#22: The sacred power of words
A Q&A with writer and inclusive communications consultant, Ettie Bailey-King
Pass It On is a bi-weekly newsletter bringing the tech and non-profit sectors closer together through knowledge sharing, written and edited by Lauren Crichton.
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Greetings from (at the time of writing) a very sunny Stockholm!
Today’s newsletter revolves around one of my favourite topics: the power of words. It’s already popped up in a few Pass It On issues, such as the ones on how to use more inclusive language and build constructive linguistic habits. I’m thrilled to be diving deeper on both of these areas and more with today’s Q&A guest, Ettie Bailey-King.
Ettie is a writer and inclusive communications consultant (and fellow Pass It On reader). Ettie specialises in helping mission-driven organisations to articulate their purpose in a way that’s bold and brave, inclusive and accessible. “It’s not about polishing your words so that they don’t offend anyone,” says Ettie. “It’s about expressing your authentic values so that people know what you stand for and can get excited about helping you to achieve your vision.”
From common communication pitfalls to the tech industry’s response to sexual consent education, Ettie’s answers are rich in insight, beautifully-expressed, and respectfully challenging. They’ll leave you hanging on every word.
Nudging the world through words - with Ettie Bailey-King
Where does your love of words come from?
Words are magic! As a child, I was obsessed with reading and that feeling of being transported to another world by a great story. As I got older, I found out that it wasn’t just a feeling; words really do change our reality. Our brains are hardwired for storytelling, so stories shape how we think, feel and behave.
I love Lera Boroditsky’s research on how language changes the way we see the world. German speakers, for example, are more likely to describe a bridge (grammatically feminine in German) as beautiful, whereas Spanish speakers are more likely to describe a bridge (grammatically masculine in Spanish) as strong.
Language may be able to alter our memories. A 1974 experiment found that people who were shown a video of a collision and asked if they saw “the” broken headlight were more likely to report seeing one. Whereas people who were asked if they saw “a” broken headlight were less likely to say they saw one. There was no broken headlight in the video.
Metaphors can change our choices. Another study found that people support different policies depending on the metaphors that are used to describe it. When crime is described as a “beast”, people were more likely to support strict policing and harsher sentences. When crime is a “virus”, more people supported social reform, structural solutions, and treating violence like a public health issue.
Happy is up, sad is down. Time is money. Arguments are battles. We don’t just use metaphors, we live by them. In Metaphors We live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson unpick the metaphors that structure our lives, often without our noticing. When we see arguments as being battles, for example, we’re more likely to approach them as contests for victory. What if we thought of arguments like dancing? We might focus on fun and spontaneity instead.
So words can affect everything from our thoughts and feelings to our behaviour. I find that incredibly exciting. When we use language carelessly, it can exclude and oppress people. But when we use it thoughtfully, language can change the world.
You specialise in inclusive and accessible communication. Why is that?
Inclusive and accessible communication is the perfect mix for me. It’s intellectually challenging, because language is constantly evolving, and it has a practical impact, so it’s really rewarding to see small changes stacking up.
I call what I do “bold and brave” communication because it’s about helping companies, non-profits and individuals to lead with their beliefs, which can be tough. There are two elements: inclusive language, and accessible content.
Inclusive communication means choosing language that respects, values and includes people. But the aim isn’t actually to “include” people (as though asking to be let into a club built for White, wealthy, cisgender people). The aim is to completely change the standards around who gets valued, respected and kept safe.
We talk a lot about equality, diversity and inclusion, but it’s usually more accurate to talk about anti-oppression. In many cases, we don’t need to make workplaces more “diverse”, we need to stop them from actively marginalising marginalised people or oppressing oppressed people. Diversity is part of that, but it’s not the aim, it’s a byproduct of creating spaces that are safe for everyone to inhabit.
If someone emails me and asks me to “just check if this job description is sexist” or “give our website an anti-racism polish” I encourage them to look deeper. Our identities intersect. Someone isn’t Black in the morning and a woman in the evening, so we can’t include them by being gender equal one day, and anti-racist another. We’ve got to be holistic.
