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Inclusive Writing: when words speak as loudly as actions

Rob Heads 26 January 2022

An orange typewriter on a table

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) has become a much more important topic in recent years. The Me Too movement, resurgence of Black Lives Matter and dramatically increasing visibility for the LGBTQIA+ community have put a spotlight on the need for rapid progress. This is starting to have a direct impact on how the organisations we interact with as customers and employees behave – and how their leaders communicate.


The biggest change we’ve seen so far is how D&I has a bigger platform in corporate communications. Dedicated areas on corporate websites are now not uncommon and, now that specific D&I disclosures are a legal requirement in reporting, some organisations have decided to create standalone D&I reports. To help communicators wrestling with the rapid change we’ve pulled together some guidance to help organisations communicate their D&I efforts through more engaging reporting.


But in pulling together the report something interesting leapt out to us. Despite the increasing disclosure around D&I, we noticed that many companies appear to be talking about the issues without feeling sure on the specifics of how they should do it – the content they showcase, the language they use and the tone they strike in both their reporting and corporate communications more generally.


This perhaps isn’t surprising, of course: it’s a nascent and ever-evolving space. But in a world where consumers are showing a preference for brands that are inclusive and employees are increasingly choosing employers based on their D&I credentials, getting this stuff right is set to have a real impact on corporate reputation.


So how can organisations better communicate inclusivity through the words they use? Inclusive Writing is the practice of using language that purposely and proactively reflects an openness to difference, which in turn implies the creation of safe, neutral spaces for everyone to feel welcome. It avoids the use of expressions or words that could be considered exclusionary to anyone regardless of gender, disability, or ethnic background. Inclusive language doesn’t:


  • Establish one group of individuals as the norm, for example by calling everyone who isn’t white ‘non-white'
  • Use words or terms that imply disabilities when they’re not relevant, such ‘turn a blind eye’ when meaning ‘ignore’
  • Refer to control systems or communications with historically charged language, such as using ‘master/slave’ when there are neutral options available such as ‘primary/secondary’

The use of inclusive language may seem frivolous or even ‘woke’ to some, but it has tangible impacts on organisations and their people - words have a direct, if subconscious, impact on who is likely to apply for roles you are listing, for example. The words you choose could inadvertently reduce or restrict the pool of candidates from which you can choose. Masculine-coded language in job descriptions (such as using words like ‘competitive’, ‘driven’ or ‘dominant’) has been proven to have a direct negative impact on the likelihood of female applicants applying for a role [1]. Such words can also affect broader perceptions of a business and set the tone for how a prospective employee decides if an employer is the right cultural fit [2]. Do the words you use help your business? Do they enhance equality?


Inclusive Writing is also hugely important internally as inclusion is closely linked with engagement. Language shapes our sense of self and impacts our emotional wellbeing directly. Employees that feel included are more engaged and, according to recent studies, more productive [3].


While there are clear benefits to getting it right, the converse is also true: getting it wrong can be damaging. Neuroscientific research [4] has shown that ‘social’ pain resulting from exclusion or rejection activates the same neural networks in our brain as physical pain. According to BetterUp [3], even a single incidence of micro-exclusion can create an immediate 25 per cent decline in an individual’s performance.


Unfortunately, this isn’t an exercise that organisations will be able to get right ‘once and for all’. We are a society that is constantly evolving, and our language evolves with us. Organisations will have to continually review and adapt the words they use. So the biggest lesson is this: rather than focus on developing a set of rules, hone a listening culture that focuses on developing a sense of organisational empathy and awareness. Changing the words you use should become just one part of normal comms life.


Rob Heads, Analyst.


Looking for help navigating the world of Inclusive Writing? Get in touch with us here and visit our 'Driving D&I' hub for more practical tips on how to keep your comms inclusive.