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24 June 2020

Why words change the world


As we celebrate National Writing Day, the fourth annual celebration of the power of writing creatively, Jason Dowty examines how words can change the world and the lessons for organisations who have a responsibility to get words right.

Words matter. In fact, words can change the world.

When the deafening sound of a gunshot rang through the Memphis sky on the evening of 4 April, 1968, it sent shockwaves around the globe.

The tragedy that unfolded robbed us of one of the greatest civil rights campaigners of all time, but it could not rob us of his words.

Martin Luther King made hundreds of speeches, capturing the imagination of future generations. But it was just four of his words that made an indelible mark on the world.

‘I have a dream’ took a second to say, but evoked hundreds of years of injustice, illuminated by hope and a belief that justice would prevail. It also proved that a few masterfully chosen words, spoken from the heart, have the power to shape history.

Of course, his words still resonate now, but the struggle against injustice continues, amplified in three equally small, but emotionally charged words: ‘I can’t breathe’.

Just as before, these are words that have united the world in defiance and will no doubt echo for decades to come.

Whether it’s Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ or Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, there are endless examples of words that have changed the course of history.

Those statements may be brief, the words chosen simple, but they stand out in a sea of soundbites because of the professional writing craft behind them.

On the flip side there is plenty of evidence that a few ill-chosen words can have a divisive and damaging impact, either on society or the individual who throws them into the public domain on a whim.

Communicators take heed. In an age when submitted content and social media is becoming a defacto choice for messaging and campaigns, you shouldn’t embrace it at the expense of expert writing or careful planning.

Equally, don’t underestimate the cost of getting things wrong. Using the wrong communications channel or a poor choice of words to share a sensitive message can easily destroy your reputation.

Just ask businessman Gerald Ratner or Labour aide Jo Moore who, many years later, are still defined by the few words they got horribly wrong than for anything else they achieved.

So, yes, words matter and, while we have a world of powerful tools at our fingertips, they also bring an added responsibility to get things right.

As communicators, we need to ensure our organisations understand this, so they harness the potential of all the channels available, while retaining brilliant writing.

This is too business-critical to leave to trial and error. If four simple words can change the world and unite society, it stands to reason that words can change your business, your culture and your people – for better or for worse.

Did you know?

The iconic 1914 army recruitment poster: ‘Your country needs you’ is simple, impactful and effective – but would it have been so successful with the original wording? The first draft used a quote from one of Lord Kitchener’s speeches: ‘Men, materials and money are the immediate necessities. Does the call of duty find no response in you until reinforced – let us rather say superseded – by the call of compulsion? Enlist today.’

It was redesigned by Alfred Leete with those four famous words and became a classic example of succinct writing that gets its message across.