Spotlight TEDx Talk: How the words we use affect the way we think

The language of nonprofits from Mary Page Wilson-Lyons's TEDxBirminghamSalon talk

The language of nonprofits from Mary Page Wilson-Lyons’s TEDxBirminghamSalon talk

Words matter. The headline of a news story is a better predictor of how a person will respond to a piece of journalism than their stated political affiliation, says activist Mary Page Wilson-Lyons at TEDxBirminghamSalon, citing research out of Stanford University’s psychology department. Psychologists Lera Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau found that when presented with fictional news stories about crime — the ways the stories were worded affected how readers thought governments should respond, Wilson-Lyons says.

It turns out that when people are presented with stories that liken crime to a “virus  “infecting” a city, they are more likely to recommend social services as a solution to crime than those who read stories describing crime as a “beast” “preying” on a city, who are apt to recommend stricter systems of justice and greater police presence.

In her talk, Wilson-Lyons explains how language comes into play when describing her work leading a nonprofit that works with women and children living in poverty. She’s witnessed again and again how the way she, her colleagues and others talk about poverty affect how people think about it.

“The way we talk about our work is just important as the work we do,” she says. “Every message always has an implicit, and maybe even unintended, message.”

When faced with a collection of facts about a person or a situation, “[people] have a choice of how [they] are going to frame these facts,” Wilson-Lyons says, and that choice is an important one. To explore this idea, Wilson-Lyons uses the example of a woman named Bridget, whom she met as part of the nonprofit’s work. She shares a list of simple facts about Bridget’s life:


“We could frame [Bridget's story] using personal responsibility or bootstrap language,” Wilson-Lyons says. “This language points to Bridget — ‘She earned her way out of poverty.’ And it’s not wrong, Bridget did do a lot of pulling herself up. The problem with this language is that it portrays poverty as an individual problem. It makes it a problem that the individual has to fix. It implies that if you are living in poverty, then you just haven’t worked hard enough to earn your way out of it yet.”

Another way of framing Bridget’s story involves what Wilson-Lyons calls “readiness language” — language that implies that Bridget can only live out of poverty if she is ready, deserving, or as Wilson-Lyons puts it: “You only deserve the basic necessity of shelter when you are sane, sober and employed or when you are somebody’s definition of ‘ready.’”

Finally, one could frame Bridget’s story with the language of help — she was served, she was helped. “All of us use this,” Wilson-Lyons says. “I use it every day.” But there are two main problems with this type of language, she says. One, that it implies that one single entity can “fix” something as complex as poverty, and two, that it frames organizations as saviors and Bridget as an object to fix “without any agency or power of her own,” Wilson-Lyons says.

And how could we change the language around poverty for the better? One key word, Wilson-Lyons says. With. ‘We work with,’ ‘we serve with,’” she says, “because we’re not going to overcome poverty by doing anything ‘to’ or ‘for’ someone.”

Watch Wilson-Lyons’s whole talk here:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker uses an insight from a contemporary psychological study and her own personal experience in the nonprofit sector to form an argument for her idea — that the language we use concerning complex topics, especially that of poverty, affects the way the public views these topics. Her talk is clear, straightforward and offers a way for the audience to look at entrenched societal memes in a new way.


  1. Pingback: Spotlight TEDx Talk: How the words we use affect the way we think | English@St.Benedict

  2. Pingback: Post Three: The Power of a Word « ENG2DNLiterature

Leave a Reply

Your email address and name are required fields marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>