Persuasive communication

Words Count

You can create magic by choosing the right ones

You can create magic by choosing the right ones

The overwhelming trend these days among what’s written about presentations and communications in general is toward visuals and stories to evoke emotions and leave lasting impressions.

That’s a good thing in a lot of ways, especially if it will kill the “wall of words” approach that sadly is still too prevalent in slide presentations today.

But words still count for a lot. In fact, one word can evoke such strong emotions that it overpowers all the context around it. The most glaring example of this in the recent news was Dolphins’ lineman Richie Incognito’s use of the “N-word” in his text message to his teammate Jonathan Martin. Regardless of what comes out of the investigation that is ongoing, the use of that one word has irrevocably changed his life.

Of course most of our daily business and personal communication is not so emotionally charged, but we would do well to continue to pay close attention to the effect that our word choice has on our listeners. Why?

  • Words can be as memorable as visuals. Did Obama have a slide showing behind him when he said, viagra “Yes we can?”
  • The right combination of words can compress complex thoughts into one memorable phrase:
    • “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”,
    • “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”
  • Although it’s true that a lot of emotional meaning comes from nonverbal sources such as tone of voice and body language, that assumes face to face communication, which is clearly declining as a proportion of the time that we spend communicating and influencing others. Text, twitter and sound-bites make word choice even more important, because words are all we have.

So What?

Choose your words carefully. Keep in mind that words often carry emotional meaning far beyond their dictionary definitions, which is why armies of political consultants make a living changing gambling to gaming, or inheritance tax to death tax.

Know your audience. Don’t tell a room full of Lanier salespeople during a training class to “Xerox” their sales call plans, as one of my instructors once did.

Use short, simple words. They pack more punch.

Don’t overdo it. Words are so powerful that we use euphemisms to avoid political incorrectness, and sometimes lose clarity. My pet peeve is the horror at using the word “problem” or “weakness” when coaching others. There may be times when someone needs to hear very clearly that they need to solve a problem, not “address an issue.”

Rehearse. When you have to choose your words carefully, don’t count on winging it and being able to confidently say the right thing. I made this mistake once when I was delivering my wrap-up after a two day class to a sales force. I told them they were “pretty good”; two words that negated two days’ worth of enthusiasm—and I couldn’t say a thing to undo the damage.

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