The words we use to talk about our role matter.
Updated: Jan 14
We’ve all seen the many blogs, social media posts and webinars which centre on the perception problem of the role of a PA/EA and I do not dispute that our profession has a PR problem. Equally, there are lots of very motivating and inspiring resources encouraging us to lean in, get involved and be seen as a strategic partner. However, it is not just the actions we take, and projects we lead, which contribute to our position being viewed as that of a strategic partner. If we want to be seen as more than “just a PA” and change the perception of our role, then we also need to consider the language we use when talking about our role. Could we be doing ourselves a disservice through our choice of language when talking about our role, not just internally but also externally with friends and family in social settings?
If we want to be seen as more than “just a PA” and change the perception of our role, then we also need to consider the language we use when talking about our role. Could we be doing ourselves a disservice through our choice of language when talking about our role, not just internally but also externally with friends and family in social settings?
The social conversation.
Does this following conversation sound familiar?
Friend: How are you? How is work?
Me/ You: Yeah good, really busy. What about you?
Friend: Ah good. Yeah, really good. I’ve been working on this new project which is going to revolutionise our communication strategy, it’s really interesting because………….”
Our roles are busy and varied and sometimes much of the work we do is confidential, making it difficult to talk about. However, if we do not better communicate the work that we do, we do nothing to counter the damaging PA / EA perception that the likes of the Devil Wears Prada, Mad Men and, more recently, Netflix’s The Bold Type continue to represent. I didn’t even get through the first series of The Bold Type as I got too angry with how the PA/EA role was being portrayed. I know one EA, whose Granny was a secretary, is now early on in her own EA career, which she is loving, and her family are encouraging her to get a “proper job” because they are unaware of how the role has changed from her Granma’s day and of the value of a PA / EA in today’s business environment. If, in social settings, we continue to only talk of our roles as being “busy” then are we doing anything to change the outside world’s perception of what our role really is all about?
Furthermore, I think if we talk positively about our role in social settings with our friends and family, it will improve their understanding and the level of respect that they have for the Business Support Professionals in their own organisations.
The Internal Conversation.
I have always felt highly valued, appreciated and respected by the Execs that I work with because they are the direct recipients of the impact of my work. However, I think there has often be a confusion over my role by those who do not have the ultimate luxury of working directly with an PA/EA themselves and hence may still maintain old-fashioned ideas about our roles. There have been times when I have seen eyebrows raised (politely) wondering why I am attending a certain meeting, or a meeting Chair has gone around the table asking for introductions and I’ve been missed out of the intros, leaving me feeling invisible. So, whilst it is important to positively communicate the impact of your role with your Exec, particularly in annual reviews, it is just as import to nail your introductions with others you meet in the business and the watercooler moments when you’re asked, “What have you been up to?” by a co-worker. I recently met a senior colleague who I hadn’t seen for a while and they asked, “What have you been up to? Just chilling?” I was somewhat caught off guard, but quickly recovered and responded with information on a project that I’ve been working on, about which they had many follow up questions for and demonstrated that "just chilling" was definitely not what I was doing.
These mico-moments can impact your internal brand and also support your colleagues into having a more positive view of the PA / EA role. The key to these interactions is impact. Can you communicate the impact of what you are working on and, if possible, share something that they may have a shared interest in too?
Communicating with impact.
First impressions count
This is a moment to make yourself memorable. After a few dud introductions this is something that I’ve been actively working on, thinking about the ideas below has helped me to create impactful introductions. These can of course be tailored depending on who you are meeting, the environment and timing.
I am [preferred name]
My role is [job title] and I support [insert name]
Which really means I [example of the work you do and its impact]
We are likely to engage / cross paths / work together when it comes to [another example of the work that you do].
I am also [insert any added extra responsibilities that you take on]
Stage three and four of the above are the most important and will leave a lasting impression on the recipient. If we stop our introduction after point two, we are leaving it up to the recipient to fill in the blanks and we take the risk that they will assume that we are “just chilling”.
There are elements of our role which may seem mundane. I am talking about the black & white basics of our role: the diary scheduling, the travel bookings and the dreaded expense reports. However, whilst these tasks may not be so interesting or glamourous, they are important. The support we provide our Executives in nailing these enables them to be more efficient, to not have to think or worry about these elements of their job, because we have taken care of it. We enable things to keep running smoothly, and that is not to be underestimated.
Review your use of the word “just”.
“Just” should be used in the context of meaning, fair, exact or time related, if not, stop using it. “Can I just have a moment of your time?”, “I just organise meetings”, “Can I just ask to make a point on this topic?” In these scenarios the word “just” wholly undermines the work you do and the very valid request that you are making. Adding “just” to the sentences above does nothing other than making them seem less important. When writing about the use of the word “just” Ellen Leanse identifies it as “a "permission" word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking "Can I get something I need from you?"
Support vs. Look after.
Using the phrase “I support / partner with [insert executive]” rather than “I look after [insert executive]” may seem like a small change in our choice of language, but if we want to shift the dial on the perception of our role and be seen as partners and high-level business support then I feel that these subtle changes are required. For me, the phrase “I look after...” conjures up images of being a babysitter or a caregiver in a retirement home for the elderly, which whilst a very worthy role, couldn’t be further from what I actually do.
Be your own PR Manager.
If we want the perception of our profession to change then I believe that we have an active part to play. We need to be our own PR Managers, both internally and externally. If we want to have a chance of changing perception from a coffee collecting, coat carrying dog’s body portrayed in the media to an impactful and resource business support partner that we really are, then the words that we use to talk about our role matter and we need to choose these carefully.