Accessible content means that everyone can experience your content, especially - but not only - disabled people. Some aspects of accessibility are technical (like structuring web content consistently, using alt text, making sure users can adjust visual contrast, text size etc. if you’re trying to make your content more accessible for blind people or people with vision loss). But ultimately, accessibility isn’t separate from inclusion, and it’s not ‘just’ for disabled people. It means non-disabled people can access your content on their phone, in poor lighting, when they’re tired, when they’re commuting, or their computer keyboard is broken.
When you get down to it, inclusion and accessibility just make your content better. Why would anyone not want to make their content more flexible, functional and effective?
You’re a former world-class debater, having taught debating and public speaking in settings as varied as prisons in the US and UK, investment companies, and schools including Eton College. What led you to teach in prisons?
A lot of people who are in prison have low literacy levels, and I’m always drawn to projects that help people connect with words. One charity estimates that half of people in prison in the UK can’t read or write to the level most of us need for daily life.
Being able to express yourself - in a way that people listen to - is essential for everyday life. There’s a metaphor we sometimes use about people who are marginalised: “let’s give people a voice.” But they already have a voice, they’re just not being listened to. The challenge is to equip people to speak in a way that will get heard, while fighting to change the structures that silence some people’s voices and amplify others.
Trauma can silence people, too. In my experience, very few people in prison are just “offenders.” They’re survivors and victims, too. When you’ve experienced massive trauma, there’s obviously no substitute for proper psychological support. But debating gives people a safe space where they can speak their mind, learn to articulate themselves more clearly, and get listened to and responded to in a respectful way. At its best, debating is a way of claiming the power of your voice.
How have these skills in debating translated to the communications work you do now?
Competitive debating is pretty focused on logical substance, but there’s also an emphasis on persuasiveness. Slick rhetoric won’t get you very far in debating, unless it’s paired with robust, seamless arguments. It’s made me a better advocate for the inherent pleasure of communication, of words that delight as well as persuade.
You’ve done a lot of writing for charities, helping them to develop their voice. What are some of the common communication pitfalls you see in the non-profit sector, and how can charities avoid them? Are there any crossovers with startup comms?
In start-ups, it’s overused words like “sandboxing”, “customer delight”, “rock stars”, “mavericks and dreamers.” In non-profits, it’s dry, lifeless argot like “let’s join hands to end [issue]” or “We’re calling for an end to [issue].” Whatever you’re talking about, jargon is fossilised language. It switches our brains off.
TRYING TO PLEASE EVERYONE
In non-profits, we often let our critics silence us before we’ve said anything. We say: “We couldn’t even tweet about that! What will our supporters say?” After the backlash that Barnardo’s got after talking about White privilege, many charities are understandably anxious about speaking out. But if we soften our messages to stay safe, we can’t express our authentic values. If you’re in the business of trying to change the world, you’ve got to tell people what kind of future you want to see. Otherwise, how can they get excited about that vision and help you achieve it?
DARVO apologies (“apologies” that deny, attack and reverse the roles of offender and accuser) are everywhere in both tech and non-profits. “I’m sorry if you feel like you were subjected to racism” doesn’t cut it. Brave apologies take complete ownership for mistakes, then outline credible solutions, so your supporters can still trust you even after you mess up.
In non-profits, we have a problem with the word “crisis.” We say: “There’s a housing/cost of living/childcare crisis.” And there is! But it’s not strategic in the medium or long term to keep saying the same thing. We become immune to it. So we need to be concrete, descriptive and imaginative instead, to help people understand persistent problems in fresh ways. A brilliant example is Thomas Coombe’s encouragement to reframe discussions about refugees. He urges us to talk about humanity, not migrants waves, and an opportunity for action, not a crisis.
A lot of your work in recent years has focused on gender equality and sexual consent education. Why have these been such important topics for you?
I’m really passionate about sexual consent, partly because I’ve experienced sexual violence myself, and partly because it’s a foundational right. We won’t achieve gender equality until we’ve created a genuine consent culture.
One of my favourite things about sexual consent education is finding new stories and metaphors to get away from harmful historical ones. I love Al Vernacchio’s argument that we need new metaphors for sex.
