The wrong choice of words, no matter how well-intentioned, can have a powerful and unintended effect. We have a striking example of that in the business events industry with the recent resignation of Paddy Cosgrave, former CEO of the Web Summit, Europe’s largest tech conference. Cosgrave stepped down from his position a little more than a week after posting comments on X (formerly Twitter) condemning Israel’s war in Gaza. In part, he wrote, “War crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies and should be called out for what they are.”
Those words caused a backlash. Several big tech companies, including Amazon and Meta, withdrew from the Web Summit in Lisbon on November 13–16. After a nearly 600-word statement and apology did nothing to repair the damage, Paddy Cosgrave resigned, saying: “Unfortunately, my personal comments have become a distraction from the event, and our team, our sponsors, our startups and the people who attend.”
We live in troubling times, making the need to choose our words carefully and understand our audience more critical than ever. Recently, I spoke about the power of words and why the words we use can be a conduit for good or evil or to sway public opinion. In an increasingly divisive world grappling with global conflicts, pandemics, climate change, political divisions, right versus left, concerns over AI (and the list goes on), every word we say or post online matters. Our attention spans are getting shorter (currently in the range of 8.5 seconds), and social media and algorithms can literally spread what we say like wildfire.
According to biologist Dr Mark Pagel, through language we are able to ‘implant our ideas’ into another’s mind. “The words we use and how we use them are very important as they shape the way we perceive the world and participate within it.”
An interesting example is when scientists started to sound the alarm bells on our planet by using the term ‘global warming.’ Some argued that it made no sense that the planet was warming when we were at the same time having record-cold winters and an abundance of snowfall. Simply put, the term ‘global warming’ was not effective in expressing the urgency of a planet rapidly warming. That rhetoric shifted from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change,’ but even that term doesn’t create a sense of crisis or urgency.
Back in 2006, marketing genius Seth Godin pointed out that we have “a muted reaction to our impending disaster” of the climate crisis because of the words used to describe it: ‘global’ means good, ‘warm’ is usually positive, even ‘greenhouses’ are good places. “If the problem was called ‘atmosphere cancer’ or ‘pollution death,’” he wrote in his blog, “the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.”
By simply using the word ‘cancer’ over the word ‘change,’ our thoughts immediately reflect on a planet that is ailing or sick. It is a simple example of how words we use can change our thoughts on a subject.
There are numerous examples, such as describing one country’s government as an ‘administration’ while calling another country’s government a ‘regime’ or using the term ‘men and women in uniform’ to describe one army while calling the opposing forces “thugs” or ”rebel forces”, one can quickly see how this can conjure images in peoples mind that is good or bad.
Far too often, people in powerful positions use words to sway opinions in favour of themselves, in a way that is not necessarily good for the recipient, company, country, etcetera. Just as often, the recipient of these words does not realise what is happening to them if they do not take the time to reflect and understand that great communicators can use words for good and evil. This is especially the case with children, when they are at the most vulnerable stages of development, and look to their parents and teachers as a powerful source of support and encouragement.
As leaders, even making small tweaks in our language can make a big difference in encouraging our teams. In his recent book Magic Words, Jonah Berger, PhD, marketing Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, shares how, by adding just a letter or two to a word, your chances of getting people to respond to a request you make of them goes way up. He gave the example of a communication meant to encourage people to vote. One group was sent a message to “please vote”, while another group was sent a message to “be a voter.” It turned out there was a 15 per cent increase in the likelihood among those who got the “be a voter” message that they would actually turn out to vote. That’s because “people know that they should take certain actions,” Berger said, “but they care more about their own identities.” Describing someone as being an “innovator” rather than just “being innovative,” Jonah Berger said, speaks to their identity and makes it seem like their creativity is a more stable and persistent trait.
In everyday language, we use words to inspire, motivate, show empathy, teach, and convey thoughts and ideas. Every one of us has a choice in the words we use to communicate and the consequences our words have on the recipient(s), organisation or society. Take time to reflect on the words you use, re-frame your thoughts when necessary, always consider the intended recipient, and seek the best possible outcome. Remember the adage/proverb: Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.