One of the greatest obstacles to effective communications is boredom. We have a stunning capacity to render perfectly interesting ideas excruciatingly boring through our choice of words. Language carries an extraordinary amount of power. The life of your ideas is embodied in the words you choose. Quite often, the language we use will be the difference between an audience accepting and retaining our ideas or not.
The biggest threat to the effective use of language is abstract jargon and buzzwords, also known as corporate-speak and more broadly, bull. This language is overly-inflated, industry-specific and often so abstract that it means different things to different people. The examples of this are endless, from “synergistic relationships” to “next-generation leadership potential” to “strategic alignment”. These words are designed to sound important and signify little. Most damaging is that they are words that we as people would rarely use outside of the workplace. We don’t utilize the lawnmower to optimize the length of the grass. We mow the lawn. When we adopt language that we would never use in our personal lives, we distance ourselves from the ideas we are trying to communicate. As a result, our ability to persuade is reduced. We are at our most persuasive when we are able to show our own conviction. It’s very difficult to inject passion into a sentence like, “In order to reduce overlap, we need to eliminate redundancies and focus on core competencies going forward.”
Of course, no one likes this language. We all laugh at it in meetings. And we all use it when it’s our turn to speak. Why? Generally, the reason given is that it’s ‘the culture’ to use this type of language. We feel that it’s expected of us. In other words, we use it because everyone else does. There’s an inherent breakdown in this logic. Because if everyone uses it because everyone else does, then where does it begin, and more importantly, where does it stop? Hopefully, it stops with you. The people we tend to look up to are the people who are able to convey their ideas with clarity and passion. We are able to feel the energy of their ideas, because they give us access to them through their words. This is the opportunity that language presents us with.
I’m going to describe six basic principles that will help you use language to its full potential:
- Use clear, concrete language
- Use personal, conversational language
- Use active language
- Use short sentences
- Be kind with your language
- Use language with some life to it
Use clear, concrete language
When speaking or writing, fight to find exactly the right word to express your thoughts. Abstract language leaves room for interpretation. An example would be the word “sustainable”. If a developer, a government official and a community activist all agreed to “sustainable development”, it’s almost guaranteed that they would mean different things when they used this term. Likewise, someone in Finance, Operations or HR would also have a different interpretation of the word ‘sustainable’. Unfortunately, we often don’t discover this difference of interpretation until after the fact, when it is too late. Clear language helps us avoid these differences of interpretation. By using clear, concrete language, I do not mean dumb down the language. People often refer to the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) when communicating. Your audiences aren’t stupid, and your ideas are challenging: use words that are going to excite your audiences. If you struggle for clarity, simplicity is often the by-product. It doesn’t necessarily work the other way around.
Use personal, conversational language
Communication happens between human beings. We are trying to connect our thinking with another human being through the use of words. The more you can use personal pronouns, the more your audience will feel a connection to you and what you are saying. So, yes, this means saying, “I”, “You” and “We” rather than “it was deemed necessary”, “there was an organizational driver” or any other depersonalized way of framing an idea. Once you start using personal pronouns, you will find that you will naturally be drawn to a more conversational way of speaking. It doesn’t matter if it’s an e-mail, a presentation or an update to Senior Leadership, the more personal and conversational your language, the more effective you will be at getting the audience to receive your ideas.
Use active language
We often use very passive phrasing, with the verb buried at the end of the sentence. This weakens the urgency of the sentence and reduces its impact. Speechwriter Alan Perlman offers the following two examples of passive language made active:
Not this: And so, the ongoing modernization of our power generation facilities is a central need.
But this: And so, we’ll need to be modernizing our power generation facilities – continuously.
Not this: The acid rain phenomenon is not yet fully understood.
But this: We don’t really understand acid rain.
Overlooking the antiquated content of the second sentence, you can see that adding a personal pronoun and turning the passive “modernization” and “understood” into the active “modernizing” and “understand” greatly increases the effectiveness of these two sentences.
Use short sentences
Run-on sentences are difficult to follow. I am very blunt with my clients: run-on sentences display sloppy thinking; crisp sentences reflect crisp thinking. There is some debate out there, but generally speaking, best practices are somewhere between 15-20 words per sentence. The reason for this is that long sentences tend to have a lot of commas, which suggests multiple idea fragments. These types of sentence are hard to follow and hard to remember. I’m not suggesting you should be counting your words when you speak, but if you find yourself losing your train of thought, your sentences are probably too long. Using short sentences takes practice. You can use e-mails and conference calls to practice. The shorter your sentences, the better your audience will listen.
Be kind with your language
How many of you have been in an e-mail fight before? Right, all of us. First, never do that again. It takes more time to deal with an escalation (can we all agree that ‘escalation’ is a fancy word for ‘telling on you’?), than it does to resolve an issue before it gets to that point. But, when e-mail fights do happen, it is often a result of the tone of the language. Increasingly, we are relying on e-mails and texts to communicate with the people around us. Many of us have longstanding relationships with people we have never even seen. The danger of this is that it is very easy for people to misinterpret the tone of your communication when all they see are your words. No one ever mistakenly interprets an e-mail as having been nicer than it was intended. Much confusion and conflict can be avoided by always choosing positive, kind language. This also helps build better relationships with the people around you.
Use language that has some life to it
Keeping your focus at work can be hard, particularly at 2:00 in the afternoon when your blood sugar is low. Don’t make it harder on your audience by using abstract lifeless language. Choose words that excite. Adjectives inject energy into a meeting, as do metaphors or alliteration or parallel structure. Rather than endless run-on sentences, use some short sentences to punctuate a point. Listen to what you’re saying. Does it sound boring to you? If it does, chances are it does to your audience as well. You don’t have to write a haiku, but the language you choose can often be the difference between an idea sticking with an audience and it going in one ear and out the other.
Effective use of language is essential to good communication. It isn’t window-dressing – it is the literal embodiment of your ideas. By using language to bring your thoughts to life, you are offering the audience an access point – a reason to be inspired. If they have to fight their way through dense jargon, run-on sentences and impersonal language, there’s a good chance many of them will be lost along the way. Be courageous in your choice of words and your audiences will thank you.