Reach and relate to your largest audience by using inclusive language
Inclusive language uses words and phrases that highlight, clarify and celebrate different viewpoints, abilities, cultures and backgrounds. Inclusive language helps more people feel welcome, respected and important. Communications professionals seeking to connect with, educate and inspire people must use inclusive language in everything they do.
Diversity vs. inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are often grouped together; however, they are two distinct and important elements.
- Diversity refers to all the ways people see and experience the world, with respect for differences in race, gender identity and expression, age, ethnicity, disabilities (seen and unseen), family or marital status, veteran status, sexual orientation, education, religion and all the ways people identify themselves.
- Inclusion is best summed up as providing every person with a sense of belonging. This means people feel comfortable and supported to be their most authentic selves.
Paired with consistent use of varied perspectives and accessibility measures, inclusive language ensures clear, fair and accurate communication.
Inclusive language helps people recognize themselves and better understand others
Using straightforward, neutral and descriptive wording, inclusive language represents and resonates with the widest possible audience. It builds trust with new audiences, strengthens existing relationships and should:
- Create the fullest picture of people's varied experiences and perspectives
- Be genuine
- Incorporate perspectives and context from diverse sources and audiences
- Make audiences feel competent, included, respected and accepted
- Give voice and visibility to those previously missing or misrepresented in traditional narratives
- Be a constant consideration for communicators
Inclusive language challenges content creators to pursue new ways of thinking, new sources, new angles and new strategies. Perhaps most importantly, inclusive language requires you to recognize and examine unconscious biases, then find ways to overcome them. In doing so, your content becomes stronger, more relevant, more compelling and more trustworthy.
Person-first or identity-first inclusive language?
In using inclusive language, you’ll likely need to decide whether to describe an individual or group as a person/people first or by identity first. Preference for person- vs. identity-first language usually lies with the audience(s) being highlighted, especially those who feel their experience(s) is (are) central to their identity and culture. Some groups, such as many people in the Deaf community, actually prefer identity-first language. Content creators unsure about which type of language to use should ask members of their audience for guidance.
No hard-and-fast rule defines which type of inclusive language to use. However, person-first language tends to be more accepted since it prioritizes people. Also, person-first language often connects more strongly with audiences because it makes people feel seen and important, rather than mere representatives of circumstance. If, after asking your audience for guidance, you still cannot find the right answer, the Associated Press recommends using a mix of person-first and identity-first language.
Best practices for specific types of inclusive language
Numerous, ever-evolving facets of life and people are best described using inclusive language. Remember and follow these overarching best practices when creating content:
- Life has no “normal” to define or make comparisons to
- All people should always receive equal treatment
- You can never be too thoughtful, precise, specific, accurate or fair
Additionally, keep these best practices in mind when describing certain circumstances or groups of people.
- Refer to a disability only if relevant to your subject matter
- Use accurate, neutral, specific language: people with disabilities, people with [condition], a person who uses a wheelchair
- Avoid these words: handicap, handicapped, afflicted with, suffering from, victim, handi-capable, differently abled, physically challenged, demented, psychotic, lame, blind, catatonic, moronic, retarded, on the spectrum and similar cringe-inducing words
- Do not use disability-related phrases lightly, such as: turned a blind eye or fell on deaf ears
- Use neutral, precise descriptions such as: He has kidney cancer. She had a heart attack. They are being treated for Lyme disease.
- Avoid expressions with negative connotations, such as: He is battling cancer. She is an arthritis victim.
- Pay attention to capitalization—lowercase diseases such as diabetes, emphysema, leukemia, hepatitis, etc., and capitalize only the proper noun element of diseases named for a person or geographical area: Addison’s disease, Zika virus disease, etc.
Gender, sex and sexual orientation
- Understand and use the proper terminology:
- Gender, sex, sexual identity, gender identity and gender expression do not mean the same things and cannot be used interchangeably
- Specific terms have unique and important meanings and must be used with intention
- Avoid using outdated or inaccurate terms (as well as slurs and salacious terms), such as: opposite sexes, opposite genders, alternative lifestyle and gay marriage
- Remember that queer may not always be an acceptable term: know your audience
- Use LGBTQ+ when referring to a collective group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and/or questioning people, plus people of other sexual and gender minorities. Do not use LBGTQ+ in defining a more specific population. Depending on context, LGBT or LGBTQIA may also be acceptable.
