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Use the right words when you have the floor

October 14, 2019

Use the right words when you have the floor

While the musical skills of the director can have a lot of influence on who walks in the door, the words used by all chapters leaders heavily influence who decides to stay

Director - Wide Shot

Think about your chorus rehearsal. A director likely spends a lot of time speaking to the whole group. So do assistant directors, section leaders, the chapter president, maybe a chorus manager, show chairman, treasurer, membership vice president—you get it. A lot of voices regularly have the undivided attention of your membership.

I believe one of the most important things your chapter leaders can do to improve enthusiasm, performance and retention in your organization is to ensure those leaders are using the right words when they’re given the floor. Think critically about the words you use. Positive and inclusive language shows people you care about them and believe in them. The opposite is language that’s negative and exclusive, and in a volunteer organization, that’s a quick way to show people that you think they aren’t good enough and don’t belong.

It sounds basic, but it’s easy to take for granted. Say your chorus is rehearsing a new song. A few chords in the introduction don’t quite line up, and the director stops. The director can say, “Baritones, you’re flat. I think you can do better.” An entire section is on the defensive, and the other sections are angry at the ones making them run another lap. The baritones have been excluded, and the director has put themselves above the group by saying, “I think you can do better.”

The director can also say, “Good work. Let’s sing that again and give ourselves another chance to tune some of those chords better.” The director has given the same instruction but kept the outlook positive without belittling or elevating anyone. Everyone (including the director) now has an opportunity to earn and enjoy the success that will follow. And when that success comes, celebrate before you move on!

The morning I was writing this, a friend happened to send me the Style Guide published by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. It’s a guide for journalists and other communicators (e.g., chapter leaders) to help choose the right words when referring to people with disabilities.

The guide begins: “As language, perceptions and social mores change at a seemingly faster and faster rate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists and other communicators to figure out how to refer to people with disabilities.” The guide has a section of general tips as well as an in-depth guide of over 200 terms, their background and if/how one should use them.

As I read the guide, I thought about the words I choose when I’m in front of people-both about people with disabilities and in a general sense. Even if none of those 200 terms were to come up in any meeting or rehearsal, you and those around you only stand to benefit if you are actively trying to be inclusive when you speak to others. It shows you care and builds rapport and buy-in among those listening. All of that goes without saying: It’s also simply the right way to treat people.

Amy Silverman of the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s board wrote the foreword to the guide and summed up the sentiment perfectly. I encourage you to think of her words the next time you step in front of your chapter, no matter the capacity:

“Do your best.”


- James Pennington

Chapter Success Manager

As featured in The Harmonizer, Sep/Oct 2019