Put Away the Swear Jar

Put Away the Swear Jar

In the early days of Bullhorn, we implemented a swear jar after being called out by a client for excessively colorful language. At some point, the swear jar morphed into a complaint jar. People dutifully held each other to account and paid up when they messed up. And over time, our language patterns changed.

We don’t have a physical swear (or complaint) jar anymore, but its accountability mechanism persists. We still sometimes swear and complain, but we are more cognizant of how our words affect our attitudes and the people around us. But perhaps the more important consequence is the permission structure it created for calling each other out when we say something out of line.

Words matter. Language, at its core, is a means for creating and sharing meaning. It is a framework for understanding and filtering the information we receive. It carries history, context, and emotion. Language facilitates belonging, understanding, commonality. And, exclusion, alienation, dismissal.

Inviting other perspectives into your writing, both by shifting your thinking and asking for someone else to give you feedback, enriches your writing. Here are a few questions that will provide you with a place to start.

Who could read this?

Part of a writer’s most fundamental job is asking, “who’s the audience?” — a lot. On the surface, “Who could read this?” sounds like another way of asking the very same question. But there is a difference. Without intention, you’re probably inclined to envision the audience you want: a preconceived group of people you’d maybe even hang out with. Can you broaden the way you think of your audience, considering not just what you could accomplish but how to help them gain the most? Would you write anything differently to consider maximum accessibility?

We have a client who is disrupting the way food production and distribution currently works in the US with massive greenhouses located in Eastern Kentucky. It would have been easy to focus messaging on their incredible technology, speaking directly to investors (who are generally tech-focused and nowhere near Kentucky). But we didn’t want to alienate their future neighbors and team. So we wrote to their neighbors first, and investors second. The result was language that resonated with everyone.

Are you speaking as plainly as possible?

Language is highly contextual. We use references to connect with people through shared knowledge and, most practically, to economize space. That can be okay, but consider: Does your reference hinge on alienating or oppressing a vulnerable group of people? If not, are the references you use unnecessarily creating an in-group/out-group? Check to see if adding a quick, clarifying clause in your sentence helps. If you find yourself explaining in more than a line, you may reconsider how to frame that thought.

One of our clients in the landscaping industry is more than a team of local green thumbs. They are nationally recognized experts in green infrastructure. But to their audience, often managers of commercial sites, landscaping is one item on a long list of responsibilities. The concept of their green space being a valuable ecosystem might sound expensive and/or time-consuming. We needed a way to talk about the importance of effective, eco-conscious landscape design plainly. Together, we developed a new category name: smart landscaping. It is a term that introduces a familiar framework — smart technology — to industry outsiders and opens a conversation from that shared place.

Have you asked someone to review from a different perspective?

You will always have blind spots. After self-reviewing for inclusivity and thoughtfulness, ask someone else to give you feedback. Specifically, ask them to review with inclusivity in mind. Criticism is easy to resist because your view makes sense to you. But listening to and incorporating other perspectives is crucial to creating something nuanced and meaningful. Asking for help makes your piece stronger, and ultimately, your writing stronger.

Words shape the world. It’s up to us to use them to make it a better place. There’s a chorus of ancient proverbs and parents of siblings advocating a philosophy of “think before you speak.” It’s a powerful lesson we think should also be applied to what we write.