Language is a virus: Why a sustainability story spreads, or doesn’t

In 2012, a couple of talented young journalists launched theSkimm, a daily e-newsletter that takes the kind of hard-hitting news people used to turn to CNN for and presents it in a way that young professional women actually want to read. TheSkimm distills the day’s top news stories into manageable, easy-to-read bites so that any reader can get the gist of a major story—and why it matters—in a minute or two.

Betsy Henning
CEO & Founder

The genius of theSkimm isn’t just its brevity. It’s also the tone of the writers, whose use of breezy language, fun metaphors and pop culture quips is refreshingly current. TheSkimm never sounds overly newsy, dry or academic, even when discussing complicated subjects like the Paris climate deal. TheSkimm resonates with its readers because it sounds like them. It adopts the same tone that readers might use in bar debates with friends (calling the United States “one of the world’s gassiest countries,” for example).

With 1.5 million subscribers and growing, theSkimm is obviously doing something right. Sustainability communicators, take note. The fact that you may be struggling to tell your brand’s corporate responsibility story doesn’t mean your story isn’t a good one. It might just mean it’s time to take a fresh skim (get it?) through the language you use.

I’ve categorized the language problems that sustainability communicators face into seven deadly sins. They include offenses such as the overuse of technical and wonky language—so your story appeals to people in your field and no one else—and language that either lacks feeling or is too emotional. Each of the seven sins is a missed opportunity to reach someone new or to spread your sustainability story.

Fortunately, we have a number of language tools at our disposal. They include the traditional tools of writing, such as vocabulary, tone and style. But we can also use visual cues or body language to our advantage. These language tools are every bit as important as words when trying to get a point across.

Join me at Sustainable Brands 2016 San Diego to explore the landscape of language further in my workshop, titled “Language Is a Virus: Why a Sustainability Story Spreads, or Doesn’t.” In this hands-on, interactive session, we’ll discuss language tools and insights, and you’ll walk away with ready-to-use, breakthrough methods for creating a language of sustainability that makes your story contagious.

Betsy Henning

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