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Words Tend to Be Inadequate

The power of shared language in accelerating change

Navigating the changes our societies are currently undergoing demands an unprecedented level of consultation, collaboration, and mutual understanding. In this context, the creation of a new economy calls for careful inclusion of multiple voices and approaches. Beyond the conflicting perspectives of experts and the clamors of media, practical, common terminology has become a requirement to exchange knowledge and to translate our respective ambitions into shared value and collective action.

In the mid-70s, American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer unleashed her seminal series Truisms into the world. The text-based work consisted of a number of sentences projected on buildings and streets. Some of these statements were contradictory, some dark or humorous, some poetic, others controversial, all of them thought-provoking.


Encountering these — uninvited, incongruous — words in public spaces triggered a cognitive and emotional response unique to each viewer. Words have agreed-upon definitions, don’t they? Words frame our views but live in our heads. How could context alter, so drastically, any of these certainties?

The Fragility of Meaning

Words do tend to be inadequate. They are prone to turning bandit, bribed by the elite to tighten a hold on power, co-opted by experts claiming their turf, molded by children and so-called misfits to make language new and break free of caste or cultural homogeneity. And yes, words can connote or denote. They’re slippery that way, shape-shifting at will to fit our lived experiences.

If words are fickle, if meaning can be hijacked, is reality subject to interpretation?

In The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman argues that it is:

Gentrification replaces most people’s experiences with the perceptions of the privileged and calls that reality. In this way gentrification is dependent on telling us that things are better than they are — and this is supposed to make us feel happy. It’s a strange concept of happiness as something that requires the denial of many other people’s experiences.

Truisms in black and white on a wallLanguage is an integral part of how we make sense of our identities, our values, our work, and our passions. And words, it turns out, lead rich lives inside our heads. In Chatter, Ethan Kross reports that our inner voice utters around 4,000 words per minute, a pace that would add up to over an hour in spoken word. This relentless, verbose companion is a constant rival to the outside world where we are forced to communicate with others; it acts as a prism by which we filter all messages.

To bypass that filter, to uncover kinship or foster it, we need shared language. Community might be a necessary precondition to shared language but it can also be a result of it. If the new economy is to replace outdated models, if we commit to seeking improved collective social wellbeing, the expression of what we value as a society must be co-defined. Without each other, nothing we say and do has any meaning.

How do we create new financial vehicles without set standards? How do we reinvent business models without words to make real their purpose and mechanisms? If language frames what is possible, it can also limit our ability to imagine anything beyond the vocabulary we master. In these late days of capitalism, we’ve seen this at play over and over again, more often than not as a hindrance to rapid progress.

If the new economy is to replace outdated models, if we commit to seeking improved collective social wellbeing, the expression of what we value as a society must be co-defined.

Words as vectors for alignment

Social entrepreneurship is a prime example of the slowing effects of a lack of common definitions. Whilst various forms of social enterprise have existed for centuries, the term itself was first mentioned by Joseph Banks in The Sociology of Social Movements, published in 1972. Reputable publications credit the coining of the term to Ashoka founder and CEO Bill Drayton in the early 1980s, but it still took until the early 2000s for an academic field of study around social enterprise to take shape.

Social entrepreneurship is often set apart from commercial entrepreneurship, obviously, but also from sustainable and environmental entrepreneurship. The crux of the differences between them seems to live in how much value is created and destroyed in specific business models, across the dimensions of the triple bottom line. Often cited as key are the emphasis on “social” as a mission priority, the creation of social impact, a stakeholder mindset, and system change as unique organizational capabilities.

I recently had a jarring conversation with an experienced Silicon Valley investor who, with calm certainty, stated that running a social enterprise was akin to going through a demanding university degree and having a job at the same time. As he meant it, this added up to conflicting priorities: distracting at best, a grave error of judgment at worst.

Words on a wall

This stance illustrated the less-than-stellar job that social entrepreneurs (and those who love them), have done in eschewing one of the most glaring weaknesses of the third sector. Misconceptions abound, reinforcing that doing good and doing (really) well are unequivocally incompatible. That considering systems-wide problems and having to be imaginative about business or funding models to make enterprises flourish while maximizing impact is somehow misguided — or noble, but in a slightly tragic way.

This is, of course, not borne out by evidence. Impact investing is exploding for one (it is now a $715 billion opportunity) and, as Joseph Stiglitz outlines in Measuring What Counts, definitions regarding social wealth are changing rapidly, feeding a clearer understanding of the limitations of markets to contribute meaningfully to global social wellbeing:

It is clear that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we assess economic performance and social progress. Even worse, our metrics too frequently give the misleading impression that there is a trade-off between the two; that, for instance, changes that enhance people’s economic security, whether through improved pensions or a better welfare state, come at the expense of national economic performance.

Enterprises might function following models that are as unique as the individuals who found them, but making visible the cost of doing business, across the entire spectrum, requires a shift in language that places shared value at the center of the conversation.

In his widely cited 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Michael Porter masterfully demonstrated his understanding of the power of words to appease and to unite. His definition of shared value may have seemed a little self-conscious, but it is unflinchingly precise in its hierarchy, using well-worn words dear to business leaders as a tried-and-tested foundation from which to guide them to new thinking.

To bridge the ever-growing chasm between business and society, Porter offered:

The solution lies in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.

Notes with words on a brick wallChanging the conversation

Diminishing of social entrepreneurship’s contributions still routinely occurs outside the circle of its converts. As Paul Polman recently explained on LinkedIn: “Despite growing evidence that more sustainable business models yield lasting value, attract the best people, unlock innovation and create resilience, I am still regularly asked to ‘prove it’.”

Whether it’s called social entrepreneurship, impact entrepreneurship or conscious capitalism, turning a profit through purpose still needs a qualifier. But, if entrepreneurship is characterized as creative destruction, then asking ourselves who has control and how those dynamics can be shifted is a responsibility we must all take on. When we embrace the narrative that systems perpetuating supremacy are somehow both natural and unavoidable, we relinquish the power we have to influence policy and social mores as they influence us.

The creation of shared value, in its truest form — the often-elusive win-win-win scenario Rajendra Sisodia and former Whole Foods CEO John Mackey map out so convincingly in Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business — lends moral authority to anyone who genuinely strives to deliver it. It demands rigor and humility, curiosity and empathy. It demands self-examination, accountability, and service to others. It requires negotiating with risk and quantifying returns and losses in ways that are necessarily more complex, qualitative, and holistic than we’ve been led to believe. It also, at its most foundational, requires re-contextualizing, discussing, and sharing the words we wield to describe what it means to build businesses that create value.

Words may be inadequate, but they remain an essential tool to both identify where shared value lives and to trigger and sustain concerted action towards global social wellbeing and social justice.

Isabelle Swiderski founded her design-for-impact agency Seven25 in 2007 to help values-driven organizations leverage the power of design. Marrying an MBA and MA in Design, Isabelle facilitates systems change and social justice and innovation work in partnership with NGOs, universities, governments, entrepreneurs, and ecosystem builders globally.

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