Looking at Language: The Link Between Language and Leaders
Do your words betray you?
By Dianna Booher
The proper use of language in presentations, conversations and written documents play a tremendous role in a person’s ability to lead and influence others. Mediocre written and oral communication can stall your career, jeopardize a sale, derail a project, destroy a relationship or even bring a country to a grinding halt.
Are you working to develop your leadership skills? If you are, then you should pay attention to this caveat: Language shapes thinking. Consider, for example, the current global economic situation and the various terms that came into play when the United States Congress attempted to legislate a solution. Various media and world leaders – depending on their bias – referred to the bill as the “bailout plan,” the “workout plan” or the “rescue plan.” With each twist of the wording, the commentators determined a different reaction to the event.
The airwaves continue to buzz from country to country with leaders and public relations representatives trying to communicate, some doing so more successfully than others.
Here are a few tips to consider when communicating with your employees, customers and the public.
Avoid “Verbing” Words
In case you haven’t noticed, several new words are trending into the vocabulary, and many of them are verbs. They are impacting the way we handle our clients, text-messaging our buddies and even incenting our employees.
Managers become particularly adept at fast-tracking their way around obstacles such as generally accepted grammar usage. In fact, these managers often incentivise outstanding performers by complimenting them on reports and proposals that contain such usages. They often dialogue about important projects and hope the entire team nets the essentials. Then, whether downsized or right-sized, teams can strategize organizational initiatives, prioritize divisional goals, operationalize tactical plans, utilize their best resources, marginalize any deficiencies in their systems, institutionalize project outcomes, optimize their opportunities, mobilize human talent and capitalize on their investments.
Dump the doublespeak and jargon. Before you add an ing or an ize to a noun, or coin a new word completely, consider checking your dictionary to see if a perfectly precise term already exists for the concept you want to convey.
Get the Grammar Right
The importance of language to career and social standing is, with few exceptions, a universal issue. People from all cultures insist that proper language separates the wealthy from the poor, the educated from the uneducated – and most important of all – the leaders from the followers.
Before you write anything, consider how your e-mail, proposals, handouts and slides affect your image. Imagine working for the manager who wrote this e-mail:
Just a quick up date. Wanted to let you know that the supplier, which we had chosen for the Universal project has declined to accept our contract terms. And the fact that we will be conducting an other round of meetings to agree on a alternative vendor by the end of June. On another note you’re list of equipment, should be forwarded to me by May 5 however we may postpone budget discussions at the next staff meeting I’ll let y’all know by Tuesday.
Embarrassing, isn’t it? You only make it worse when you follow up with poor grammar in your speech. Using the tools of language correctly to improve in this area gives you the power to communicate clearly and influence people.
Your image is conveyed by more than your appearance and energy level. Frankly, bad grammar is like bad breath – even your best friends won’t tell you. So if you want to check for a gap in your skills, take a free online assessment at www.howsyourgrammar.com.
For more personal help, you can ask the evaluators of all your Toastmasters speeches to report on your grammar usage and offer suggestions for improvement. They should go into greater detail than the meeting’s grammarian. Additionally, you could ask the grammarian to listen to you carefully and provide feedback on grammar errors. This will help you to improve even when you’re not giving a scheduled speech.
Frame Negative News Positively
“Inside every cloud there’s a silver lining,” became a cliché for good reason and should be considered in all bad-news situations. As a presenter and leader, you may be called on to deliver bad news. If your audience sees the glass as half empty, you have every right – even an obligation – to help them see it as half full.
Instead of hiding important details, provide them in such a compelling way that you gain buy-in for your action plan. One seasoned CEO was forced to announce a salary freeze to his ailing organization in the high-tech industry shortly after he took the helm. While crunching the numbers, he became increasingly aware that his predecessor had approved annual raises and bonuses at the expense of capital improvements, research and development, and marketing efforts. As a result, the competition had outstripped them. Armed with industry charts of compensation studies, competitor pricing, research and demand, budgeting for prior years, capital budgets and projects put on hold, he laid out the facts to his employees. Then he summed up this way:
“In almost all job classifications, according to industry averages, you’re overpaid – and that has led us almost to the point of demise. The good news: We’re not going to lower your salary. The bad news: We’ll not give any more cost-of- living raises for the next three years. Any bonuses will be based on performance and contribution. We can’t afford to do otherwise, or none of us will have jobs five years from now. Take a look at the facts. Punch holes in the information I’m about to give you, if you can. Let’s talk about the reasoning behind this decision. I’m open for questions.”
The employees asked many questions. But with complete information that had been missing in previous years, a straightforward explanation and positive language about the future, the CEO gained their trust and buy-in.
Tell the Whole Truth
Every day we are asked different questions from bosses, customers, suppliers, co-workers, kids, spouses or neighbors. Rather than provide easy answers, it’s better to offer truthful, but often more difficult responses. Trust builds over time. It can be dashed quickly with evasion and equivocation. Some executives pride themselves on being able to “spin” their way out of almost any situation by twisting truths.
However, by twisting the truth less and explaining it more, you’ll find your listeners trust your leadership because they know they can believe what you tell them.
Dianna Booher is the author of The Voice of Authority: 10 Communication Strategies Every Leader Needs to Know, and the CEO of Booher Consultants, a communication training firm. She can be reached at www.booher.com.