Defusing Your ‘F bombs’ ….

The power of language to support change


I read a great article recently in PR daily by Michelle Mazur which presented a spot-on countdown of dehumanising corporate jargon words including the use of the word “resource.”  Michelle wrote, “If the resource you’re referring to breathes air, talks and has a name, it is best not to use the word ‘resource’”.


Michelle then went on to point out that it’s a perfectly fine word if you’re referring to a copy machine, paper clip and the like but people are different to staplers.


I loved the article because it made me smile – and I completely relate to the sentiment – but also because it highlights that words are a big deal, they matter in so many ways.  For example we analyse the comments of our politicians to death, squeezing out hidden meaning, scrutinising them for wriggle room.  Then there’s social media, this gives us the biggest archive of words ever, recording indelibly our musings from the good and great to the gaff and gopper (hmmm I couldn’t put my finger on a better ‘G’ word- any suggestions?).


But to ping a spotlight on here, something I’ve been working on again recently when defining our DNA is the power of words to support change.  In our organisation we have over the years developed our own language.  I’m not talking something akin to Esperanto here – although that could be fun! – I’m talking about developing a whole load of talk stuff that has supported our culture and along the way been a part of making changes.


So here are my 10 tips to finding language that supports and develops a great culture.  In no particular order…..


  1. We’re “colleagues” not “staff” – strips out a bit of hierarchy.
  2. We work in teams, not departments – chops out a bit of silo mentality although for me even “team” is starting to feel prickly and can have a feel of exclusive and cliquey groups. (But that’s a whole other blog!…. see Inspiration from the washing line and the so solid crew) I’m talking crews –
  3. On the topic of performance indicators pick something that humanises what you want to achieve. From the housing world take “void unit” vs “empty home” compare and contrast and I hope you agree option 2 is what it’s really all about.
  4. “A polite reminder” – polite! Really!? If you’re honest what you’re saying is saying here is ” how rude are you, you’ve ignored me once and now I’m getting just a teensy bit cross!” say what you mean.
  5. Job titles are a tricky one, do you go for the full on Innocentesque Fruit Towers “mango muncher” and hope everyone knows that “mango” is a euphemism for paperwork and “muncher” is all about gobbling up red tape or do you go for Administration Officer – which kind of implies officious “there’s a p785216j form for that”.  I really love what Innocent have done but something in the middle probably works better for most organisations.  And as for “officer” apart from the forces and police it does feel sooo outdated.
  6. Here’s a challenge: Are you up for reducing words? Do you really need to have a set of values, a mission statement and a vision? Could you strip down to a short set of DNA words or phrases?  Just think of the relief on your colleagues’ faces! We’ve just done this and ooooh it’s been liberating.
  7. Team names.  A bit like job titles there’s a danger of going too far, making people cringe or turning people off. As Michelle Mazur advocates if you haven’t already it’s time to rethink the “Human Resources”  label, and for me with Facilities under my wing I’ve been mulling over ideas recently. How about “space and kit” or “space services” but I think I might attract contact from would be astronauts. suggestions welcome.
  8. Which reminds me to mention “head office”.   Well, how important is everyone who works there then compared to anyone out in the field? Central services or support centre sounds better.  I love what Sainsbury’s have done on this, they call such ivory towers “store support”. I think this very beautifully puts what it’s all about first.
  9. Standard word sets – surely a no no.  I can’t think of anything less empowering.  I read recently that US store Wallgreens instructed their people to say “be well” as they finished serving customers.  Come on, a limp shameless and thinly veiled reinvention of “have a nice day”. And what do you say back? Discussing this with a likeminded friend he suggested a retort back to the cashier would be “live long and prosper” and we later added “if you don’t believe me I’ll give you a Vulcan death grip”. Surely it’s better to get colleagues to use the intelligence and personality you recruited them for and add a bit of them to their conversations with customers.
  10. And last but not least.  When it comes to describing your customer experience is “satisfaction” on the money? I’d suggested a “no” on this. A colleague once put this beautifully when he said: Imagine going home tonight and cooking your partner their favourite meal, candles, music the lot.  Then when you asked them if they’d enjoyed it they said “yes that was very satisfactory”.  Satisfied is not a terribly aspirational or passionate word however you use it!


This list is certainly not complete, I’d love to hear about language in your own organisation, whether it’s by design or default – it has impact.


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