How much do individual words matter? 

Written by

Matt George

Partner, Head of Research

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Written by

Annie Phifer

Research Manager

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Written by

Jessa Scott-Johnson

Senior Director - Research

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Written by

Eunice Yau

Director – Research

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05.08.24

Our own research at Seven Letter Insight says: quite a lot. 

Take, for example, a question about government spending. When asked how much we are spending on “welfare,” nearly twice (42%) the number respondents answered too much, compared to just 23% who said too little. However, with just a little rephrasing, the story changed dramatically: When asked how much we are spending on “assistance to the poor,” the overwhelming majority (68%) of respondents said too little, compared to a mere 7% who said too much. 

However, words resonate differently for different audiences. Our research has shown that different words get very different reactions from members of different parties. For example, Democrats reacted much more positively to words like “equality” (up 30 points from Republicans), “diversity” (+33), “empathy” (+23), and “inclusivity” (+26). On the other side of the aisle, Republican-leaning terms included “responsibility” (up 10 points from Democrats), “freedom” (+12), “hard work” (+13), and “independence” (+8). Words that bridged the partisan divide included “honesty,” “truth,” “accountability,” “safety,” and “self-determination.”  

So, whether it’s website copy or a speech to shareholders, it’s essential to consider whether you risk turning off a key sector of your audience with your word choice. 

But not only do words matter for reaching different political parties – the right tone and framing matter, too. Republicans react more to personalized arguments that focus on the individualized impacts of policies (i.e., a less healthy stock market negatively impacts the investments and savings of everyday Americans). Democrats prefer macro-scale arguments (i.e., the broad ways in which the American economy would be impacted by a certain policy). 

Our research is clear: it’s critical to keep your audience in mind when crafting your communications to make sure your words, tone, and framing deliberately speak to those you intend to target.