#CKX6: On Language and Social Change

How often do you think about the language you use in your quest for social change? Unless you’re in the communications department of your organization, you may not consider it. Yet language is a tool so powerful it can influence our perception of reality.


Plain language is easy to read, understand, and use. It avoids convoluted language and jargon. This is so important that it’s the law for the American public service. — the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires “clear Government communication the public can understand and use.” (Canada doesn’t have legislation, but does have its own plain language handbook.) Inclusive language is free from words or phrases that reflect prejudiced views of people or groups. Using plain and inclusive language helps you clearly and powerfully communicate your ideas.




Here are the six resources, tools, and articles that have helped to make my language clearer and more inclusive.

1. Great Mission, Bad Statement – SSIR

In this article, Erica Mills argues many nonprofit organizations have a big problem: they use language no one can understand. She gives practical advice to use when refreshing the wording of your mission statement or writing copy for your website. The money quote: “But if you tell someone everything, they generally remember nothing. Less is more.”


2. George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

This sentence is as true now as when it was written 70 years ago. George Orwell’s entire essay Politics and the English Language is excellent. Its five rules for effective writing are essential for social change communicators to communicate effectively. Following rule number 3 alone – If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out – will make your writing much clearer.


3. A Progressive’s Style Guide

“Language is a key ingredient in a winning theory of change. Language can build bridges and change minds,” declares the introduction of A Progressive’s Style GuideIts four central principles – people-first language, self-identification, active voice, and proper nouns – ensure clear writing, and also writing that acknowledges the humanity and autonomy of the people you are writing about.

This style guide will also challenge the beliefs and assumptions that underpin the language you use. You’ll come away with a more critical lens on the language you use, and how it is perceived by others. A must-read.



"But if you tell someone everything, they generally remember nothing. Less is more."


4. This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write

Did you know the New York Times writes at a grade-nine reading level?

This article by Shane Snow will show you why using complex language (a tendency of many nonprofits) to sound sophisticated and intelligent can be counter-productive. As Snow writes, “The other lesson from this study is that we should aim to reduce complexity in our writing as much as possible. We won’t lose credibility by doing so. Our readers will comprehend and retain our ideas more reliably. And we’ll have a higher likelihood of reaching more people.”


5. Hemingway App

Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear by highlighting long, complex sentences and errors. It also tells you what the readability level of your text is. Hemingway would approve, I’m sure.

(And yes, I used this app to edit this post and make it stronger.)


6. The Wordifier

Nothing spruces up copy like replacing tired, over-used words and phrases with fresh language. The Wordifier is a tool for making your language pop with words not used by 95% of other social change organizations out there.


So there you have my #CKX6 on language and social change. Remember that your cause is unique, and using fresh and memorable words will make it stand out from the crowd. I hope that something on the list sparked your interest or got you thinking about enhancing public participation. If there’s something you’d like to add to the list, please feel free to comment below.


Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 8.55.40 AM.png

Curated by the CKX Team and awesome contributors-at-large, #CKX6 is a recurring series that shares six great resources, materials and insights on a particular topic, trend or issue related to our shared pursuit of social change. Think of it as a super-charged social change must read/watch/share/steal list! 

This #CKX6 on language and social change comes from our friend Allison Jane Smith
a writer and communications consultant who has worked with charities and businesses both in Canada and internationally. She has written on charities and international development for The Guardian, ONE, and TakePart World among others.