Change Agents virtual session: The power of language

Date: 19 October 2023

Words build worlds.

Our language carries messages and meanings well beyond the specific words we choose. In today’s virtual discussion with the fifth cohort of Change Agents, the team from Y Care International explored the power of words – and how to use them to tell stories better and amplify our messages.

“We tell the stories of our partners, and we understand what a privilege it is to share the stories of other people’s lives”, said Mollie Pugmire, Y Care’s Communications and Advocacy Officer. “It’s a big responsibility for us. There is a weight of expectation on how we tell it. People have entrusted us with their stories, and we need to tell them in a way that honours them”.

Joining Mollie from Y Care were Alex Akhurst, Digital Marketing Officer; Vee Fletcher, Head of Partner and Organisational Learning and Impact; and Malusa Kilonda, Head of Communications and Advocacy.

Said Malusa about the power of words: “At its heart, language is the catalyst for change, and the world becomes a better place when we wield it with purpose, precision and the unwavering belief that our voices have the power to make a profound and lasting difference”.

The meeting shared compelling stories and examples of what not to do in storytelling. For instance, impactful stories empower people to tell their own stories. Photos are powerful elements, and choosing photos that reinforce the participant’s dignity is essential.

The power of language

The team shared a video featuring poet and activist Maya Angelou at the programme’s start. Her message: We are responsible for each other and must build each other to achieve greatness. Said Malusa: “We communicate because we all are human. We all set out to relate a message”.

The power of language is vast and helps us to:

  • Establish legitimacy and credibility
  • Foster collaboration
  • Change behaviour and policy
  • Create awareness and education
  • Advocate and mobilise
  • Persuade and influence
  • Manage crisis
Redefining language norms

As the Y Care team notes, language is constantly evolving, so while they have put together a language guide, it will always be a work in progress. Said Mollie, “We continue to go back to talk, think and share. We constantly interrogate what we are saying and the worlds we make with the words we choose”.

The team identified a few terms we should avoid using and provided alternatives.

Developing countries: As there are no official definitions or parameters, Mollie said Y Care felt uncomfortable with the implication. Instead, she said, it’s best to identify the country or region you are referring to.

Low and middle-income countries/Global North and Global South: Here, too, it’s preferable to name specific regions or countries, as this terminology is vague and carries negative connotations.

Beneficiaries: Mollie said the word feels passive and fails to put the person’s potential and skills at the forefront; it implies the people are receiving passively and doesn’t dignify them. Better alternatives are participating community members or target community members.

Telling stories

We must tell stories to spark action, influence others, raise funding, and more. And it’s vital to do it in a way that provides the well-deserved dignity of all involved, said Malusa.

To assist the Change Agents in thinking about how to do this, the Y Care Team has them think about and discuss three questions:

  • What makes a good story?
  • What moves you?
  • When did you hear or read something that triggered you?

Examples of solid case studies – and others of “what not to do” – showed how not to make participants seem passive or unable to help themselves. As one Change Agent said, “Don’t make yourself a hero in someone else’s story”.