Back in 2006, when everyone was carrying flip phones in their pockets and still making actual phone calls because texting was far too labor intensive, I dipped my toe into the waters of activism.
Now, at the time, it felt like a little more than mere toe-dipping—maybe something more akin to full-submersion baptism or deep cave spelunking. At 30 years old, I was awakened to a force that literally loomed right outside my back door, and I discovered deep truth in the idea that a single moment can change our lives forever.
I’ll spare you all the details of my experience (but if you’re really curious, you can read all about it here).
The lessons of that experience, though, are what I want to reflect on today.
Growing up in a small Midwestern town, and then eventually landing back in that same small Midwestern town to raise your own children, self-admittedly places you into a figurative bubble. Most of us who make such choices are largely aware of this bubble: We long to sustain the nostalgia of our youth. We admire the people who poured into our lives, and we have somehow escaped all desire to send the first 18 years of our lives straight to hell in a handbasket. Think about it long enough and you may come to understand that it’s not small-mindedness that propels us back home. It’s the noble pursuit of community and family.
But in 2007, that bubble popped for me, and I understood that my own values were not aligning with the small farming community sprawled out before me. As I stood face to face with my own Goliath and surveyed the stones within my own pockets, I realized something about activism: Divisive language draws a crowd, but rarely does it sustain a movement.
Now, I am not an avid student of history, but I do know that this was an idea touted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and then fiercely countered by Malcolm X. And well before they arrived on scene, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were putting the same argument on display. Each was a student of movements and change—each with his own ideas on progress and his own vision of what the future should look like. Each was also a student of language—of the power of words to move a mass of people, and this is just one of the many reasons why decades later, I (along with countless others) still get incredibly moved by the cadence of Dr. King’s voice or the rhythmic phrases belonging to Du Bois.
Perhaps the first and greatest marketing campaigns can be said to have begun in the tiny corners of the world where injustice has spread like wild fire—heard in the rallying calls of men and women who knew that if they could just get the right people to listen, then they really could change the world. We have much to learn about life and love and passion from those who are willing to stand on the front lines of ideology, and as someone who makes her living writing words that impact consumers, I know that we also have much to learn about the trademarks of a language that has the ability to move people past the lines of complacency into the fields of action and engagement.
What can activism teach us about the power of language? Let’s look at history to find out.
POWERFUL LANGUAGE GIVES US A REALITY CHECK.
Janice Kelsey tells the story of meeting civil rights activist James Bevel when she was still a young girl. Awakening her to the truth of segregation’s injustice, Bevel told Kelsey, "If you want to do something about this [racial inequality], you can. Your parents can’t. But you really don’t have anything to lose."
"I agreed with him," Kelsey says. "That’s what got me going.” Bevel beckoned Kelsey and hundreds of others just like her to open their eyes and see the world as it was—and in turn, they began a movement where ordinary citizens leveraged their voice and their action to elicit change.
POWERFUL LANGUAGE TURNS OUR PERCEPTIONS INSIDE OUT.
In her well-known TEDx talk, comedian and journalist Stella Young challenges society’s perceptions of what it means to be disabled.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I’m brave or inspirational. . . . And it is objectifying. These images. . . objectify disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. They are there so that you can look at them and think that things aren’t so bad for you, to put your worries into perspective,” she says.
Young’s speech leaves the audience in wonder, forced to self-reflect and perhaps see themselves as the objectifier for the very first time.
POWERFUL LANGUAGE FOSTERS SELF-AWARENESS.
In his speech before Congress in 1789, William Wilberforce argued for the abolition of slavery. He would continue this argument for another 44 years, until The Slavery Abolition Act abolished slavery throughout most of the British Empire in 1833.
“We are all guilty,” he said in his Congressional speech. “We ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.”
Instead of using his time on center stage to point fingers and accuse everyone of being on the wrong side of history, he chose to first look inward and place himself among those he was trying to change.
POWERFUL LANGUAGE IS REAL AND GENUINE.
Take just a quick look at any of your favorite presidential candidates throughout history. (Yes, many of us will have to reach far beyond the most recent election.) But here’s what you’ll see: No presidential candidate ever wins an election by talking about the intricacies of policy or foreign affairs. Instead, wide and sweeping slogans are broadcast out to the public, and campaign platforms become messy swaths of sameness: We want to reform education. We need to save America’s middle class. We need to limit the power of the many over the few.
Candidates win elections because they figure out a way to connect with their voters. They quote Bible verses that resonate with their electorate. They argue for policy changes that compel the most votes. They recall their own days of misfortune and difficulty. They win our hearts first, knowing that once they’ve tapped into our emotions, our minds will reason away any discrepancies.
POWERFUL LANGUAGE KNOWS ITS AUDIENCE.
Call it marketing segmentation. Buyer personas. Market research. The point is, influence is a carefully mastered tool. We cannot be all things to all people—unless we understand what makes each individual tick—what ignites their passions, fuels their angst and calms their fears. Ronald Reagan knew this in 1987 when he commanded Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall. History tells us that he was advised against including such a plea in his speech. Anti-American sentiments were high in Berlin, and Reagan had solidified a good, working relationship with Mr. Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union. Issuing such a bold pronouncement might jeopardize any progress. But Reagan knew his audience was diverse: Conservatives in his own party weren’t happy with his stance against Communism; the Soviet Union needed to understand that America was serious about negotiations; and the world needed to see America’s stance on ending the Cold War. While history debates the significance of those now famous lines, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” three decades later, Reagan’s words remain remembered as powerful and iconic language that reached past borders and beyond cultures to spark change, initiate diplomacy, and appease the uneasy.
As marketers, it’s so easy and tempting to follow the leader. We see what’s working for our neighbor next door, so we do our best to emulate it. And while that’s all well and good, we cannot lose sight of the entire purpose of language in the first place. We are truth tellers, encouragers, story makers and fire starters. We buck the trends when others are wading in the waters of safety, and we make space for even the most divergent of perspectives. It is only when we remember this that we have truly given ourselves a chance at creating something memorable and worth talking about.
Lindsay Hotmire is a B2B writer who creates powerful content for innovative companies. She still writes with a pen and pencil every now and again and has hung a typewriter on the wall to remind her that great writing requires even greater effort.