The Persuasive POWER OF WORDS: Be Smarter, Better & Clearer
Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. I wish my Mom and I had known Mr. Twain. I think he could have helped us.
It was the 1960s. My mother was trying to impress her friends that she was liberated. She and Dad had been out in the country for days and days—in the middle of nowhere—sixty miles from any other human being. “Why,” she exclaimed, bragging to her friends about her daring feat, “I was so uninhabited, I didn’t even wear a bra!”
My own dear mother was trying to impress her friends that she was in fact liberated, uninhibited, and braless. However, the poor lady only ended up being uninHABited. Mom was trying to be “in”, but she should have spoken to Mr. Twain first.
One of these same friends later called the house. I was about seven at the time. “May I speak to your Mom, please?” “No. Ma’am. She’s not home.” I explained, “May I take a message?” “Do you know where she is?” “Yes, Ma’am, she’s at the saloon.” Laughter on the other end of the phone. “Ya know,” I continued, struggling to perfect my communication, “getting her hair done.” Louder laughter. The lady just hung up–didn’t even leave a message. “What was so funny, I thought? “Don’t you get your hair done at a saloon…..or is it a salon?”
The Power of Words: You Have to Have Words to Think
I have always loved words. They are the nifty little containers with which we express our thoughts. Some scholars even argue that you cannot think without language (and it’s apparent from the above examples that even when you do have language, it doesn’t guarantee thought).
Maybe I got my fascination with words from my Mom. She was always working on her vocabulary (for good reason, we know now). She even started a contest with the family. Whoever could learn the newest words over a summer won a dictionary. I really wanted to win. I looked up words, stumbled through their pronunciation, and repeated their definition to myself over and over, hoping it would all sink into my brain. Then I would start on the next word.
This method must have worked because I won the dictionary (and still have it in my library to this day). I did notice, however, that my brother and father didn’t seem to have the same level of interest in this formidable competition and Mom kept forgetting her words toward the end.
This competition held me in good stead because I learned that words crescendo. There are mild words, strong words, and emphatic words.
The Power of Words: Sometimes words need to be strong and emphatic to convey your meaning.
Mom was having coffee with all her friends (the same friends she bragged to before about being liberated. Fortunately, they stayed her friends). Since she didn’t want us kids traipsing through the living room bothering her and her friends, she locked the front door.
I didn’t want to go all the way around the house to get in; so, in a desperate attempt to plead my way into the house through the shortest route possible, I pounded on the door (with all the might my little frozen, blue fingers could muster).
I screeched at the top of my lungs, “Mom, please open the door! I’m…I’m…I’m…(at this point I struggled for the right word. She needed to know how desperate the situation was. I’m so…cold…no, cold is not a good enough word…I’m way colder than just cold…what’s a word that means worse than cold…uh…um…freezing…that’s it…no, I’m even worse than freezing…think, think!…what’s colder than freezing…uh…oh…I got it!…) “Mom, I screeched, “I’m FRIGID! Please open the door!”
Mom’s friends laughed until their sides hurt and tears rolled down from their eyes. They never did open the door! And I had to go all the way around to the other side of the house. Frankly, I still don’t quite get why they were laughing. Maybe Mr. Twain could help me and explain. Sigh. If only he were still around.
10 Hacks to Make You a Powerful Word Warrior: Better, Smarter, Clearer
Despite Mr. Twain not being around to help, I can attest to 10 truths about the power of words.
- The Power of Words: Word choice often dictates the outcome; therefore, choose your words carefully.
A slight word choice can change an outcome.
Words come in many colors (nuances) of meaning. The more adept you are at coloring your message with just the right color/word choice, the better you will be at creating a positive communication outcome.
If I ask a coworker to change something on a report that sounds much more intimidating than asking him to simply modify it. If I ask, “What’s your side of the story?” that implies an opposite and even an antagonist stance. However, if I ask, “What’s your viewpoint?” it simply implies a difference—and perhaps only a slight one.
If I am disagreeing with someone, the way I define this “disagreement” by my word choice has a lot of bearing on the outcome. Do I term it a conflict, a fight, a blowup, a disagreement, or a discussion? The word I chose helps define the situation and, consequently, the outcome. My parents, who have been married for almost 70 years, said they have never had a “fight”. Mom clarified. We have had…ahem…a few “discussions” however. It matters the word you choose.
In 1988, the Academy Awards revolutionized the ways the winners were announced. As Michael Douglas handed Dustin Hoffman his well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Rain Man,” Douglas uttered the now iconic phrase, “and the Oscar goes to..”. Before that moment, the traditional line had been “and the winner is…” which had been used for decades.
The Academy Awards committee had made this decision because they didn’t want to imply that those who did NOT get the award were losers. By using the phrase “and the Oscar goes to,” they were emphasizing the recognition and honor bestowed on the recipient, rather than those who fell short of the honor.
This change in wording has remained in place since 1989, reminding people that the Oscar it is about celebrating the achievements and contributions of talented people within the industry without implying that those who did not win are losers. Nuances in word choice matter. And those “in the know” get it.
- The Power of Words: Words incite great emotion and can motivate people to action.
The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. When Abe Lincoln met the woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he said, “So here is the woman who started the Civil War.” Words can encourage, inflame, neutralize, and inspire. They are potent and powerful. Not giving them the respect they deserve will always prove problematic.
- The Power of Words: Words are tools and using the right tool will produce the right outcome.
