May 17

Inclusive language matters for all organizations

Organizations these days face what feels like an impossible feat: cut through all the noise to communicate to as many people as possible effectively and efficiently.

One way they can accomplish this is by doing a quick audit of the words and phrases they use when communicating with various stakeholders. The idea is to look for vocabulary that’s exclusive and elicits eye rolls – and replace it. For example, the often-used “citizen” and “family” aren’t inclusive and asking for “patience” is a surefire way to be tuned out or put on the defense.

Now, I’m not talking about combing through every inch of your organization’s communications footprint  and spending months and tons of personnel time on this project. An audit of your key messages or brand messaging and other often-used communications that come out of your organization is a great start.

For some organizations, this may mean taking inventory of the language you use on your website, social media and marketing materials. For municipalities, it may mean all of this plus meeting agenda packets and letters or postcards various departments send to residents – notice I didn’t use the word citizens. More on that a little later.

Ditch the jargon and alphabet soup

For municipalities, plain language guidelines offer tips for providing clear communication community members can understand – and use. For example, it’s best to avoid jargon, technical terms and abbreviations most people won’t understand. Choose your words carefully and be consistent in your writing style. It’s important to use everyday language that’s inclusive – it’s accessible and understandable by all readers regardless of ability, age, language, location or device and it’s easy to translate into other languages.

Plain language guidelines also establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration – goals many local governments have. Put in practical terms, it means that 400-page budget book chock full of inside baseball doesn’t serve your external stakeholders well. Bite-sized information that’s written clearly and concisely and pushed out early and often in various ways – website, social media, newsletters, community forums, etc. – is the best route.

Most, if not all, of us have heard we should write for a reading level of age 9 or younger. If the topic is on the techy side, it’s best to aim for a reading age of 12 to 14. Our audiences shouldn’t have to grab a dictionary or do a Google search to understand what we’re trying to tell them. I was reminded of this recently when I had to figure out five acronyms – also known as alphabet soup – in one email. Who has time for that?!?

Some words just need to be replaced

So, let’s get back to the exclusive words I mentioned above.

Municipalities love to use the word “citizen,” which, at face value, may seem inclusive – after all, Merriam-Webster tells us it means “an inhabitant of a city or town.” In reality, “citizen” has become a politicalized word local governments may want to consider replacing with “resident,” “community member” or “neighbor.”

This change is a simple yet impactful way municipalities, including public safety departments, can promote community engagement and collaboration – and be seen as a trusted neighbor vs. the big bad government ruling over the people. You know, as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it: A government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Organizations think they’re being more friendly and relatable when they use the word “family.” Merriam-Webster’s definitions are anything but inclusive of the varied households that make up our communities: “The basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children,” “a group of individuals living under one household and usually under one head” and “a group of persons of common ancestry” – just to name a few.

As a married person with no children who certainly doesn’t live under anyone’s head but my own, I don’t see myself in the word “family.” I’m pretty sure my single friends and gay friends as well as college students, empty nesters and residents doubled up because they can’t afford housing on their own would say the same thing. That’s why “loved ones” or “household” are better alternatives. They’re inclusive of the various types of living arrangements we see in our communities.

And the next time you start writing “thanks for your patience” in a social media post or newsletter, you may want to consider changing it to “thanks for your partnership.” We know patience is at a premium in our fast-paced on-demand world, and being asked for patience when a road construction project has added 10 minutes to one’s drive can be perceived as uncaring and clueless. Acknowledging your stakeholders’ partnership is just another small yet significant way you can be seen as a trusted partner.

There are many more words and phrases organizations use on a regular basis that deserve attention – and replacement – as they look to cut through the clutter to reach their audiences. Take time to figure out what makes sense for you and your stakeholders – it’ll pay huge dividends.

Happy auditing!


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