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Creating Intentionally Inclusive Language for Your Organization

Sara Tetreault

Brand Strategy Director, Forum One

Hannah Webster

Strategic Communications Director, Forum One

When it comes to inclusivity, language is an absolutely essential element. Alongside your visuals, this is the first—or sometimes the only—thing that people see when they interact with your organization. Creating intentionally inclusive language is a great first step in unlearning exclusionary language, and making your organization’s writing more inclusive, welcoming, and empathetic.

Inclusive language is just one necessary piece of a larger effort to be an actively inclusive organization, but for communications professionals or for an organization focused on its messaging, it is a critical one. Your audience is a part of the story and your mission. The language used should reflect that.  Think about who you are writing for—and if you might be leaving anyone out through the language you are using. 

Everyone has biases—whether or not they are aware of them—and it is difficult for authors to leave this behind when writing. This means that it’s easy for us to write from our own perspective, thus falling into the trap of using language that may alienate those outside our own groups.

Adding inclusive language to your style guide

To make your organization’s language more inclusive of others, we suggest creating a section in your style guide that provides clarity on how to write inclusively, as a foundation for your content creators. If you don’t already have a style guide, then this is a perfect opportunity to create one! A style guide will help ensure that your organization’s voice stays on brand and offers a welcoming environment for everyone. The language portion of your style guide should describe how you write with respect, appreciation, and dignity. It’s also vital that your communications team upholds the standards you lay out in your style guide and revisits them on a regular basis to ensure that they are up-to-date and accurate.

Key points to consider

There are a lot of areas where unconscious bias or exclusive language can pop up in our writing or our everyday language. Below, we cover a few key points to consider for thinking about how to make your organization’s style guide inclusive. We also recommend exploring the additional resources at the end of this post for a comprehensive view of all the areas that unconscious bias might sneak into.

Removing subconsciously-exclusive words and phrases

When we truly take the time to investigate them, many words we use to refer to groups or people can often be exclusionary, sometimes in ways we may not have considered. Language that excludes groups on the basis of race, gender, abilities, age, economic status, religious beliefs, politics, health, education, as well as a host of other characteristics, can create an unintentionally-exclusive tone that is not inline with what your organization believes or the actions it takes. 

This is about more than being “politically correct.” Using exclusionary words and phrases can hurt others and make them feel othered or isolated and, ultimately, make your organization complicit in perpetuating the oppression of marginalized groups. You can start by reviewing your current language to see if you are using any of the terms mentioned in A Progressive’s Style Guide (or any of those we have mentioned in the resources section). Decide how your organization can actively avoid — and combat — these words and replace them with more inclusive language. This might also include bringing new ideas to the table to replace exclusionary words, and exploring what the word “inclusive” means to you and your organization.

Being actively antiracist

As a writer, and human being, you won’t wake up completely antiracist tomorrow. It takes time and intentionality to unlearn socialized behaviors and language that may cause someone to be unintentionally exclusionary. We are all always learning, so don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from taking proactive steps to address where unconscious biases may pop up in your own writing or in your organization’s messaging. Mistakes are part of the process, so it’s important to own and address them. You will need to take into account your position as a writer and what you need to learn before you can truly start writing from an antiracist point of view, and ensure that your organization does so as well. As the authors of this post, we ourselves must continuously investigate our positions as white women and how we bring this bias to our writing. It’s an integral part of ensuring that we are good stewards of our organization’s voice and that we are able to create language that truly reflects what our organization believes.

Ask yourself: Have I experienced racism first hand? Have I benefited from the systems that help keep racism in place? Are there ways in which my behaviors or writing have perpetuated the use of unfair stereotypes? Learning about race and antiracism is a crucial part of your experience, too. There are many insightful and illuminating resources, such as the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s “Talking about Race” tool, as well as diverse writing on how to be actively antiracist to reflect upon before writing.  

Because language is a primary way that society has perpetuated racism, it helps to be thoughtful, intentional, and specific when referring to people and their communities. You should consider what terms your organization can use that honor the uniqueness of individuals instead of terms such as “BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color)” and “people of color” that lump together many communities. Creating intentionally inclusive language should lift up the humanity of marginalized groups instead of using words that strip them of it. Again, we are all always learning, so it is helpful to actively keep reading and actively seek out resources on how to be antiracist.

Talking about gender

For a long time, writing style guidelines called for writers to use “he/his” as the default, gender-neutral terminology. That changed to using clunky “his or hers”  phrasing, neither of which is actually gender neutral. Now, singular “they,” which has long been used informally, is part of the MLA, APA, and AP style guidelines, and should be a default in an organization’s style guide as well. 

The gender pronouns we use to describe someone are much less about our own constructs about people and more about respecting their self-determination and that they know themselves better than we (or the wider culture) do. Think about who you are writing about, and avoid stating someone’s gender if it is unknown. Always respect a person’s gender pronouns. If you or others at your organization need help understanding the topic, The Language of Gender is a good tool to help advance the conversation and create content that is respectful of individuals’ gender identities. 

Reading the room

As you are thinking about creating intentionally inclusive language for your organization, keep in mind that not all language or communications constructs are going to work for all of your audiences. Considering who you are speaking to and what biases and experiences they also bring to the table will help you create a more nimble and meaningful approach to your organization’s writing. You’ll likely want to consider your audiences’ past experiences and how this affects their experience with your organization. For ways to learn more about your audiences check out a few of our past posts on the right time to conduct audience research and what to look for in your responses.

Additional resources for creating intentionally inclusive language

Here a few examples of resources that can help you get started on thinking about how your language can be more actively inclusive.

The Social Justice Phrase Guide
Racial Equity Tools Glossary
A Progressive’s Style Guide
Accessible Language: A Guide for Disability Etiquette
Writing Inclusive Documentation (for developers)
The Language of Gender

Written By

Sara Tetreault

Brand Strategy Director, Forum One

Hannah Webster

Strategic Communications Director, Forum One

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