"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." A powerful sentiment indeed. Powerful...and not always true.
Our choice of words can definitely hurt us - particularly in professional situations. How many times have you kicked yourself over using overly informal language with your boss, or coming across in a different manner than intended?
And have you noticed how people don't get fired anymore, but rather, "let go"? Or that we no longer say "policeman" or "chairman" to avoid role gender stereotypes? There's a reason for that and it's because our choice of words matters.
Wars have been won and lost on the back of words. Think about some of the most inspiring military speeches of all time. Do you think Abraham Lincoln would have rallied the troops as well had he said, "so we need to look at the numbers, take out more of them than us"?
No, evoking sentiment of family and patriotism did a way better job; "It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children's children this great and free government... The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel." Now that's a winning speech.
Not only do words have the power to win or lose on the battlefield, but they carry just as much weight as numbers when it comes to business. Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, requires all employees to kickstart a meeting by reading aloud an essay they've written on the subject, a new product, or what the meeting goal is. Why? Because he believes that writing about something at length requires thinking about it at length. Not just glancing at numbers or targets.
According to Scientific American, the words we use speak volumes about our personality. This doesn't just apply to those long, business buzzwords that make us sound like we've swallowed a dictionary (leverage, streamline, optimize). The real telltale signs can actually be in the smallest words of all.
There's No "i" In Team
Social psychologist of the University of Texas, James W. Pennebaker, observes that we often go wrong when trying to present ourselves in a way we think other people will find acceptable. When we over-think how we speak, we tend to use constraining words that can stop us from sounding authentic.
One of the most telling signs of whether a person is a team player, or has their own interests at heart is by listening out for usage of "I" and "me" over "us" and "we."
Words Reveal Our True Character
According to Pennebaker, the written word can often give away clues about the person who wrote it, from their age to their gender. There's a ton of valuable information hidden in the subtext of our use of pronouns and articles.
Women, in general, have been found to use more pronouns than men and make greater references to others. Men typically opt for longer words and use more articles.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the older generation is often better at writing and expressing themselves clearly. They're more aware of negative-emotion words, like "alarming" or "discouraging," and opt instead for positive speech, probably because they've learned from past mistakes.
Use of words can also be a sign as to whether someone is telling the truth or not, depending on how they structure their speech. Pennebaker explains that people who are telling the truth tend to use the first person singular, with more statements beginning with "I," whereas those who are lying often respond to a question with another question.
We Have a Problem
Using the word "problem" can be a problem. When you say things like, "There's a problem with this strategy," it immediately sounds negative and definitive. The subtext could be, "Let's call the whole thing off. It's 95% great, but yikes, that 5% problem is going to throw off everything!"
Instead of using the word "problem" - try substituting it with the word "challenge." This shift in vocabulary inspires confidence, while still getting the message across. Saying, "This strategy presents a challenge," makes the listeners feel like the team will be able to rise to the occasion.
Persuasive Words That Work
There are many words and phrases that you can incorporate into your daily vocabulary to help you make friends more easily and create a rapport in the workplace, or pull off a compelling presentation. According to Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, words like "affordable, "convenient", "easy" and "free" still carry a lot of weight with an audience.
In no area is this more essential than in sales writing. Any copywriter worth their salt will know that you never speak to customers about features. You can reach them when you talk about the benefits instead.
Picture a consumer in the market for a pair of hiking boots. Chances are, they won't be too swayed by the hand-woven, breathable mesh fabric. Tell them their feet will stay drier and more comfortable for longer and they'll be much more inclined to buy. They can see the benefit and feel themselves in the shoes; not just hear about the material they're made of.
Another key factor to keeping your user on the page is remembering the value of "you." Just think about your typical company About Us page. It's very tempting to launch into a one-sided diatribe about the company history and achievements. But a much more persuasive text is likely to start with "Do you find yourself pressed for time or wishing there were more hours in the day?" You're giving the customer what they want, drawing them in and making it about them.
Using People's Names
Price also reminds us the power of using people's names. If you're not real good at this, try to start making a point of remembering first names. Using a person's name shows respect and also communicates that they are important to you (enough to remember their name!) They will look on you favorably in return, as you come across as caring and a good listener.
So, the next time you open your mouth or rush to speak without thinking first, remember that your choice of words is constantly representing you. Thinking before you speak can mean the difference between success and failure.