If you’ve ever sold a “pre-owned” vehicle, complained about “those bureaucrats in Washington,” or “downsized” a business unit, you’ve engaged in creating meaning with language to reach some desired end. We dress language up when it suits us, saying “pre-owned” for “used.” We dress it down when sharing our frustration, calling politicians “bureaucrats.” And we phrase it delicately for sensitive subjects, describing employee termination as “downsizing.”
In virtually every aspect of our lives, we create meaning with the use of selective wording, framing and spin, most noticeably perhaps in advertising, politics, media coverage and the arts.
Everyone knows that language can have a great impact on the outcome of a person-to person exchange, but we rarely think about how this phenomenon works and how we can deploy it for our goals. How can I persuade that customer to buy my product, that client to sign a contract, that voter to vote for me or even that potential romantic partner to agree to go on a date?
1. The use of precision to serve your purpose.
One such strategy is to be specific, but too often we get this wrong. We’re vague when we should be precise. For instance, we might advise a subordinate to work on his communication skills when his specific offending issue is, say, a tendency to be too verbose in meetings, coupled with a habit of interrupting others or speaking over them.
Precise communication is in order when we are seeking a specific outcome, when we want others to receive our meaning beyond a shadow of a doubt. Asking someone to present the “financials” at an upcoming board meeting may seem specific, but if it’s the story behind a precipitous slide in margins that you’re really interested in, you may only get a superficial treatment on that topic. You left too much room for interpretation with the broader term “financials.”
To get what you want, say, “Mary, at tomorrow’s meeting, would you please give us a breakdown and some context around the loss of margins in the turbine engine division over the last quarter?”
2. The value of vague wording.
But are there times when vague communication is in order? Yes. Vagueness is the better choice when we want others to inject their own meaning into our utterances. The strategic goal could be many things: to empower people to think for themselves, to build rapport or to soften the blow at constructive feedback meetings.
Let’s circle back to our executive who asked Mary to present the financials at an upcoming meeting. He might want to leave his request vague in order to see what topic Mary chooses to highlight.
Will she downplay the loss of margins? Will she emphasize a different issue? For a strategic communicator, her choices in presenting the financials may be telling.
Vagueness is also often a major tool for relationship management. For instance, to avoid putting someone in a group on the spot by saying, “Mark, you haven’t said much during this discussion. What are your thoughts regarding the opportunities to streamline fulfillment processes for this proposal?” you might approach the introverted Mark more along the vaguer lines of, “We’ve heard some valuable feedback already. Are there other ideas that might add value to the discussion, perhaps in the area of fulfillment?”
Or if your team has reached a creative block, ask, “What are some unconventional, counterintuitive ideas -- perhaps from other industries -- that might inject some new perspectives into this?” Such a broad, open-ended invitation can have a much richer harvest of answers than a more constricted question such as, “I see we’re not getting any further with option A. What about options B or C?”
Related: The 8 Secrets of Great Communicators
3. The uses of active and passive voice.
The oft-derided passive voice -- saying “Mistakes were made” instead of “I made a mistake” -- also can turn vagueness into an advantage. We’d all prefer it if a person took responsibility for an error. But in the real world, where that person might be on our team and even a public face of the team, the active voice may be pointless or even counterproductive. Also, the priority may not be to fix responsibility but rather to convey the idea of moving on -- when the mistakes that were made were by any number of people, and therefore naming them all would make little sense.
The passive voice can also direct listeners’ attention to what’s important. Journalist John McIntyre furnishes an example of this principle in his language blog in The Baltimore Sun: “'The university president was arrested and accused of drunken driving.’ Who arrested him? Who’d you think arrested him, the faculty senate? You can assume that the police arrested him. The more important information is who got behind the wheel while hammered, and the passive construction allows you to put that information up front.”
But sometimes, it is the active voice that serves your strategic purpose. “I decided to cut the budget” is superior to “Budget cuts were deemed necessary,” for instance, if your aim is to present yourself as a no-nonsense leader.
Experienced speakers will toggle between active and passive voice, depending on the priorities of the situation. "Mistakes were clearly made," Chris Christie said during his State of the State address about the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal. But last April, seeking to underline his resoluteness, he turned to the active voice to describe his plan to enforce federal drug laws in states that legalize pot. "I will crack down," he said, "and not permit it."
4, The power of tone.
Another important distinction for the breakthrough communicator is between connotation (“emotive meaning”) and denotation (“cognitive meaning”). Cognitive meaning is the exact, literal, dictionary definition of a word, without any judgment implied about whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. Emotive meaning, on the other hand, is tone -- how a term makes your listener feel when he or she hears it. Try “torture” vs. “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Which one conjures emotions almost immediately?
To communicate most effectively, pay attention to both the cognitive and the emotive meaning of words and select one that benefits you the most in a given situation. As we saw above, “bureaucrat” has a critical, negative tone, but that tone is absent from the synonymous phrase, “government official.” Such connotations can evolve over time.
“Segregation” once had a neutral tone, but now the word is almost exclusively negative. Connotations also vary with the identity of the hearer. “Restructuring” and “downsizing” can send shivers of fear through a company’s rank and file, but for its executives the terms might be less pejorative, summoning up visions of a streamlined organization.
In a nutshell, be aware of the power of your words, and gauge their worth in light of your strategic goals. It is not just what you say, but how you say it.
Adapted from Harrison Monarth’s book Breakthrough Communication: A Powerful 4-Step Process for Overcoming Resistance and Getting Results (McGraw-Hill, 2013).