (to borrow from right wing messaging – how can they argue?)
  • Protect & Serve Everyone
  • Expose Police Militarization
  • Expose Police Abuse
  • Citizen Police Oversight
  • Keep going…the more you think about it, the better they’ll get

Then cut your list to a few good ones, that sound good too. Examine them from lots of directions and with any possible criticisms in mind.

  • Reform Police Funding: Pretty straight forward if the group wants to stick to the idea of funding as the heart of policing problems. It includes the goal and could easily encompass issues of militarization, reducing the scope of what police should do, and retraining.
  • Expose Police Abuse: Another good possibility. It implies the rooting out of racism, militarization, union overreach, and getting back to protect and serve. It’s got a little more bite to it too.

Neither are easy to argue against. Both messages also aren’t easy to polarize. Reform Police Funding can’t possibly be twisted into “get rid of the police” as opponents of are doing with Defund the Police. And who’s not against police abuse?

Underestimate word choice at your own peril

This principle applies whether you’re selling a cause, business, or product. So remember:

  • Don’t give your opponents an easy target to distract from and discredit your mission.
  • Choosing the wrong words confuses people and makes it harder for them to understand what you want to accomplish.
  • With a little thinking and careful choice, you won’t waste valuable time defending your message, but instead can make faster progress toward your goal.

In informal discussions, if word choice isn’t perfect, it can be overlooked and the message can still probably come through. But when your cause needs staying power and affects people’s lives, it can be the difference between success and failure.

Update: Since I wrote this post, these comments from Rep. Jim Clyburn, Democratic House Majority Whip, have echoed and reinforced my message here: “James Clyburn: ‘defund the police’ slogan may have hurt Democrats at polls