19th Jun 2020
3 Min Read

Leading lexicons and lessons learned

Connor Faulkner
Connor Faulkner
Culture & Change

Thanks to caricatural leadership throughout the free world, politics, and the language that powers it, is now back in the hands of the people. It’s never been easier to have your say – which means our words and actions matter more than ever before.

We’ve never seen a greater change in how we communicate online than the paradigm shift the world experienced in 2016. A new tone was set in political rhetoric as the 45th US president was ushered into the White House. The following seismic shift introduced by Trump’s incendiary discourse, demeanour and desire for a supreme control over a new political lexicon, would empower the masses through populist ideals.

Peter Oborne, former chief political commentator for The Daily Telegraph puts it best. Aside from outlining the voyeuristic intrigue Brits seem to have with American politics, he suggests that the exclusivity of politics – and of language – fuelled a linguistic rebellion.

“Before Trump, politics had been captured by experts. They manipulated and policed public discourse. Trump humiliated then destroyed these experts. Trump gave politics back to the people who vote.”

– Peter Oborne, How Trump Thinks

A war of words

By shattering the exclusivity of politics, we’re now experiencing perhaps one of the most fluid, accessible and toxic arenas of ‘free’ speech around. I use inverted commas around the word free as we’ve seen through fake accounts and auto-posting bots, not all speech is free – some of it is very much paid for to create political noise at key moments.

Political allegiance aside, we’ve seen a marked change in language since Trump’s inauguration. We’ve gone from a vocabulary of accessible, measured and considered Obama-isms (his favourite openers include ‘look’, ‘folks’, ‘listen’, or even the occasional ‘screwed up’), to Trump’s comparatively militant – yet still wholly accessible – language (‘lock her up’, ‘witch hunt’, ‘build the wall’ and the dreaded cry of ‘fake news’).

So whether you’re yearning for bygone leaders or revelling in the current political climate, there’s no denying the significance of leaders’ language as it continues to trickle down into common usage. The crude language of modern American politics is the perfect antidote to those weary of the left’s hard-to-navigate academic language. Terms such as ‘centred’, ‘marginalised’, or ‘non-binary’ create a barrier for those who haven’t been brought up in a household that uses them.

So as we power through this post-truth world, feeling means more than fact. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can get away with powerful, emotive buzzwords – we still need to speak actionable, tangible truths in our industry, especially if we are in positions of power and influence.

Get off the bandwagon

Emotive statements are seemingly the only effective way to be listened to. And this fervent entitlement to be heard is being championed across the political spectrum – in their positions of influence, we should be able to look up and echo positive behaviour. Take a look at almost any response to the most inoffensive of Tweets, and you’ll see that doing some digging before voicing your opinion seems to be optional.

With the abhorrent killing of George Floyd, this vocalisation is now being put to good use as activists and savvy social media users fill Twitter and Instagram with anger and an attempt to educate the masses with their determination to change the world.

Although for a righteous cause, protesters are experiencing the same backlash we’ve become accustomed to, as commentators use emotion to get their voices heard – creating a rabid feedback loop of vitriol and ignorance.

As brands felt early pressure to speak up online, the urge to get involved, identify allyship and shared brand values became apparent. Many of these posts can be dismissed as low-cost brand reinforcement, or an attempt to appeal to the woke masses; a black square on Instagram does little to inform, educate or empower your audience to make a positive change.

But many brands and leaders opted for that simple approach; blank solidarity squares or reactive statements of feeling. It’s a dubious trend that hinders those sharing enlightening views and tools by clogging up social feeds. Pithy, powerful content is king: there’s no excuse for such lazy Tweeting – especially when tackling complex and sensitive subjects head-on.

Leading by example

Employees and customers will remember how brands responded to COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other impacted people of colour. So while emotion may topple fact, actions still speak louder than words. The lesson?

Lead by example in your use of language and the message you’re trying to land. Amazon, Sainsbury’s, Nike and Jordan Brand’s promises show their active commitment to being a force for change – all in a direct, meaningful and measured manner that holds them accountable in the future, too.

Knowing that your brand is taking action will provide more solace to shook customers than any empty statement – authentic, proactive leadership and brand reputation isn’t just a reputational boost. It’s now more essential than ever. Putting a face behind your statements – just like Ben and Jerry’s, Zoom and H&M.

To see how you can brush up your leadership lexicon and make your voice heard for all the right reasons, get in touch with us.

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