Let’s be honest. No marketer sets out to dismiss, upset or offend any member of their target audience. That would be counter-intuitive. But, through unwieldy use of language, it can – and does – happen.

As a brand, it’s important to choose language carefully to appeal to all sections of your audience and avoid alienating anyone.

Get it wrong, and you’ll know about it

In a recent study by the University of Portsmouth, it was found that a growing number of consumers are prepared to “call out anything seen as damaging to another group in society”.

Commenting on this “so-called woke generation”, lead researcher Karen Middleton said: “This is a group of socially active and aware people who are increasingly intolerant of transgressions, particularly in relation to social justice.”

She adds that if brands are “relying on old fashioned tropes, it’s now much more likely they’ll be called out”.

More than a political correctness exercise

But it’s not just about being outrightly offensive or reinforcing outdated stereotypes. Inclusivity is more nuanced than that.

It’s recognising that we sometimes unintentionally support dominant norms (like language related to gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ability/disability, and age) through our hidden biases towards different groups of people.

Many terms have a history of discrimination. You can’t be expected to be aware of all of them, of course, but you can at least recognise that anyone in the world could be reading your copy. Setting up writing guidelines will help you to make your content as accessible and relevant as possible for everyone.

Writing inclusively shouldn’t just be seen as an exercise in political correctness. Get your language right and you can increase conversions and customer acquisitions. The perception of your brand will improve and you’ll drive a better relationship with your customers.

Getting it right

As a writer, it’s about having a nose for when you’re using a term that carries weight and meaning – it’s checking yourself to ensure that you’ve got it right and you’re not excluding anyone with your use of words.

To help you get it right, here are seven ways you can check yourself:

1.       Be inclusive of gender/sex/sexuality – don’t assume that readers are female or male, heterosexual, cisgender and so on. A good example of when this applies is writing for a make-up brand. Traditionally, copy would have been targeted at women – but times have changed and so too must the use of language, e.g., using ‘they’ instead of ‘he/she’.

2.       Be inclusive of race/ethnicity – as much as anything else, it’s recognising that we all come from different backgrounds and those experiences shape how we see the world. Of course, it’s about using the respective person’s preferred choice when referring to races, ethnicities and nationalities. But it’s more than that – it’s avoiding language which symbolises white as positive and black as negative.

3.       Be inclusive of disabilities – avoid the use of any word or phrase that devalues people who live with a disability. Though often unintentional, ableist language marginalises people with disabilities and can make them feel like they’re limited in what they can achieve. In the past, certain phrases might have been used, such “wheelchair-bound” or “someone confined to a wheelchair.” Using “people who use wheelchairs” takes away the limiting connotations.

4.       Be inclusive of mental health terms – some might have been guilty of using terms like OCD/bipolar as throwaway words to describe meticulous/rapidly-changing. But it only serves to undermine people who are actually living with such conditions. In general, we need to educate ourselves in neurodiversity and appreciate that everyone has talents and things they struggle with – be guarded against reinforcing the latter in your writing.

5.       Be inclusive with your imagery and graphics – poor use of images can turn sections of your audiences away from your writing before they’ve even made it to the first word. Include a mix of people in your lead images – don’t just focus on the dominant groups as this can suggest the content is only for them.

6.       Be inclusive with testimonials – testimonials are a great opportunity to inject some diversity into your website, so don’t pass it up. It might require you to actively go digging for some specific customer reviews, but it’s well worth your time. While you’re at it, you can learn how your content is connecting with different audience members.

7.       Be inclusive of knowledge bases – you can’t assume people’s knowledge levels, so avoid unnecessary jargon or include a glossary/footnote for reference. As much anything else, too much jargon tends to make for dry writing – if your audience has to keep looking up what you’re trying to say, chances are they’re not going to have the patience to make it to the end.

As a place to start, test yourself for hidden bias. As Learning for Justice explains, “hidden biases can reveal themselves in action, especially when a person’s efforts to control behaviour consciously flags under stress, distraction, relaxation or competition”.

In other words, biases can be easily slipped into, unless we continually check ourselves.

If writing feels like you’re walking on eggshells, you might want to hand content creation over to an inclusive agency like Q Content. Email us today on info@qcontent.co.uk and let us know how we can help. 

Ben Hollom

March 31, 2022