March 9, 2016

Language is more important than you might think. How we say something is often just as important as what we’ve said and the language you use online is always interpreted as an extension of your brand. You are what you talk. So learn how to talk good in this installment of Digital Diner.

Language is a window

It’s often said that language is the window for our minds; a way to see the world at a distance without directly experiencing it. At the most basic level, I can tell you that a pan is “hot” and you understand what that means without having to touch the pan yourself. Most people even find it difficult to imagine things that we have no language for – as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (he said it in German, though).

the language you use online is always interpreted as an extension of your brand

But a window doesn’t just let you see out, it also lets others see in, and how we use language may provide a glimpse into how each of us, individually, thinks about things. As linguists like Deborah Cameron have long argued, simple things like how we talk about women vs men can have a deep impact on our culture. Beyond individuals, then, how a company uses language on the Internet becomes a cultural extension of the brand. It becomes less a window, and more a storefront; the public face you present with every word you write. This is how thinking about the language we use can help us reflect on the message we’re sending.

Talk Good on the Internet

So how can you make sure you’re using the right language? How can you avoid becoming the next Justine Sacco? Well… unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to prevent yourself from saying something stupid. But there are some rules of thumb you can keep in mind.

Use the plainest possible language when you can. Don’t tell someone you want to “strategize collaborative ideation sessions” if you just want to schedule a meeting. Don’t “ramp up your potentiates for leveraging self actualization” if you just want people to know they can make their own decisions. And for crying out loud, quit trying to “disrupt” anything. Plain language is about talking to people in a way that most everyone will understand.. But, of course, don’t go too far with it.

the more diverse your pre-readers are, the more likely it is you’ll catch a gaff before you’ve committed it to cultural memory

You may have a company style-guide for writing, but apart from issues with capitalization and punctuation, it can’t really help you. More often than not, guidebooks and official reports purporting to tell you how best to speak and write are neither good guides nor linguistically sound. If you’ve got a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style lying (laying?) around your office, throw it out. Who cares if you’re saying less when some people think you should be saying fewer? If you have to check the manual for how to say something, then just say something else.

Instead of thinking of the style, think of the readers. Have a system in place so that every piece of text you put forward online has already been read, even something as small as a Tweet. Keep in mind that the more diverse your pre-readers are, the more likely it is you’ll catch a gaff before you’ve committed it to cultural memory. Because above and beyond everything, our society is becoming more connected and more pluralistic every day.

Digital Language

Thinking about how we use language is fundamental to the way we do business now. For the last couple million years of human interaction – right up to the late 1990s – our primary way of communicating with each other was through talking, and that was usually face-to-face. When we talk to each other, we have an entire communication system of shrugs, smirks, and tiny changes in tone of voice that convey a world of information beyond the words we speak. But in the digital world, all that secondary information is lost – we’re increasingly text-talking nearly as much as we voice-talk.

online language is solid; you are the language you use online

Unlike spoken language, digital language becomes solid online. When we talk to each other, a phrase misspoken or a joke that falls flat thankfully has the opportunity to fade away. But in digital communication, our words are far more permanent. A particularly bad blunder online has the potential to be co-opted, remixed, and re-presented, forever changing the way people view your brand. You are the language you use online; don’t be afraid to engage with the tools of digital communication, but never assume that what you say will be understood as you intend it to be. A few safeguards in getting from draft to post is the best way to maintain brand integrity in this newly permanent world we’re living in. And of course, throughly proofreed everythng!

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Douglas Bigham
March 9, 2016

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Douglas Bigham is a Content Specialist at Four Kitchens; he's a writer and ex-academic with a background in digital publics and social language use. He likes dark beer, bright colors, and he speaks a little Klingon.

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