The wonder of words


We spend a great deal of our time training people about the power of communication and how to improve their own communication. To be honest, almost everything we cover for companies, and there is a lot, has communication at its core. It’s therefore a massive topic but I’d just like to scratch the surface and look at the things you are now reading but are quite often over-looked: words.

Of course, words are not everything. Indeed, you will have all seen the bit of research carried out in the 1950’s that suggests that, when it comes to communication, only 7% is made up by what we say, the other big bit (I’m and English man, not a Maths man) is made up of tone and body language (38% and 55%). Hopefully you have seen this as it’s an important though often misused bit of research (done by using Positronemission tomography as if you didn’t know) which can be incorrectly high-jacked.

As a word pedant (is there any other type??) I’d like to challenge this research (as many have) but, when I do think about it, I tend to broadly agree. It ain’t what you say it’s the way that you say it, as Bananarama once so rightly said, I suppose. ‘t’say it’s mathematically accurate, as I put a lot more store on words myself, but, thinking in general, I do feel it’s about right. Though the “research” that shows that 10% of conflicts are caused by differences of opinion and 90% by using the wrong tone of voice maybe pushing it a bit, but maybe not too much, judging by the fall-outs in our house.

First rule of tightrope walking? Don’t look down. Second rule? “I never try to walk, I succeed. I succeed before even putting my first foot forward”

So, do words matter? Well, I’m biased but, yes. And if you want to test this, just ask anyone what they call a bread cake and you’ll see from their agitated response how individual words can cause an interesting reaction. Or ask about what an alleyway is, for that matter (a tenfoot, a ginnel,a jinnel, a snicket, a jigger, the back passage, etc., please send your favourites on a stamped addressed envelope to our Editor) and you’ll see a similarly agitated response (it ran for two weeks on the Times’ letter page earlier this year).

Words do make an impact and we need to be aware of the impact of the words we use.

There’s been interesting research recently that shows how we word sentences has a real influence on people and their responses. For example if you tell people “This has an 80% chance of success” you tend to get a very positive response from them. However, if you tell them that “This has a 20% chance of failure”, which is the same thing, people tend to focus on “failure” and shy away from the solution as they think it’s going to fail. Simple but true (and something known to advertisers, politicians and hypnotists for many, many years).

People respond to positive words and negative words.

And it’s very useful to be aware of this when dealing with customers and staff (or just people) to make sure that you sound more positive than negative when you need to be (especially in coaching and feedback, focus on the positives, not the negatives). You may think “Isn’t this just spinning things?” but it isn’t, it’s being as positive as you can in a realistic manner for the right outcome.

Consider these two responses:

Without positive language: “No, I can’t get you that product until next month; it is back-ordered and unavailable at this time…” which is quite negative.

With positive language: “That product will be available next month. I will place the order for you right now and it will be sent to you as soon as it reaches our warehouse.”

I’d prefer to her the second one.

We’ve always known about this. Back in 2000 Jonathan Edwards finally (finally?) won a gold medal in the triple jump (how much better does that sound that the “hop, skip and jump” it used to be called?) was approached by the (rather negative) on track reporter (who must have been British) and asked “Does this compensate for losing the Gold Medal in Atlanta?” to which a pumped up Edwards replied (rather than punching him in the face) “I didn’t lose gold, I won silver.” That shows you the power of positive words. Though he slipped into negative ways some months later in a European event when, having fouled every jump he decided to give in.

“I’d already made up excuses in my mind: I was tired, it was cold, it’s a young man’s game. I’d pretty much given up.” He then told himself he was world champion, was a gold medal winner, was Jonathan Edwards, a winner and he settled talked to himself, and, of course, won the competition with his last jump. Such is the mind of a positive champion. Like tightrope walking.

First rule of tightrope walking? Don’t look down. Second rule? “I never try to walk, I succeed. I succeed before even putting my first foot forward.” Philippe Petit, tightrope walker, check out the documentary on his 1974 walk or the drama “The Walk” with terrifying visuals at the end (if you don’t like heights, that is).

(As Yoda said, “No. try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” Yes, it’s fiction but we like it.)

In our business life, when we want to convince people, when we want to convince ourselves, the more positive the better. So, let’s avoid “Could, if, maybe, can”… and replace them with “WHEN, will, must, solution, time, need”… sounds clichéd but clichés are clichés because they are mostly true. (Did you notice I didn’t write “if”? in the sentence above?).

In an age when it seems we teach wordplay less than we ever did, when we spend less time focusing on the importance of words and having a lexicon to be proud of, when spell-check is the default setting for people, when we lean on IT to do our grammar checking for us, those who have a control and understanding of words have an extra string to their bow (and, no, I’m not going to try to explain Trump here, you’ll be happy to know, though I do therapy sessions around what’s going on there if required).

Of course, please don’t forget visuals and tone. You need to look for congruence when you communicate, and that, if you don’t know the word (and why should you?) is “agreement or harmony; compatibility” or, simply put, making all three match your intended message, but, just for a change, think about your words.

You know it makes sense.


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Training Design & Delivery of topics such as Customer Service, Note Taking, Business Writing, Presentation Skills, All Management/Team Leader areas, Sales, Sales Management, all tailored and run in-house for your personal requirements. Also, coaching and mentoring.

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