In your daily life you probably use 'speak' and 'talk' interchangeably. But according to a fascinating recent BBC article, police negotiators draw a big distinction between these two seemingly identical words. 

Two researchers "collaborated with British police to analyse recordings of conversations between persons in crisis and crisis negotiators," reports William Park in the piece. When negotiators used the word 'talk' to begin the conversation -- as in, "Can we talk about how you are?" -- the person in crisis often refused. But when the negotiator used the word 'speak,' they other party usually engaged. 

What could possibly be the difference? "Cultural idioms encourage us to put little value on 'talk'. After all, 'talk is cheap' and 'talking the talk' is less meaningful than 'walking the walk,'" but "because we do not have equivalent cultural idioms, 'speak' seems to work," Park explains. 

This bit of language trivia is clearly useful for negotiators, but what does it have to do with business people? This study illustrates that even tiny changes to your word choice can have outsized effects on your impact. And this is as true of meetings as it is of hostage situations. 

Word choice matters more than you think it does. 

Imagine you've come to the end of scheduled business at a meeting of any kind. Maybe it's a large presentation, maybe it's a one-on-one. You've said your piece but you're eager to get the reaction of other participants' and genuinely want to know if they have any kind of follow-up to the preceding conversation. How do you encourage people to speak up?

Most of us would probably use some formulation along the lines of, "Anything else?" "Any questions?" or "Does anyone have anything else to add?" All of which sound like sensible, natural options. But all these possibilities suffer from the same fatal flaw: the word 'any'. 

Grant references another study that looked at the language used by doctors who wanted to make sure patients had raised all their concerns at the end of a visit. 

"One group of physicians were instructed to say 'Is there anything else you want to address in the visit today?' and a second group were instructed to say 'Is there something else you want to address in the visit today?' A third group acted as a control and said nothing to solicit further concerns," he writes. When researchers compared the three groups, the results were clear. 

Saying nothing and using 'anything' were about equally effective. About half of people raised another concern with the doctor. But when the doctor used 'something' instead, "90 percent of patients with extra concerns raised them." 

That's a huge difference. How can just switching out 'something' for 'anything' have such a massive effect? Experts explain to Grant that "the word 'any-' has a closing-down function. It tends to be used as a token gesture." So when you ask "Anything else?" at the end of that meeting, what everyone else hears is, "I'm dying to get out of this room and grab some lunch."

If you really want to keep the conversation going, ask participants if they have 'something' to add instead. That might sound like an absurdly small change, but according to science even these tiny shifts in language can make a big difference in how people respond. 

Curious about more of these fun but impactful language oddities? The complete article is full of them. 

Published on: Sep 26, 2019
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