Remember, it’s about more than winning

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

It's not enough to just say we want to win. We need to spell out why.

Words matter. In the world of strategic communications, the words we choose can say a lot about the values we hold, the goals we have and the outcomes we’re looking for.

It’s why we ask people what pronoun they’d prefer we use: they? she? he? It’s why we take time to think about “how normal people” might say things (as opposed to the experts who sometimes fall into the industry or academic language trap). And it’s why we try to articulate the hopes we share with Canadians and their families.

So let’s take a quick minute to examine one of the words — that as campaigners, organizers and communicators — we use a lot:

Winning.

Do we all want to win? Yes, of course!

But here’s the tricky thing that gets confused in some progressive communications: winning isn’t the goal. It is more of an outcome. A measure of having done our jobs well.

And while we’re often thinking about the list of values that are backing up our desire to fight, sometimes we shorthand that part out. The problem is: it’s not enough to just say we want to win. We need to also spell out the “for who” and “why” parts.

Because, if we simply say the goal is to win, then the work we’re doing becomes a game. The message we’re sending becomes about one side beating another — about one political party or operative outsmarting the other, or about a union winning a tricky battle against an employer. A little like chess, it becomes a game of tactics, players and calculated losses. A struggle between two or three powerful people or groups.

And, in the worlds we work in, there’s a big problem with that approach. It is missing people: the actual, real-life humans we’re working to represent, and the things that concern and affect them every day.

What if the thing that will actually help us win will be to instead focus on just doing our jobs better?

  • To do a better job amplifying the voices and concerns of working people.
  • To raise the profile of issues and decisions that fail people and put their family’s health and safety on the line.
  • To demand better when things that matter most to people are being neglected or our vulnerable are being put at risk.
  • Or to inspire others to believe that better is possible…that it is just about making the right decisions instead of the wrong ones.

Like a coach telling their team to “go out there and play your best,” the goal should actually be about how we play the game, about who we’re playing with and for, and about the passion and caring we bring to what we’re doing.

Why? Because success is not about us, our jobs or our reputations.

Our jobs affect a single mother’s ability to buy food for her kids. It might change how safely an infrastructure project is built or managed. Or, it could determine how far somebody in a rural community needs to drive to get treatment for their ailing parent.

The “why” matters. And it needs to be part of what we’re saying.

Once we do that, then we can choose to measure our success accordingly. Maybe sometimes that just means we raised the profile of an important issue. Maybe we didn’t get great gains, but managed to stave off a worse threat. And maybe, sometimes, we can actually declare a full win. But the win isn’t the end — it is the starting point of being able to put our goals into action.

So, when it comes back around to the communications side of things, are we suggesting you stop writing the word “win” (or any other variation of this) into your copy? No. Of course not.

But remember, it is not a win for the sake of winning. It always has to be about people.

And just to make it really easy, here’s a few intro phrases you should feel free to borrow (but please don’t forget to fill in the “why” and “for whom” sections):

  • We’re working hard to win this battle so that … (more people will benefit from / the lives of Canadians will be better, because … )
  • Winning will mean … (more workers can / families will be able to count on … )
  • We need to work together to win, so that we can… (make sure we fix / improve / solve “x” problem that families are facing every day … )