By Carrie Fox
To communicate effectively, we know that the people with whom we’re speaking—the humans at the receiving end of our messages— are just as important as the words we use. But we also realize that the human element of communicating can be the most difficult element to master.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as we’ve been guiding several organizations to challenge the audiences they deem their priorities; to assess the words they use with their employees; and to consider what might happen if they broke out of their comfort zones in their communications messages. Across all assignments, it comes down to one key word: language. Is the language that you use having the desired impact with the people whom your brand is intended to serve?
In the weeks leading up to the now infamous Starbucks incident in Philadelphia, I had been reading “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First From a Life at Starbucks,” a great business book by Starbucks’ co-founder Howard Behar. It was fascinating to watch the scenario in Philadelphia play out because it completely contradicted Behar’s core philosophy to be human, first.
For Behar, the secret to building Starbucks had everything to do with building a company that had the potential to become their customers’ third place: there was home, then work, and then Starbucks. But, to win that coveted spot, Behar knew the company needed to foster a place where all felt welcome. And they needed to build a language of welcome across all class and color lines. But for one store in Philadelphia, and in hundreds of other stores where similar incidents have been reported—that language of welcome wasn’t deployed. In far too many instances, Starbucks employees lost sight of the person who was right in front of them.
I’d wager to bet that the Starbucks story can be found inside most of our organizations, whether it’s been reported or not. The language we build, inside the walls of our organizations, is often built with certain audiences in mind and there can be dangerous consequences if we don’t stop to think about how our language sits with those outside of our respective comfort zones. Who is understanding our message, and who feels left out? Even worse, who is receiving an unintended negative message?
The language we use to communicate across age lines is equally critical. Take for instance Generation Z. They are self-aware, self-reliant and drive, and they do not respond well to companies that don’t take their values and priorities into consideration. According to Marcie Merriman, author of the recent report Rise of Gen Z: new challenges for retailers, Gen Z is almost uniformly tech-savvy and content-hungry, and tend to be pragmatic, entrepreneurial, socially conscious and highly tolerant. “They represent a major opportunity for businesses attuned to what they want and how to deliver it,” she says. “The question is whether these businesses are ready to speak the language of this rising class.”
What language do you use in communicating your brand story? Is it one of welcome and inclusion, with words and actions that are accessible across audiences, or has your organization built a language of insiders, designed primarily for those inside your comfort zone?
If the latter is likely, a willingness to break out of your communications comfort zone may be just what you need in the year ahead. The real question is: how open are you to embracing it?