Concrete Is Sexy, And Other Wisdom

Lessons in language from Anat Shenker-Osorio.

by | 20/10/2015

So popular is this wordsmith from the west coast of the States that she’s addressed Progress delegates in Australia every year the conference has been held. Here are four language lessons from Progress 2015 that we’re holding on to:

1. Be truthful with your words.

How often have we read headlines like ‘Wages are falling’ or ‘Inflation is tightening its hold on Australian households’? The first example makes wages and those who earn them passive. The second example personifies inflation as a tyrant whom we should fear.

Anat in her wisdom urges us to use the active voice to challenge people into action. Imagine a headline that reads ‘Pay people more’. Another insight: referring to people as ‘criminals’, ‘workers’, ‘the disabled’ robs them of their personhood and over-emphasises attributes that are not central to who they are. Speaking about people as, well, people, is a key part of what it means to be truthful with our words.

2. Ditch the haters.

There are three types of people in any audience: the lovers, the ‘persuadables’ and the haters. If I say, “Sydney is the best city in the whole world”, the lovers will agree with me, the haters will send mean tweets and, given good reasons, the persuadables will behave as their label would suggest.

Anat’s advice is to focus on the base of your audience – the lovers. But this sounds counter-intuitive, right? Surely what we’re trying to do with a good message is win the favour of people who aren’t yet with us. But if haters are gonna hate, we’re wasting time and money on them. The most effective solution is to give the lovers a message they want to share. To quote Anat: “A good message makes popular what we need said”. If you give the lovers the message, they’ll evangelise the persuadables, and eventually the haters will be loners, too! In theory, at least.

3. Concrete is sexy.

No-one likes jargon. (The word itself is a bit gross.) The answer? Avoid abstraction in your messages. Use concrete words; words that mean something. At Agency, we occasionally run our copy through this handy tool to reveal any vague, wordy garbage. (Anyone up for leveraging some synergy to empower some stakeholders?)

Anat recommends using the ‘People Do Things’ sentence structure to establish who the actors are. According to Anat’s compatriot Frank Luntz – another communications specialist who hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum – simplicity and brevity are the top two rules for creating words that work.

4. Solutions, solutions, solutions.

A good message – especially a political one about hot button subjects like climate change, gender equality or asylum seekers – is hopeful and will posit a solution. In Anat’s words, “Remember, people got ninety-nine problems: they don’t want yours”.

Progress is a conference for the Australian social change community. It’s put on by our friends at the Centre for Australian Progress. You can find out more about Anat Shenker-Osorio on her website.

Feature photograph © Centre for Australian Progress.