Gendered language: can you say ladies and gentlemen anymore?

9 min read by Charles Craik 4 Jul 2023

Knowing which words and phrases to use – and avoid – in marketing communications is a potential minefield for marketers. In this article, we investigate how a defined company tone of voice enables marketing teams, their colleagues and their clients to write confidently and creatively while remaining true to their brand.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen.’ Such a ubiquitous phrase, right? However, gendered language is quickly falling out of fashion in content circles in favour of more inclusive phrases – and for good reason. Yet when asked internally, or by clients, ‘whether it’s OK to use’ these examples, there never seems to be a straightforward answer.

And it’s a tale as old as time (or at least as long as my career). I remember a particularly tasty debate around whether it was a good idea to name a Buyer’s Guide a ‘software Bible’ for fear of alienating audiences.

So, how can brands tread the line? The good news is: content writers – it’s not all down to you.

Resources are your friend

In years gone by, my go-to would be either the OED or Merriam Webster style guide. Both fantastic resources with easy-to-use guidance on terminology, style, and how to use punctuation. These aren’t ancient texts but are regularly updated to provide a baseline for copywriters. The Oxford Academic is today’s version and it’s awesome. Definitely check it out.

Use your noodle, don’t just Google

Today, there’s a whole host of blogs and guides on the topic, from types of ableist language and what to say instead to racial terms you should avoid. But before content writers disappear down the rabbit hole of which phrases to avoid and use, there needs to be a common sense approach. Most businesses would, quite sensibly, wish to be perceived as progressive and inclusive, and here’s where DE&I leads and marketing should pull together to ensure that the words match the deeds. If you don’t have an official Diversity Lead, then HR and People Managers should be the first port of call.

Disabilities, age, race, class, sexuality and religion: it’s a good idea for every content team to familiarise themselves with the current thinking around these topics, and to decide, with the business, how you want to be seen by the outside world.

Emotional intelligence

So we’ve established that it’s an intelligent move for businesses to have conversations about ‘how inclusive we wish to be’ and how to present that, in words and pictures, to the outside world. Some brands are well ahead of the game, of course, but for others, especially smaller businesses, there are honest conversations to be had.

There are some excellent approaches and outcomes, for example, this easy-to-use piece by The University of Bristol on how to avoid gender bias in reference writing. It offers stats and evidence and leads the business to take its own stance rather than being overly prescriptive.

Now, let’s talk about your tone of voice

How inclusive you are as a business, and ensuring that your vocabulary reflects this, inevitably leads to further discussions about your brand’s tone of voice (or at least, it should do). Each of our clients has a lovely set of brand guidelines advising designers on the colours to use, typography and all the rest of it. But what’s equally important is to have a complementary tone of voice guide that reflects where each client sits in terms of what they say – and how they say it. This is related to being a modern, progressive and professional brand but allows each business to have creative free rein. For example…

What is your brand trying to say?

Some brands really don’t give a f*** about the language they use. Take the lifestyle brand, Pit Viper. Its marketing emails openly throw around casually disguised expletives and its carefree audience love them for it. (They’ve also been hatejacked by fringe right-wing influencers, but that’s another story.)

Swearing in text is an interesting one. Years ago, there’s no way you’d drop the F word into, say, a technology blog. But as a conversational style has become more acceptable (and even desirable) in business writing, lo and behold (wow, that’s an anachronism!), you’ll find it creeping in.

It all comes down to tone

Upthread, I said that the topic of tone is complex. Well, it is. But the solution is simple.vIt’s time to create that tone of voice guide for your brand.

The guide should be practical, not packed with fluffy concepts, laying out:

  • What your tone of voice is – and what it is not
  • Your tone of voice characteristics – are we funny? Serious? Modern? Old school? Where does each of those sit on a sliding scale?
  • Examples. It’s all very well saying that your brand has a ‘lighthearted’ tone, but what does that look like on your website, in your emails, in your email signatures, your social media posts? Give examples, so that writers in your organisation know how to interpret this in their comms.
  • Style guide. Don’t confuse this with tone of voice. Sure, it’s related, but this part gives you the nitty gritty of how you style those sentences. It covers punctuation, bullet points, use of italics and bold, hyphens, ellipsis and full stops. And much more.

In summary – top tips for embedding inclusive language in your brand, and creating a recognisable tone at the same time:

  • Have honest conversations about inclusivity at your workplace. Lead this through into your content and marketing by creating living documents that employees can refer to.
  • Take time to really think about your brand’s tone of voice, as these topics are intrinsically linked.
  • Have a single reference point for what you’re trying to say, and how you say it. This will help your employees embed that thinking into everything that they do: not only in marketing communications but in how they write an email response, respond to a complaint online or pick up the phone.
  • Link it all together with your customer experience marketing strategy so that your website, emails, texts, AV screens – all those touchpoints – reflect what you say, and how you say it.

Tone of voice is an often overlooked but hugely important aspect of creating brands that people love and trust. If you need advice on creating an identifiable tone of voice for your business, get in touch.

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