In the US, baseball is the dominant metaphor for sex (first base, second base, striking out, etc). It’s a competitive, scripted way of talking and thinking about sex. Vernacchio argues that we should talk about sex like pizza: you have pizza when you want it, for fun; you might want it on your own, or share it with people. You have a chat about the kind of pizza you want. Even if you’ve shared pizza with someone before, you don’t assume they want pizza.
The pizza metaphor is great because it puts pleasure in the picture. For a lot of us, sex ed was a barrage of medicalised warnings about unwanted pregnancies, chlamydia and HIV. How much healthier might we be if we all got the knowledge we need about sex, while also acknowledging—and this shouldn’t be radical—that sex is fun?
The tech sector has been trying to address sexual violence and sexual consent for years, with the Obama Administration’s Apps Against Abuse dating as far back as 2011. What’s your take on the industry’s approach and solutions?
There are lots of well-intentioned initiatives out there that miss the mark. Apps like iConsent (an app that creates a kind of contract for sex) make it seem like sex is something you consent to once, and can’t change your mind about. Then there’s the nail polish that claimed to detect some rape drugs, jewellery that doubles as a rape alarm, or defensive rings for runners.
If you’re attacked by a stranger, of course it would be great to have something like this. But most assaults are committed by people we know, often by trusted partners, in places like our own homes. So we can’t hack the patriarchy with another crowdfunded invention.
Focusing on defence makes it a women’s issue. It’s not. It’s a perpetrators’ issue, and they’re usually men. That’s why many of us talk about “male violence against women and girls” rather than just “violence against women and girls.” If we erase men from the picture, we’re letting them get away with it. Rape isn’t a women’s issue, just like racism isn’t a people of colour issue. It’s on men to stop sexual violence. And it’s on White people to stop upholding White supremacy.
These are the only practical tips for avoiding rape worth reading, because they speak to the right audience.
And now for the customary Q&A question! In your opinion, how can the tech and non-profit sectors come closer together?
I’d love to see both sectors taking a genuinely long-term view on value and impact. And what if we could redefine what we mean by productivity? That would be transformative. It might mean some private sector companies leading the way towards a circular economy, or more radically, it could mean embracing degrowth. I also wonder if the distinction between tech and non-profit could disappear, or at least lessen, so that all tech becomes “tech for good.”
Because I started my career in non-profits, I’m often amazed by things that are taken for granted in the private sector. In particular, I’d love to see more Agile thinking coming into the charity sector.
I know, Agile is such a buzzword. It feels like everyone is yelling at us to “Be Agile” and it’s not always clear what that means. But for my purposes, the Agile manifesto and principles behind it are all about responding to change, being flexible, creating things that work (but aren’t perfect), then testing and adapting again and again.
It’s unusual to see Agile in the non-profit world (outside of development teams). But in many ways, it’s a perfect fit. We’re working with so few resources, at high speed, and if there were more confidence to get products (services, campaigns, etc.) out there and test them, they could be so much more audience-focused. But there isn’t a big culture of doing that in non-profits. You’re expected to put out just one product, report, or petition and get it perfect the first time.
Last but not least: what three books have had the most significant impact on your work and why?
Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. It’s like Marie Kondo for your digital life. It made me (almost) okay with FOMO. The central idea of the book is that if you want to shut out the noise of digital distraction, saving your energy and attention for what really matters, you will miss out on some things. And that’s alright.
The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker. A brilliant exploration of how to make gatherings meaningful. Less focus on the things (the powerpoint presentation, water on the meeting desk, the coffee break) and more on purpose = the saviour of many potentially meaningless meetings.
Grit, by Angela Duckworth. Grit is “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” When I’m feeling like I’m not good enough and don’t have it in me to succeed, this book powers me through (or, you know, I take a day off).
And this quote from Tom Stoppard:
Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.
If you’re keen to build a culture of more considered communication, get in touch with Ettie via email@example.com or catch her on Twitter.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s issue. Are there any other tired metaphors and jargon phrases the tech and/or non-profit sectors need to refresh?
See you in two weeks 👋