Opinions

How words can make or break us

Written by: Beth Britton, Freelance Campaigner, Consultant, Writer and Blogger

Published: 10/04/2019

Former carer turned award-winning writer Beth Britton explores the power of words and her passion for empowerment through language.

One of the quotes that has inspired me as a writer comes from author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who famously said 180 years ago, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ How right Edward was. For me, words are a powerful tool; they can inspire or demoralise, drive you on or set you back, inform or misinform. Crafting the right words, in the right context, is a huge responsibility.

Back in March 2015, when the English Dementia Action Alliance in collaboration with DEEP (the Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project) launched their #DementiaWordsMatter campaign (this link will take you away from our website), I was amongst the first signatories (this link will take you away from our website). I loved the idea of people living with dementia creating resources to inform everyone about the words they find respectful or disrespectful. This built on the work of Dementia Australia (this link will take you away from our website), who created the most comprehensive dementia language guidelines that I have seen to date.

Yet despite these excellent resources, there are far too many published words that don’t conform to the guidelines. Moreover, I see examples almost every day of huge swathes of text that use demoralising or stigmatising words, disempowering their readers. In some examples, text is also misinforming people affected by numerous health conditions including dementia, potentially doing the intended audience (not to mention the publisher!) more harm than good.

When I was caring for my father, who had vascular dementia for 19 years, I consciously avoided reading too much about dementia. It wasn’t that I was blinkered – dad’s doctors were clear with us that his condition was progressive and terminal – I just didn’t want to be subjected to a torrent of words telling me the factual worst and yet offering nothing by way of inspiration or practical advice.

Often when you read about support for carers, the words ‘respite’ and ‘break’ are never far down the page. What is often short on detail is information about what might help or hinder day-to-day, how to cope with your emotions, and answers to the plethora of questions that I know I had when my dad was alive. It’s this lack of tangible help that led me to begin my D4Dementia blog (this link will take you away from our website). I wanted it to be the resource I never had as a daughter supporting her father.

Now, as an in-demand writer with countless articles, features, guides, training materials and blogs in my portfolio (this link will take you away from our website), I have perfected my golden rules for copy that include:

  • Draw on personal experiences whenever possible – it makes text more real for the reader.
  • Signpost to relevant organisations and initiatives – there are numerous examples of great work in health and social care, why wouldn’t you want to provide meaningful links?
  • Be human – for example, don’t say ‘them’ when you could say ‘the person’, and talk about ‘support’ not just ‘care’. Remember those dementia language guidelines too!

These are small changes that can make a big difference to how words are interpreted and how they leave the reader feeling. They are important in all copy, whether you’re writing a webpage as a care provider, a magazine article as a charity or marketing materials as a business, and take on even greater significance when you’re writing training materials for care and support professionals. Educate well through your words, and you will have the greatest chance of impactful learning that leads to real frontline change.

Always remember, words can make or break us.

You can find out more about Beth’s work from her website (this link will take you away from our website), follow Beth on Twitter (this link will take you away from our website) and watch Beth’s 2-minute G8 Dementia Summit film about her dad (this link will take you away from our website).

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