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  • Writer's pictureRick Julian

Daring to be Human

During a round of comment tennis at PSFK the other day, I received a verbal spanking from Floyd Hayes that reminded me of a bad habit I and we as an industry have: addressing people as abstractions, as “consumers”, “targets”, “audiences”, “users”, “resources” . . . surely you have your own delightful favorites, eh? I know these are terms of convenience intended to simplify and standardize our working lexicon in a way that makes business communication more efficient and precise. Yet, as I hear these words I feel nothing but coldness and sterility.

These words describe people with no faces, with no dreams, no humanity . . . and tacking on their demographic data doesn’t improve things much. In our quest to become more rational, efficient, and precise we end up undermining our efforts to achieve one of our primary branding objectives: creating meaningful connection with people. ( And may I respectfully submit, if your goal is simply to “sell to people”, a day is coming for your brand where a competitor brand is going to eat your lunch by transacting meaningful and humane brand connections with those same people you now call yours.)

I don’t have a proven solution to this vocabulary quandary yet, but I want to try a few things. Calling people, “people” is a good start. We already create and name personas , but extending the use of these personas’ names throughout our projects is probably even better:

“When Luke visits the site, he’s going to want to _______” vs. “When our user visits the site, he’s going to want to _______”


Julia’s sense of the brand is going to be highly influenced by ______” vs. “Our target’s sense of the brand is going to be highly influenced by ______”.

Did those word substitutions make you feel differently about the people to whom they referred? They did for me. In my mind’s eye (user) “Luke” now has a face, a voice, and a rabbit’s foot hanging from the rear view mirror in his car. (Target) “Julia” has laughing eyes, a dog named Chance, and drinks out of the same Betty Boop coffee cup every morning. I want to turn-on and affect “Luke” and “Julia” in ways that “user” and “target” simply don’t inspire, and inspired work is better, more effective, higher ROI work.

Will practicing this kind of language feel strange at first? Of course it will–anything new does. We’ll get over it, and feel less self-conscious the more we use it.

Another outcome of using humane language is it makes me question my work from an ethical perspective in a way that disembodied terms don’t: “Is what I’m saying to Luke true?” “Is the net effect of what we’re communicating to Luke and Julia going to be positive or negative?” At this stage in my career, those kinds of questions are becoming essential in my practice, and answering them affirmatively is a constant goal. I hope the same is or will become true for you too. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

What are your thoughts? Does the language we use to reference people matter to you? What words do you use?

p.s. Thanks, Floyd.

photo credit: Kunst

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