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Scratching my bald head: Unlocking the power of three little words

Scratching my bald head: Unlocking the power of three little words

By Emily Luscombe, Chief Client Officer at Instinctif Partners.

This is the third part in the series – read the first part and second part here. This article was also published in PR Week.

A colleague in our South Africa office cheers me on to my next round of chemo with “vasbyt!” (fass-bait). She tells me it means “be stoical, endure”. Popularly used in Afrikaans to encourage someone to continue doing something “physically or emotionally difficult”. Well based on my experiences of the past few months, that’s an understatement. They should put it on a rainbow jumper.

In public relations, we are all in the business of words – elevator pitches, headlines, tweets. A magical profession that can compel you to behave in a different way, through the power of language. When you think about it, what we can achieve with a subtle change to a strapline is actually quite awesome; and what damage can be done by a CEO’s poor choice in a heated interview. Arguably, words are our most powerful but under-appreciated tool.

I was struck recently by an observation on the psychology of communication: in face to face conversation, we use words, tone of voice, facial expression and body language to get a point across. Over Teams, we still benefit from words, voices and faces – and advance on the traditional conference call. Yet over email, the most utilized yet lazy of business communications methods, we strip it back to bare written words. And wonder why so many Outlook exchanges don’t yield the desired result.

So how to manage this in a world where you can never be physically present, and where a Teams camera quickly reveals that I Am Sick. Better to display the headgear and makeup-free face, or hide behind the email? Which allows the more impactful contribution? Which is most “vasbyt”?

My use of words has changed since my diagnosis. For a start, I’m exhausted, so words are fewer and chosen carefully. Ask me for my opinion, and you’ll be left in no doubt. But I’ve also found myself struggling for suitable language to explain my situation – now that I no longer fall into the inclusive majority. At first, I was afraid to speak the three little words that immediately and permanently changed who I am. “I have cancer”. Like it or not, and not unlike a far more popular three little words, these open up a depth of thought and consequence that forever changes the dynamic.

But there’s no hiding this horrible disease – or a four-month treatment regime that is permanently emblazoned on my face. So the words, and their reality, must be accepted – and, I think, better to explain than leave a vacuum. As we have drilled into us from our entry into this industry, communication is key.

And in return, colleagues and clients use words that are a better medicine than any quantity of paclitaxel. “You’re remarkable…inspiring…strong”. Was I not these things before, I wonder?! Or my honest three little words have earned me a level of candid appreciation that would not have been quite appropriate in my old life.

So, I muse, has direct and open communication about something so personal given people permission to be more human? Less Corporate? Perhaps less British?!

And if that is true, we really shouldn’t have to wait for one of us to receive a chronic diagnosis to communicate on this level. In a world where honesty and authenticity are prized more than ever, surely we can all use the power of language to connect a little better. 

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