Why is everyone reaching out?

Posted by Alex Johnston, on 01st July 2019

I love words and their meanings. Their origins. Their evolutions. I also love phrases and idioms. And I also loathe them. For example. I still recoil whenever I see the phrase ‘reach out’, although, critically, not as much as I used to. There’s a part of me that still agrees with the (unknown) genius who drew the flow diagram below :

It makes me cringe a bit whenever I see it. And once I even said it, and then hated myself for days afterwards. Five years ago, almost no one said this. The really interesting thing about this phrase is that it’s almost universally accepted now by everyone (apart from a few dinosaurs like me). From social media companies to my kid’s school to MPs – they’re all reaching out all over the place. But how could this happen? One thing about this phrase is it actually has a relevant meaning in our world. Even I can see that it’s an apt description of what happens when you communicate over social media – you don’t get something back all the time, you approach, ‘put something out there’ and see if you get a response or an answer. It’s actually a great metaphor/simile for the action of posting/emailing with the hope that someone responds. So it works as a descriptor to capture an activity. It’s of our time. But it’s more than that. Once used it’s initially a novelty. It cuts through and disrupts our normal ways of communicating. So you notice what’s being said. You also form some views about the speaker; they’re a leader, an innovator, a modern/active person. Of course, you might form the view that they’re a bit of a fool. Or ‘mutton dressed as lamb’/’dad dancing at a disco’ if it’s used by the wrong person. But most people will see the user as a positive… and ease of communication and social proof will nudge the adoption. And then the phrase will get majority usage. It changes from emerging and aspirational to mainstream. So the people who use it will seem of ‘us’ bonding because of shared language. Excluding or positioning non-users as ‘other’ or laggards. Of course – we all forget that lots of the phrases we use probably went through similar adoption curves. I use the word ‘workshop’ all the time. But I’ve just remembered this from 80s comedian Alexi Sayle who once said “anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ and doesn’t work in light engineering is a t*!t”. So in days it was first used I was either an innovator or a t*!t… And when someone first used the phrase ‘we need to change tack’ – someone else must have thought; “we’re not on a bloody ship, we’re trying to decide whether to continue what we’re doing or go to the pub…”. We’ve always re-purposed phrases from specific activities; sports, war, weather, sailing all adding to our armoury. Or locker. So how do we make use of this in research and marketing? It’s definitely relevant for how brands communicate – if you’re talking to youth audiences do you appear old if you use residual idioms? But is that worse that using terms that are too modern – back to Dad at Disco. But tapping into emerging language in a way that helps communicate an idea better does have value (so for audiences that are growing up swiping and using VOD then language relating to this can help communicate outside of this context…) It’s also important in how we communicate to clients or stakeholders (another term that’s origins are based on a specific activity – this time gambling, although the exact origin seems to be a bit unclear). If your stakeholders are talking about ‘surfacing’ issues or ‘socialising’ insights then you probably have to do the same… (or do you?) Any thoughts or ideas? Does anyone want to run anything up the flagpole and see who salutes it? Or alternatively, pour it in the saucer and see if the cat licks it… Anyone got any words or phrases they hate? (my current one is people who say ‘no?’ at the end of the sentence as in ‘Liverpool are 100% going to win the Premier League, no?’ – I know I will NEVER end a sentence like that) Alex Johnston