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What are words worth?

Posted on 14 January 2015
We are intrigued by new digital channels, but while we focus on the technology, WM Housing's PR & Communication's Officer, Georgette Wright, makes the case for content and particularly our choice of words.

A simple choice of words

There’s a line of dialogue in the 1995 film ‘Dead Man Walking’ that changed the way I thought about language and how we choose our words.

Susan Sarandon, plays a character called Sister Helen Prejean. She befriends a man on death row, upsetting the parents of a teenage boy he has murdered. When she meets the parents at a court hearing, they are angry that Sister Prejean never took the time to meet them and accuse her of arrogance. Unable to put the incident out of her mind, she’s decides to visit them. They are not happy to see her and she responds by saying,

‘Can l please speak with you?’

At the time, we would more usually say,

‘Can I please speak to you?’

There is such a difference in wanting to talk 'with', rather than 'to' someone. One suggests dialogue, the other a monologue.

I vividly remember sitting in the cinema, rooting for Sister Helen, relieved when she crossed the threshold. Yes! You did it Sister, that was the right choice of words. In the darkness of the cinema; it made me smile.

Words set the tone

Our choice of word sets the tone for the relationship we will have with many of the people we provide services for. I believe you are more likely to encourage people to care for the place they live in if you refer to it as their home rather than as a property or that dreadful, almost Victorian word, dwelling. 

Words matter to people

When Optima joined WM Housing Group, there was a passionate plea from some tenants not to be referred to as customers, which is the Group’s preferred style for addressing tenants. They wanted to be called residents. Colin Williams, who is a resident and Board member said, 

‘If you call us a customer, it’s like putting a desk between us.’

With his words, he painted a picture that powerfully summed up the relationship he had with his landlord. If you’re interested, we now use a bit of both, but we mainly refer to our tenants as residents.

Choosing the right words

Word choice is important. We get into the flow of writing and when we’re busy, we automatically reach for a familiar phrase, but the next time you write something pause: 

  • Think about tailoring your words for your audience. Will they understand the jargon? Is English their first language?
    Think about what you are attempting to do. Are you breaking bad news, aiming to encourage or give instructions?
    Think about how you want the reader to feel. Motivated? A sense of urgency? A sense of belonging? A sense of your authority? 

My interest in words and how they used was rekindled after reading a wonderful book called ‘Copy. Righter.’ by Ian Atkinson. He’s been behind some fantastic advertising campaigns. I recommend you read it. It could help you choose the right words.

Words can paint a picture so compelling you’ll part with your money. They can obfuscate, handy in PR but use sparingly, we always know when an organisation is pulling the wool over our eyes and it’s infuriating. Jargon creates the impenetrable barrier for the uninitiated. Words can comfort, breed resentment and make you roar with laughter.

Share your story

What are words worth to you? What's the worst example of corporate jargon you have ever come across? What's your favourite example of great copy? Share your story in the comments box below.


Plain English Campaign 

Brilliant Copywriting’ by Roger Horberry, as an excellent alternative to Ian Atkinson’s book.
The Guardian Style Guide

Thanks to Mark McArthur-Christie @freemanchristie for this suggestion:

'Why I Write' by George Orwell

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