The Weight of the Word is On Your Shoulders

An image of an echidna Atlas holding up the weight of the world on its shoulder.

How important are words? Well, maybe Elvis sang it best when he warbled “It’s only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away.”

Whether you’re trying to convince someone to buy your product, motivate your staff to greater success and productivity, or encourage people to embrace your personal brand, words are the most powerful tools you have in your corporate tool belt.

But just as a hammer can be used to build or destroy, so too can your choice of words elevate your business or undermine its efforts.

It’s not about political correctness run amok, nor is it about being paralyzed by fear every time you open your mouth or post something on the Web. But there is tremendous value in considering your language use. And it’s not a matter of being oversensitive as none of these terms are earth shattering.

However, if a better alternative exists that elevates your efforts, doesn’t it make sense to use it?

After all, we live in a time where time is at a premium. There are so many competing messages out there, doesn’t it make sense to make every word count?

So what challenges do we face, both individually and as businesses, in choosing the right words?

I’m Better than You – I’m a fairly staunch Twitter advocate, but one thing I hate is the term “follower.” When used for more intangible descriptions, “follow” is a perfectly fine term: I follow current events, I follow my favourite sports team. But when individualized it can appear to establish a hierological progression. I’m reading your Tweets; I’m not joining a cult. (See also those who refer to themselves as wizards, gurus, swamis, etc… you may think that you’re being cute and funny, but the inference is otherwise).

We see that in business titles with the addition of “junior.” While it may be true that a person may report to someone hierologically, the use of a diminutive like “junior” undermines the value and quality of his or her involvement. It also can psychologically impede someone from sharing an idea with more “senior” staff.

Titles do not bestow a monopoly on good ideas and value. Working within a team and coming up with titles that don’t belittle one’s value can be a powerful motivational tool. And when interacting with customers, you never want to make yourself seem that you think you’re ‘better’ than they are. We are all in the customer service industry, with a goal of providing our customers value – if anything, they should be elevated. They’re not doing us a favour by buying our products or using our services.

Demotivating Motivation – Beyond the fact that merely using a term like “think outside of the box” is a trite cliché in itself and is representative of the exact type of thinking that you’re trying to avoid, think about what the term implies. When we say this, we’re suggesting that one’s day-to-day thinking is, actually, rather pedestrian, their ideas are average, and that the normal functionality of their efforts is anything but inspirational, innovative, or creative.

Qualifiers – Though, however, surprisingly… they’re all solid words and extremely functional in their own right. But they can pack a loaded punch when used as an ellipsis of sorts. Think of what the following terms are really saying: “He’s really good at his job, though,” “However, the product is amazing”… what is packed in those little characters “though” and “however”? You’re inferring success ‘in spite’ of something. Yet many use terms like “however,” “though,” and “but” as verbal hiccoughs – and though the intent might not be there to undermine, that’s what can happen through a careless use of a term.

Abrupt or Misformed Phrases – Say you’re at the counter, placing an order for a coffee. Consider the difference between what these two statements imply: “Is that all?” “Can I get you anything else?” The former, even if it’s not intended to be so, conveys an impression that the service provider is being put upon (or, worse, that the customer is being overly demanding), where as the second is a value-added statement offering the customer further service.

At the root, they’re the same, but the tone, delivery, and result are completely different.

Words Matter – Yes, the impact of the most carefully chosen words can be undone by negative body language, a put-upon tone, and indifferent delivery. But no amount of dynamic presentation, engaging speaking, and animation can breathe life into a poorly constructed statement.

There is a lot of evidence that disproves the “seven per cent rule” – that old marketing adage stating 93 per cent of persuasive communication is non-verbal. Anecdotally, one only has to look at the power of what words convey.

One of the most famous – and most stirring – speeches of all time is the Gettysburg Address. It’s impact reverberates to all parts of the world, yet who out there can tell me how Lincoln sounded delivering it? What gestures did he make? Did he appear indifferent or passionate?

The text itself resonates to this day. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech has the same impact. Yes, we are blessed to have audio and video references of this speech, but standing alone the words still carry tremendous weight.

And while visual cues can augment a message, in our increasingly disconnectedly connected world, we don’t have the luxury of face-to-face communication. Much of our messaging is delivered, dispassionately, by a screen. The proper use of words is key to delivering your message.

Words matter. And like that aforementioned hammer, taking a little extra time and care to ensure you’re using them to build something up, as opposed to tearing something down, can make all the difference.

Now I turn it over to you. Which words or phrases bother you? Do you make a conscious effort to choose or avoid certain words? Have you any positive or negative experiences resulting from intentional or unintentional use of certain terms?

Comments are open.


Questions Answered

How can improve my content writing?

How important is choosing the right word?

Why are words important?

Can the words I use unintentionally hurt someone?



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