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Words Matter: How to Adopt More Inclusive Language into Your Communications

By Rachel Murphy


The video capturing the violent death of George Floyd ricocheted through the public consciousness. This moment signaled a collective wake-up call to police brutality and racial injustice. The realization that dismantling a system of oppression would take widespread change has galvanized brands and institutions to reflect on their status quo. Companies from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to Main Street have come out in support of Black Lives Matter. Many have upped their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to combat systemic racism.

Words and imagery, that were once considered tenable, were the first to be examined through a new lens of justice.

Following the lead of Black activists and publications, the Associated Press (AP) changed its usage rules to capitalize the word “Black” when referring to people in a racial, ethnic, or cultural context. Meanwhile, Quaker Oats and Uncle Ben’s announced they will be retiring racist mascots. Industries, from wine to real estate, have reconsidered the use of the term “master” for its connotation to slavery. And, many tech companies have replaced the racially insensitive coding terms “master/slave” and “whitelist/blacklist.” 

On their own, these adjustments are not a substitute for addressing disenfranchisement in the workplace or across the country. There is plenty of work to be done on both individual and institutional levels. Still, they are a start.

Words matter.

If they didn’t, there would be no tug of war between the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” Language can be powerful. But it can also be twisted to benefit one group over another and used to gloss over injustices. In that way, it can be its own system of oppression.

Adopting more inclusive language across your communications doesn’t happen by snapping your fingers. Language is always evolving. With that in mind, this article will focus less on what words are considered “right” and “wrong.” We’ll link to resources that cover word choice around race, gender, sexual orientation, and abilities at the end. Instead, we’ll walk through an ongoing process of reading, learning, and reflecting that your marketing team can adopt to identify discriminatory language.

But First, What Is Inclusive Language?

Hubspot definition of inclusive language.

As marketers, we spend a lot of time deliberating over the words we use. It’s our job to make sure that what we write in a blog or say in a presentation is impactful, and that our words resonate with our audience. But resonance is about more than relating to the majority. We also need to ensure we don’t alienate or hurt a particular group of people. We have a responsibility to be inclusive and to understand the words we choose — their meaning and origin, and how others might interpret them.

Step 1: Consider the Impact of Your Words, Not the Intent

As our team has been reading more about inclusive language, I’ve wondered where to draw the line. Are there instances where we might be overthinking? For example, we discussed and considered the origin and meaning of the word, “white paper” when drafting this piece.

When I consider advocating for or against the use of a particular word, I try to remind myself of a central philosophy of inclusivity, impact vs. intent. Meaning it’s not the intent of a word or phrase that matters, but the potential impact on the recipient. Consider this — if you were training an executive for a media briefing and they said something that could be misinterpreted, you wouldn’t think, “It’s okay the journalist will know they didn’t mean it.” You’d correct them politely so they don’t get misquoted. Similarly, when it comes to inclusive language, it’s up to us as marketers to consider how someone else, particularly someone with different experiences, might perceive the information we’re sharing. And correct those, whether on paper or in person, when a conversation is out of touch.

Tip to ensure your marketing and communications are inclusive.

Step 2: Find Reputable Sources to Stay in The Know

Learning and unlearning the language we use every day is an ongoing process. Words that were ‘acceptable’ or ignored yesterday can quickly be thrust into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. It can seem overwhelming to have to identify every inimical word or phrase, especially without context or understanding. That’s why building on knowledge through reading and conversation is imperative. The more your team reads and discusses, the easier it will become to identify and stay current on language changes.   

Inclusivity and Inclusive Word Choice Resources

Marketing and communications tip for using inclusive style guides.

3. Inclusive Language Isn’t Just About Avoiding Words That Are Offensive

In your efforts to adopt more inclusive language throughout your organization, it’s important to consider not just what might be considered derogatory, but also whether your company’s communication style prevents people from understanding and therefore, participating. For example, company or team acronyms can be perplexing to anyone outside of your organization. For those who are new, company lingo can create a sense of inferiority and slow their ability to acclimate to the culture.  

Tip for avoiding exclusive language in the workplace and team setting.

4. When Making Inclusive Language Updates to Your Style Guide, Don’t Just Conform to The Standard

At INK, we subscribe to AP Style for the most part. But even the AP can sometimes fall behind when making language updates to its stylebook. Its announcement to capitalize “Black” came after two years of research as well as recent public criticism from those who were advocating for the change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Tip for staying current on inclusive language changes in marketing and communications

Moving Forward: Think Beyond What People Might Consider Objectionable

Promoting inclusivity through language goes beyond simply ensuring your company avoids a PR blunder. Committing to inclusive language is a prominent reflection of your company’s culture as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s about justice for people who deserve more from our society. As your company continues its journey toward widespread inclusivity, think about how language can serve those who are marginalized.

There is no quick solution to practicing inclusivity. But we can chip away at the flawed and unjust system through our words and actions. As marketers, we have authority over the words we use. Let’s strive to use them for good.