In a political revolution, insurgents quickly target the media outlets. Their reasoning? He who controls the language controls the thinking. Speech equals power.
Experience vs. Description
Now comes another study to suggest that insurgents may have it right. In this experiment, one group of volunteers saw a shade of yellow on a strip of white paper for a few seconds. The group was then shown another strip of paper with several shades of yellow (including the first) and was asked to pick out the original color. In this group, 73% were able to identify the original shade of yellow.
A second group saw the same shade of yellow, told to describe the color aloud, and then were asked to pick out the original color from a strip containing multiple shades. Only 33% of the "describers" were able to accurately identify the original color.
Language Distorts Experience
How do we account for this difference between the two groups? Scientists think that the language we use to describe our experience overrides or distorts our actual experience. In the case of the "describers" mentioned above, they ended up remembering not what they had experienced but what they had said about what they experienced. And what they had said about what they experienced was not clear and precise enough to help them recognize it when they saw it again thirty seconds later.
Messages, not hard attributes, shape our perceptions of products, ideas, and people. We have neither the time, the ability, or the interest to master the full complexity of what we buy or who we meet. Even our own vagrant thoughts distort our perceptions.
Words Sharpen or Soften Impact
Our own political parties fight over language. Should it be "global warming" or "climate change"? The "estate tax" or the "death tax"? "Starvation" or "calorie deficiency"? These word choices soften or sharpen what they describe, and thus have a profound impact on how we think about the underlying phenomena.
Words Tag Key Features
One of the functions of language is to help us extract and remember the important features of our experiences so that we can analyze and communicate them later. The New York Times online film archive stores critical synopses of films and not the films themselves, which would take up far too much space and be far too difficult to search. Experiences are even more complex than movies, and were our brains to store the full-length movie of our lives, our skulls would have to expand.
Choose Your Language Carefully
So words have power, and savvy presenters use them carefully. For instance, avoid business jargon unless you want to be seen as talking much and saying little. Because we hear business jargon all the time (robust, leverage, secular change, serial entrepreneur) it sounds to many of us like verbal oatmeal-its meaning is not clear-so the words have no snap, crackle or pop.
Strive to make concrete that which is abstract. Instead of saying, "We need to occasion customer loyalty to avoid competitive intrusion," we should say, "Let's get 'em hooked on our cookies before the other guys start cooking theirs."
Or instead of saying, "The value of controlled assets exceeds by a factor of two the value of those you seek to acquire but do not yet possess," say, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
The take away? Stick your thoughts into the minds of your audience with vivid language, as Martin Luther did when he supposedly nailed his theses to the door of that church.
The way Barry Goldwater did when he said, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight."
The way President Kennedy said, "I'm reading more and enjoying it less."
The way Mike Tyson said, when told that his opponent had a plan to knock him out, "Everybody has a plan...until they get hit."
If you don't assert your story well, another story will prevail.