Words Make Us Emotional: Using The Right Language to Positively Engage Your Audience

November 22, 2018

Is there a word or phrase for you that's the equivalent of seeing a cigarette butt tossed out a car window? A word that makes you reflexively cringe and dramatically rest your head in your hands in dismay?

We all have certain words that elicit this visceral response. You might not be able to name them, but when you hear them, your eye starts to twitch or you instinctively ball up your fists in silent protest.

The words you use to speak to your audience can inspire action, change perspectives, break down stereotypes, and create community. They can also demoralize, perpetuate prejudices, and sow seeds of fear and hate.  

I was gently reminded of the power of words with my last newsletter. I asked my readers what they thought of the newsletter title, ‘Content Marketing for Changemakers’ and the responses were heated. One reader replied, “To be honest, I would unsubscribe from a newsletter with changemaker in the title.” My husband notably grimaced.

Needless to say, I’m exploring other titles. If my readers don’t identify as ‘changemakers’—if, in fact, they resent the association—then that’s the last thing I want to label them as. 

You will say the wrong thing and that’s ok

When you communicate with your audience, either through email, social media, or the copy on your homepage, it’s critical to speak their language. If you use industry jargon they can’t understand or language that is unintentionally patronizing or offensive, you risk losing the attention of those who matter most to your organization. This isn’t easy, and if you’re communicating frequently with your audience you’re bound to sometimes say the wrong thing.

When you do say something that ruffles your readers, don’t throw up your hands and retreat back to the safety of overly edited press releases and annual reports. When your audience calls out a misused term, use it as an opportunity to grow as an organization. Own your mistake, apologize, and then incorporate this new knowledge into your brand style guide so that you don’t make the same mistake again.  

We’re all human, and people will give you a second chance, but only if you act human in return. Admit that you misspoke and thank your audience for engaging and sharing their reaction. After all, getting a negative response that you can learn from and fix is better than publishing into an echo chamber.  

How to learn the language and where to practice

If you’re not sure what language to use with your audience, pay close attention to their discussions on social: Whose content are they sharing and what other brands do they follow? Study how these brands speak to their audience—are they casual or formal? Funny or serious? How does your audience speak to friends and family? Do they use white or blue collar language? Do your research and adapt your marketing accordingly.

A newsletter is a great place to conduct language research. You know that your subscribers are actually interested in what you have to say and it’s easy to ask for feedback. It’s also not a public platform. That extra layer of privacy provided by the inbox has its benefits for both you and your audience.

For your subscribers, it gives them the chance to speak their minds openly in the safety of a one-on-one email interaction. A newsletter instantly establishes a level of intimacy and trust with your readers that isn’t possible on your blog or on social. For you, the marketer, this more intimate space gives you the liberty to experiment, make mistakes, and quietly course correct. You can do all of this out of the spotlight with the invaluable guidance of your most loyal followers.

You can also conduct A/B tests through your email marketing that reveal important information about your audience’s language. With every newsletter you send, trying testing one variable. (Note, this requires a list size of at least 1K.) For your next newsletter, test two subject lines. Employ negative language in subject line A (‘5 water-wasting habits’) and positive language in subject line B (‘5 ways to reduce your water bill’).

Do a similar test with your calls to action the following week. Then try another subject line test after that. (Campaign Monitor has several A/B test ideas to get you started.) To get accurate results, you can only test one small change per newsletter which means gathering information this way takes time. You can’t expect, however, to learn a new language overnight. Give yourself a minimum of six months to make sense of your A/B testing and longer if you’re sending emails less than twice per month.

Pay attention, take notes, and adapt

With each email, social media interaction, and face-to-face conversation, make notes of what you learn. Record both specific words and phrases that consistently reappear and pay attention to how your audience reacts to the language you use in your marketing. (Did that hashtag on Instagram drive engagement or produce crickets? Is your open-rate higher when you use emotional subject lines or share statistics?) This research will shape your organization’s voice and tone and reduce the number of faux pas you make in the future.

An added benefit is that speaking your audience’s language will also improve your SEO, helping your website rank higher in search engines. (Read more about this in a previous post.)  

As you navigate your daily communication channels, keep in mind that your words can elicit deeply emotional responses in your readers. Your words have the power to demoralize or inspire, preach or educate, divide or unite. Use them with care.

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