- Avoid using language that emphasizes a single gender. Use:
- Police officer or firefighter instead of policewoman or fireman
- Workforce instead of workmen
- Chairperson instead of chairwoman/-man
- Search rather than manhunt
- Parent rather than mother/father
- Spouse rather than husband/wife
- City leaders rather than city fathers
- Hero rather than heroine
- Reword previously common phrases when possible, such as:
- She plays second base rather than second baseman
- He has brown hair rather than he’s brunette
Immigration and migration
Immigration refers to the act of coming to a different country with the intention of settling permanently. Emigration refers to leaving one’s own country to settle permanently in another. Migration refers to people who are on the move—often for economic reasons—within one country or across borders.
When writing or talking about these groups:
- Use neutral, accurate, specific language, and do not lose sight of the larger context
- Use numbers and facts
- Remember that definitions and perceptions of terms vary around the world
- Avoid subjective or pejorative terms:
- Immigration-related terms such as crisis, onslaught, alien, illegal immigrant (illegal immigration is acceptable to describe the action), illegals, undocumented and anchor babies
- Migration-related terms such as crisis, onslaught, irregular migrants, chain migration and pushbacks
- Use older adult(s) or older person/people rather than senior citizen(s), seniors or elderly
- Be as specific as possible, such as: adults over age 65
- Don’t use the elderly to reference a group of older people
- Remember that race is only part of a person’s identity and drawing attention to it is usually irrelevant
- Avoid generalizations, labels and slurs
- Ensure visibility for all people—strive to accurately represent all people
- Do not write in a way that makes white the default race
- Remember that race-related terms are interpreted and regarded differently among different groups of people
- Avoid generalizations, labels and slurs
- Strive to accurately, precisely represent religious beliefs and practices
- Do not write in a way that makes any one religion seem better or more important than others
- Remember that religious terms are interpreted and regarded differently among different groups of people
Health and sciences
- Maintain healthy skepticism when it comes to specific claims; always do your due diligence
- When in doubt, ask the experts
- Whenever possible, give voice to both scientists/practitioners and patients/end users (uncompensated)
- Use audience-appropriate language. For example, when to use high blood pressure instead of hypertension or heart attack instead of myocardial infarction.
- Avoid jargon and cliches
Tips for shaping an inclusive content strategy
Be thoughtful and thorough in creating inclusive content. First, ask yourself whose voices and perspectives are missing and should be better represented. Then, seek them out since they only serve to improve your content and understanding of the world. Explore ideas different from your own and seek out others’ guidance and opinions. Focus on learning and growing as you strive to resonate with as many people as possible. And if you make a mistake, take responsibility for it, fix it and don’t repeat it.
Additional tips for creating inclusive content:
- Take time to understand new/diverse sources before you interact with them, then listen carefully, observe the larger environment and ask lots of questions
- Carefully consider your audience:
- Their race, gender, socioeconomic status, age, geography, sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities, education levels, religion and political affiliation
- Remember that your audience’s interests, needs and voices will vary greatly and be sure you’re reflecting their interests, needs and voices
- Whenever possible, ask people how they want to be described
- Choose words carefully and remember that alternative, more inclusive phrasing is almost always possible
- Avoid falling into stereotypes or relying on always-heard sources (for example, do not consult only female nurses or male construction workers)
- Don’t use dehumanizing mass terms (such as the mentally ill and the aged)
- Present every source as important and credible
- Look for sources and voices in places you don’t normally look, then ask those sources for additional sources
- Make your work accessible to all people by adhering to web accessibility guidelines and type size guidelines, and by using appropriate language
- Throughout every draft, evaluate your work and ask for feedback from others
Make your messages resonate with the most people with help from the experts at Vendi
Your marketing and advertising endeavors must keep pace with today’s increasingly diverse and vibrant world. Bringing the highest levels of diversity and inclusion to your communications requires varied perspectives, accessibility measures and—most importantly—inclusive language to ensure clarity, fairness and accuracy. By carefully constructing an inclusive content strategy and remembering that life has no “normal,” you can reach and relate to the most people.
Vendi copywriters have decades of combined experience promoting varied organizations, products and services to highly diverse audiences through accurate, relatable language. We’re here to help you create inclusive content that brings new interest and investment into your organization.