I’ve had this infatuation with being a wordsmith for many, many (many) years. The fact is, I like words – all kinds of words. I guess you could say I’m infatuated with the English language, so much so that one of my favorite books of all-time is Webster’s Dictionary.
And it still gives me great pleasure to have my friends reach for the dictionary when I ask them to quit acting insouciantly.
But the funny thing is, when it comes to being a business leader, I feel quite differently about words and how I use them to communicate. In that context, it’s a whole different ballgame.
I found that out pretty early in my career, way back in 1987, when my boss at the time decided to challenge me on my dictionary prowess. He asked me about my views on an important business decision we needed to make.
I replied, in a manner meant to showcase my mastery of English, “Well sir, there seems to be a dichotomy of opinions on this”, to which he asked “young man, what the heck do you mean?” After I said, “What I mean is, there are two different ways folks are looking at this” he retorted “so my silly boy, why didn’t you just say so!”
Needless to say, I haven’t said the word “dichotomy” since, unless I was telling this story. That’s how much it stuck with me.
What I’ve learned is that there’s much more directness and economy needed in “leaderspeak“. Less is usually more. There’s not much room for nuance, or expansive prose.
I call it “no nonsense” leadership communication.
There are five essential ways to get to (and stay in) this mode – all avoidance mechanisms that, given the proper focus, should be relatively easy for you to absorb, learn and practice.
To talk like a leader, you must avoid….
- “Negation Words” – These are those lovely conjunctions that can, in one fell swoop, cancel out whatever you put before it. The poster child word in this instance is “but“. I once wrote a whole post about the problems with that one. In a nutshell, they can be morale killers. (Yes, one little word!)
- “Half-heart Words“ – The first word to keep in mind here is “hope“. Don’t misunderstand me – hope is a very good word. It’s just not that helpful in the conference room or boardroom. See my Leadership Battles post for the rationale. Here’s another one, when used in this context – “we should do this”. I have found that “should” just doesn’t carry enough urgency if you really want the “this” to get done – so I usually go with “will“, or “must“, or even “need to“.
- “Run to the Dictionary Words” – See the “dichotomy” story above. Save the verbosity for other occasions. Like blog posts.
- “Absolute words (or as I like to say, stay away from absolutes, absolutely)”. The subtext here for the leader is really practicing the art of the possible mixed with the realization that there are exceptions to every rule, so, words like “can’t“, “always“, and “never” have to be out of the mix. Especially “can’t”. I hate that word. And I’ve written about how much I hate it quite often –here’s the last time.
- “Bad Emphasis words” – Early on in my blogging life, I went on a pretty good rant on this. Here is what I mean by this, taken from that post: “a linguistic device that now leaves me squirming every time I hear it – the use of an emphatic word or phrase (or from a usage point of view, an interjection of some kind) in front of a statement that doesn’t really need emphasis”.
As you would imagine, I have another learning-the-hard-way story on that last one (from that very same piece):
The problem with using [bad emphasis] was shown to me very directly by my first boss (yep, the same one who hit me over the head about “dichotomy”). He had asked me about my opinion on something, and I said “honestly sir, I think we need to go in such-and-such a direction“, to which he replied, “HONESTLY? What do you think we’re running around here, a boy scout troop”?
Point taken. I should be speaking honestly EVERY time. I don’t need to telegraph it with a “bad emphasis” word.
Take these 5 avoidances to heart, practice it with your teams, and watch how much more effective you’ll be. You’ll be talking like a leader.