When Words Fail

Tenessa Gemelke

People who work with content are often word nerds, and we love to guffaw at poor word choices. In fact, the Brain Traffic staff recently had a good laugh when we nearly recommended “killer headings” in the style guide for … a hospital. Oops.

The truth is, word choice can make or break your content. Take this example: last year, I edited a book by a researcher who studies youth development. His goal was to inspire adults to reach out and offer more emotional support to children and teenagers. He saw it as a civic duty—a series of individual acts that could transform our society. This was his working title:

A Citizen’s Guide to Touching Kids

You can probably see why the title made me wince. While he meant “touching kids” in the Hallmark sense, I knew readers might associate the phrase with child predators. I removed what I perceived to be the offending words and sent the manuscript out for review, asking reviewers what they thought of his new working title:

A Citizen’s Guide to Changing Kids’ Lives

As it turned out, we had missed another negative association. Reviewers raised questions such as, “Are you saying I have to be a legal citizen to have a positive influence on kids?” and “Do you want people to think about immigration problems when they read this title?”

The word citizen was loaded with meaning we hadn’t intended. We had dodged one landmine but stepped squarely on another. Just as the book wasn’t about pedophiles, it wasn’t exactly about citizenship, either. So we changed the title again:

Parent, Teacher, Mentor, Friend: How Every Adult Can Change Kids’ Lives

A few little words had almost sabotaged the author’s intentions by distracting the audience. Through careful word choice, we ultimately reached a much stronger title—one that better communicates who the book is for and what it is about.

Readers bring their own context

As content creators, it’s our job to choose words carefully, and many of us like to think we’re pretty good at anticipating user needs. But once we’ve established what readers want, it’s just as important to filter our content for the little things that may drive them away.

I recently worked on content aimed at patients considering weight-loss surgery. I learned through interviews that this audience is very sensitive. They’ve spent years feeling trapped or possibly embarrassed by their obesity, but their condition is often caused by factors beyond their control. They need information they can trust, and they are deeply afraid of being ridiculed. Bearing this sensitivity in mind, I cringed when I found this description in the source material:

After surgery, you’ll attend classes to support your continued growth.

The copywriter meant emotional growth, of course. At first I chuckled at the gaffe, but I quickly realized that the double meaning could come across as an inconsiderate joke. When I sat down to write new copy, I found myself making similar mistakes. Previously harmless phrases such as “a huge decision” and “a wide range of options” were now complicated by what I knew about my audience.

These may seem like minor infractions, but the last thing you want is a reader who resents you and therefore doesn’t hear your message. Much more than a simple matter of political correctness, these blunders can cost you your audience.

Say what you mean—and nothing else

As you review new or existing content, examine it for unintended meaning. Carefully screen for the following:

  • Don’t hurt or anger the reader. Sometimes straightforward text can be littered with unforeseen insults. As I learned with my weight-loss audience, some phrases trigger emotional responses. Try not to give your reader a reason to stop reading.
  • Avoid sexual innuendo. It can be embarrassing to point out sexy language among colleagues, but someone has to keep her mind in the gutter. Respectfully see to it that nobody uses the word “bone” without plenty of clear context.
  • Make sure everyone is in on the joke. Sometimes it’s okay to be clever. Just make sure it’s on purpose. “Killer headings” aren’t helpful when they kill your message. If your verbal twists appear to be accidental, your reader may think you’re stupid—or worse, that you think they’re stupid.

Creating clear, user-centered content requires a delicate balance between your intended message and the reader’s context. If you don’t walk the line carefully, you might stumble or tip over. And what’s the double meaning in that last sentence? If I don’t revise it, you might think I’m implying that content strategists are often drunk.

(Dutch Wonderland Blunder photo by  Mr. Jay Yohe. (CC))