Words Matter

Recently, I was caught up in a heated debate about word choices. You might assume this was a writers' workshop, or a graduate college English course. Au contraire. It was a team of senior leaders in charge of a complex, global, multi-billion dollar enterprise. Most came from engineering and finance; all had MBAs and PhDs in something other than English. Yet we were working together on their vision, mission and objectives, and having a lot of fun - a lively, sometimes heated debate about the phrases that would define their future.

We must have spent 20 minutes deciding thumbs up or down on a word that would resonate for customers but draw skepticism from their technical team. Then a good 15 minutes deciding whether another word would be interpreted as arrogant or simply bold. The more they turned these words around and looked at the meanings, they more they appreciated the responsibility to get it right. Words matter. They wanted to be intentional.

Some of you are old enough to remember asking mom or dad, "What does that word mean?" and hearing, "Go look it up." They were trying (often without success, in my case) to teach us to fend for ourselves in the language jungle. The reason they wanted us to get up off the couch and go to the back hallway to the bookshelf and find the family dictionary wasn't just because they wanted to get us out of their hair. They knew that if we were enterprising enough to do so, we would have a better chance of remembering it.

Business communication requires a similar approach. We have to get up off our metaphorical couches and think about meaning. Recently while working with another group of leaders I tried an experiment. I banned the words "innovation" and "innovative" from their mission and vision statement. They laughed out loud. It begged the question, "What if we just say what we mean?"

There are 18,457 bestsellers on communication between the sexes. Not so many on business communication. Let's face it, business language isn't very sexy. We are numbed by the words yet we long to speak a common language, so we succumb to group think. We articulate a useful phrase until it is rendered meaningless. This is one of the primary reasons for the lack of clarity in the minds of many employees about where we are going, why, and how we are going to get there.

A couple of years ago, Towers Watson surveyed 328 organizations with five million employees. They found that companies that have leaders who are highly effective communicators had 47% higher total returns to shareholders over the previous five years than companies whose leaders were the ineffective communicators. While we tend to think of good communicators as people who can make a nice presentation, there's so much more to it than that.

As one of my mentors once said, "If you control the language, you control the conversation."

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