Back to the Basics, Social Media, Strategy & Tactics, Uncategorized

Word Usage & What it Says About Reaching the Sexes

As communicators, we need to be flexible in the way we address our diverse sets of audiences. The range of folks we wish to reach is often times very wide and even the most subtle of differences can have a big affect on how we tailor our message. One not so subtle difference, but one that has continued to baffle the most expert of communicators for eons, is gender.

I’m reading a fascinating book by James W. Pennebaker called the “Secret Life of Pronouns” that analyzes the words we use and what they say about us, in astonishing detail. Man this book is thought provoking. A definite recommend for any communications pro or lover of words in general. For this post, I want to take a quick look at a chart from the book that lays out some of the differences between men and women and the words they use. In doing so, I hope to get the wheels turning for us to start thinking about more effective ways to reach these wildly different audiences by speaking a language that is most familiar to them.

Pennebaker and his students, through their language analysis programs, came up with this breakdown of the main differences in word pattern amongst the different sexes:


On the surface, some of these may seem obvious. Men, for example, use more swear words – duh! And women, who tend to be more self-aware and conscientious of others, use more personal pronouns (I, we, me, us, etc.). But some of the less obvious differences strike me as keys to successfully targeting and reaching these two audiences. Bare in mind, these may be oversimplifications our purely supposition on my part, but I do think there is something here.

Ladies first, of course. I was raised by women, so I’m inclined to think that given my personal circumstances I am a better communicator with women then most men. It only makes sense. However, not being one myself, I’m sure there is still a lot I could learn.

The first area I found particularly interesting for women in the chart above was the fact that they tend to use more “Hedge Phrases”. They are more likely to use “I think” or “I believe”, as Pennebaker says, because they are more aware and considerate of different perspectives and opinions. This, to me, seemed like a very important difference between women and their male counterparts. Do women respond better to a less authoritarian or one sided way of communication? Should we be more considerate of different views and opinions when communicating with women? If so, how? I dare not make assertions or try to formulate answers to these questions. I will leave it up to you, the reader, to decide. 😉

The area that interested me the most for men was less of a revelation and more of a reminder of what men respond to when communicating with them. Numbers. With experience working for major financial companies, where news and messaging is often related to quantities and figures, this was glaring to me. My takeaway: Use numbers instead of  pronouns like “a lot” when communicating with your male audience. This is even more important to keep in mind in the the condensed world of social media. Numbers are way more effective and arresting in social media then pronouns. I’d even take it a step further and say that, wherever possible, use digits in place of words.

Analyze the above chart and think about what it says about the tailoring you need to do when communicating your message, whatever it may be, to these very different audiences. What else do you think this chart says about the differences in communicating to men and women? Do you think it holds weight?


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