Let’s talk about language

Let’s talk about language – which we always do in our media training. Not just getting rid of jargon – the weed in the garden of language – but using meaningful analogies, examples and phrases that resonate with the audience and facilitate effective and persuasive communication. And avoiding words and approving of behaviours that may have been uncontroversial 20 years ago but are now unacceptable and maybe, illegal.

Actor, Laurence Fox, has been all over the news having called audience member, Rachel Boyle, a racist for calling him a ‘white privileged male’ on BBC Question Time. He took exception to her effectively telling him that he had no right to deny that media criticism of Meghan Markel was grounded in racism because he was white and male.

In our media training and presentation training, we counsel spokespeople to take care with their language. You need to communicate in terms the audience will understand and avoid throwing around concepts that while familiar and acceptable to you, may not be to your audience. At best they need to mentally process what you mean (so they’re not listening to the rest of what you’re saying) or at worst find them objectionable (and stop listening).

So what can we learn from Fox and Boyle? The language of ‘identity politics’ has entered the mainstream but that doesn’t mean it is accepted by all. There are many who do not see inequality solely as a product of the fixed traits of biology, race, gender and sexuality. They are uncomfortable with the notion that to challenge such a viewpoint means that they themselves are racist, homo- or trans-phobic. They are incredulous when a feminist like Germaine Greer is accused of transphobia, suffragettes are labelled white supremacists, wearing a sombrero if one is not of Hispanic origin is ‘cultural (mis)appropriation’ and a ‘gender pay gap’ is only because woman are being discriminated against by misogynistic men when there may be a range of other issues at work.

Laurence Fox has carried on the debate through social media but for most corporate spokespeople, short media interviews or sound bites do not give the opportunity to round out a complex argument. So unless you’re a campaigner yourself, as a corporate spokesperson you should avoid sweeping terms like ‘white male privilege’ or introducing contentious issues and concepts tangential to the interview subject. Remember that you are trying to engage the audience not alienate it.

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