Thomas Paine, a 1700s political activist in the US, famously said, the pen is mightier than the sword. That’s because words change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever does. And those people who know how to wield the power of words, are the ones we follow and listen to.
Our words have power and significant meaning. They have the power to lift people up and bring them together. And they can also divide, demean, and diminish others. We have the responsibility to recognise the impact of our words.
Let me give you an example of how one innocent word can change the full meaning and audience of a phrase. The word is ‘again.’ For the past five years, this word has represented the second ‘A’ in Donald Trump’s presidential slogan ‘MAGA.’ Make America Great…Again.
Imagine if Trump’s campaign slogan was MAG: Make America Great. That is something that 330 million Americans have the ability and power to rally behind. Americans want a great America. One that protects, develops, and cares about its people. A great America is an inclusive goal that everyone living in American can join in on.
But, sadly that’s not the world we live in and MAGA is the slogan. The power of the second A in MAGA cannot be understated. In fact, to me it’s the most important word. Simply by adding the word ‘again’ the meaning is completely changed. It becomes a two part statement:
Was America great for you in the past? If yes, go to number 2. If no, goodbye.
Would you like to restore this great America?
This is why so many people have rallied against MAGA: it purposefully excludes people. (In politics this slogan is also known as a dogwhistle).
Use words that work
Two weeks ago, Hilary led a webinar, ‘Use Words that Work.’ She demonstrated the power of using words well and some simple techniques people can use when they speak or write. Here are some examples:
Up yours, Delors. - Cover of The Sun, November 1990
No justice, no peace, no violent, corrupt police. - Protest chants used from the Civil Rights era til today
It's the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy. – General Omar Bradley, 1951
It wasn’t long before all those individual co-operatives realised they were better off joining forces and sharing their dairy expertise, so came together to form one dairy co-operative. -Fonterra ad
I was born in the slum, but the slum was not born in me. -Jesse Jackson
You may have chosen us – we utterly reject and condemn you. -Prime Minister Ardern
Rule of three: a writing principle that suggests that a trio is more satisfying or effective than other numbers
Using three word statements
Black Lives Matter - everyone (hopefully)
Slip-Slop-Slap - Australian sunscreen campaign
Stop, Drop, Hold - fire safety campaign
List of three
We were so young, so in love, and so in debt. – Michelle Obama
The inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. – American Declaration of Independence
List of three with a crescendo
I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief in a country in mourning before a world in shock. -Earl Spencer
There are no red states or blue states, just the United States. -President Barack Obama (also a list of three)
You can take the soldiers out of Vietnam, but you can’t take Vietnam out of the soldiers. - Unknown, widely used (also a classic A-B-B-A)
His parents came here on an immigrant ship; my family came on a slave ship, but we’re in the same boat tonight. - Jesse Jackson
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism...Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
What examples can you add?
Use words that work - wisely
In a previous post, I wrote about how my generation (Millennial) was taught the phrase, Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can break my heart. How true is this? Our words are the most powerful weapon we have. They have the power to change the status quo, tell a story, dispell myths, build empathy, include, influence, distract, hurt, alienate, etc.
In a time when words are more available (social media/internet) than ever before, it's worth reflecting on:
how your words affect, influence, and move others? Is it in the way you'd like?
How other people's words affect, influence, and move you. How do they do this? Is it in the way you'd like?