According to the latest neuroscience, the human brain uses neurons in the left visual cortex to process written words as whole word units. The brain combines these words and their stored meanings to remember and understand information.
Analytical thinking is the process of remembering words and putting their meanings into context. This process is not simply accessing a mental dictionary. Every time you use words, you re-create their meaning.
The words you habitually use when you're thinking (and then expressing those thoughts) mold how you see the world. For example, people who habitually think (and speak and write) the word "hate" tend to find an ever-increasing number of things to hate.
This relationship between word usage and perception is hugely important in business. When you train yourself to speak and write using clearly defined words arranged into concise sentences, you're training your brain to think more clearly.
More important, when you write and speak more clearly, you increase your positive influence on your team. Due to their mirror neurons, they'll begin to imitate your clarity in their own thought processes. Clarity is contagious.
Conversely, if you habitually use fuzzy, ill-defined words crammed into long and convoluted sentences, you're training your brain--and the brains of your team members--to think less clearly. Confusion is also contagious.
With that in mind, here are three easy ways to hone your word skills:
1. Mentally edit out fuzzy buzzwords.
While most business buzzwords are simply annoying (like saying "utilize" rather than "use"), some are so fuzzy and vague that they automatically lead to confused thinking.
The worst offenders are: alignment, best of breed, client-centric, core competency, crystallize, customer-centric, diversity, empowerment, holistic, leading, leverage, generation, paradigm, robust, seamless, stakeholder, sustainability, and synergy.
Take the term synergy. In physics, synergy describes the creation of a whole that's greater than the arithmetic sum of its parts. Classic example: combining flour, water, yeast and heat to create a loaf of bread.
In business, though, synergy generally pops up when disparate organizations are combined, as in a merger, acquisition, or corporate restructuring. In business, however, synergy is rare to the point of nonexistence.
"Even when you have a deal that looks lovely on paper," says Wharton's Emilie Feldman, "getting cultures to fit together, people to stay on board, merging I.T. systems and back offices: all these things are really hard."
Rather than ask difficult questions and think things thoroughly through, decision makers unconsciously use the word synergy to make problematic deals seem more palatable, like slathering ketchup over rancid meatloaf.
Mentally editing out the fuzzy, vague buzzwords when you are talking, speaking, listening, or reading gradually clears your mind of the confusion they create, thereby making you smarter.
2. Simplify your business writing.
If you find yourself writing or reading long, complex sentences at work, edit and reedit them so that they express the gist in fewer words. Do this repeatedly and over time you'll automatically accustom your brain to shorter, clearer wordings.
Here's how this works. A subscriber to my free weekly newsletter recently sent me this fairly typical example of biz-blab:
Leveraging XYZ technology and compliance expertise can give your business an important competitive advantage. XYZ can help you manage the 'people side' of your businesses more effectively, avoiding compliance pitfalls and creating key benefits for the businesses and your employees, while simultaneously freeing up time for owners and executives to concentrate on growing their businesses by focusing on operations, strategy, and innovation.
While that paragraph is grammatically correct, it's using a lot of words to waltz around a fairly simple concept. I'm sure that if you read it carefully, you know what they're getting at, but it can be worded with much more economy, like so:
XYZ handles your personnel busywork so that you can spend more time growing your business.
Simplifying biz-blab to the fewest number of words doesn't just make your writing crisper, it also habituates your mind to seek the simple essence of needlessly complex concepts. The more often you practice this clarification process, the smarter you get.
3. Play the "one syllable" game.
This exercise trains your brain to use smaller, easier-to-understand words rather than complex ones. The concept is simple: Try to communicate business ideas using words of only one syllable.
For example, if I were trying to communicate the rules of the game using those rules, I'd write: "The point of the game is to talk and write with words that are so short that they can not be split."
While this kind of writing and speaking doesn't result in anything you'd actually use in a business discussion, the mental effort of oversimplifying accustoms your brain to reach for the small words rather than the overly complex ones.
Since complex words tend to "complexify" your thoughts (and your expression of them), habitually using common words leads toward clearer thinking.