The more Word Tools I have, the better able I am to describe a situation. In teaching conflict resolution, one of the concepts often covered is Emotion Vocabulary. Some people have a three-word repertoire for their emotions: sad, glad, or mad. However, by choosing a word choice that better describes what I am feeling, I can then better communicate.
Instead of mad, am I frustrated, agitated, peeved, upset, furious, or enraged? Instead of glad, am I exuberant, joyful, pleased, peaceful, ecstatic, happy, delirious, or content? Instead of sad, am I blue, despondent, bummed, grieved, melancholy, or somber? Having many Word Tools allows for very precise communication.
- The Power of Words: The more words you know, the higher your IQ
A large vocabulary is directly related to IQ. Every entrance exam at any college has an entire section on vocabulary. Why is it related to IQ? New concepts give the brain increased pathways to process.
Let me illustrate. Do you know what a Pyrrhic victory is? It is a victory that is won, but the cost of winning is so high, it is really a loss. Now, by having a new word, you also now own a new concept–a new way of thinking. Aha! Another pathway in your brain. Higher IQ. Can you just feel your brilliance accelerating at this very moment?
- The Power of Words: We are limited by our language and words, so use nonverbal
- s and your tone of voice to create greater clarity.
The Greek language has four words for love. “Eros” is sexual love, physical love, or mutual love. “Storge” is family love. “Phileo” is the love of friendship, the affection we feel for people in friendly relationships. And “Agape” is divine love—unconditional.
But Alas! Those of us who are confined to English must settle for exactly the same word (love) to describe our feelings for a spouse, for a sunset, and ice cream! And, of course, “love” just simply does not adequately describe the intense emotions one can feel for ice cream.
And even if we all spoke Greek and had four-word choices for “love” instead of one, the words would still be inadequate containers to define our own particular experience of it. Each one of us has a different meaning for the word “love.” The word is not the experience and words will, therefore, forever be inadequate to contain the whole of human experience.
- The Power of Words: Words can be used to reveal OR conceal meaning.
Ask any attorney or car salesman. A “pre-owned” vehicle is, of course, much different than a used one. And that squeak in my car is really a “harmonic distortion.”
- The Power of Words: You can know a lot about a person by listening to the words she uses. Words will give you insight into a culture, a person, and a group. Listen for them.
I can learn a lot about a culture simply by studying its language. The Japanese have no word for mugging, nor is there a separate word for lock and key. They also have an idiom that says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” In a collectivist culture, standing out is not rewarded like in an individualist culture like America.
Eskimos have eleven different words for snow. Even if I didn’t know where Eskimos live, just by studying their language, I would know that snow is very important to their culture.
8. The Power of Words: Meanings are in people, not just in words.
The Midwest uses the term Kleenex; other areas use the term “tissue”. The Midwest uses the term purse; the Coast uses the term pocketbook. The East uses the term soda, the Midwest uses the term Pop, and the West uses the term Coke.
The East uses the term bag; the West uses the term sack. The South uses the term polecat; other areas use the term skunk. If you order regular coffee in the East, you will get a different cup of coffee than if you order “regular” in the West.
Your meaning of a word isn’t my meaning of a word; therefore, ask clarifying questions.
- The Power of Words: Word choice defines “in-group” or “out-group”—socially, professionally, and economically. If you want to be “in,” learn their words.
Every group has an “in” language and whether or not you are “in” can be determined by the group simply by whether you can use their words. Ask any teenager. Every profession has its own lingo and you can’t be “in” if you don’t know the language.
I had a biology professor in college who said to the students on the first day of class, “How many of you want an “A” in this class? Hands quickly went up. “Okay,” he said, “here’s how to get an A. Turn to the back of the book and memorize the glossary of terms. You know the terms. You know the field.”
- The Power of Words: Finally, words are irreversible.
You can’t take them back. There is no verbal “Delete” button. Choosing NOT to say those harsh words that are burning your lips is a wise choice. They can rip through a person’s soul, leaving it singed and scarred. Better burned lips than a scarred soul.
Jonathan Winters was abused physically and emotionally as a child and was in and out of mental institutions his whole life. He said the physical beatings didn’t do near the damage that the words did. Winters said, “It was the things my parents said to me that caused the most damage.”
Conversely, on the pleasant side, going to the trouble to express something to someone you care about (especially in writing), gives them the opportunity to relive those words over and over. Your kindnesses will echo.
Words are Powerhouses: Learn to Use Them Well
Just recently, I got an email from my bookkeeper asking me to explain a receipt from Erotic Furniture. “Just what business category does this go under?” she asked. Now, mind you, this is a person who has known me since childhood, was one of my high school teachers, went to my grandfather’s church, and is now asking me about an Erotic Furniture receipt. Not good. And she thinks I bought it for my office—using it as a write-off, no less!
I was horrified. But then, on second thought, I reasoned to myself, this is the same woman with whom I have agreed to “trade out” services. In exchange for her doing my bookkeeping, I have promised to marry her ten-year-younger-than-me son and bear her grandchildren. So why would she think that buying erotic furniture was past me?
I was relieved to receive another email the next morning with an explanation about her word confusion. She said she finally got some sleep (never mind that I lost some), explained that she had been too tired when she was working on my books, and she had mistakenly read a receipt from “EXotic Furniture” to read “ERotic Furniture.”
The Mighty Power of Words
I admit it’s embarrassing to have a mother who is uninhabited and spends a lot of her time hanging out at saloons. But then again, I guess she feels the same way about having a frigid daughter who buys erotic furniture. Words. Words. Words. It sure does help to know the difference between lightning and the lightning bug! Mark Twain, where are you when we need you?!