Hi. I trust you and yours are well.
Thank you always for reading my books and bi-monthly broadcasts and using my tools and strategies for winning in a VUCA world with freedom, power and peace of mind.*
*You probably know by now: VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Perhaps you also know the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times 😉
Words can make the Difference
“Words are, of course,” Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Words can make the difference between a good and a great business, between mediocre and transcendent leadership, between making small change and real money.
In fact, we could go even further and say: Leaders lead through language. Think of transcendent leaders, from Winston Churchill to his adversary Mahatma Gandhi, from John F. Kennedy to his sometimes-adversary Martin Luther King, from the Iron Lady Maggie Thatcher to the consensus-builder Angela Merkel, from the late Jack Welch to the late Steve Jobs: They all led through language.
Communication is the water in which leaders swim
If you prefer, take Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Take Bill Gates or Richard Branson or Elon Musk. Whatever their differences, they all have one thing in common. It’s language. Communication is the water in which leaders swim.
Communication is also the highest-leverage investment, since it’s a public good and free—almost free (yes, it takes some time to communicate).
But most of us use language poorly or not at all. We think that, because we used it already as toddlers, almost all our lives, we know language. But we don’t.
We have no idea that the Hebrew word davar means both “word” and “thing”—and that what you say will become reality. We don’t know (or if we do know, we pretend not to) that if we say, “I must go to work,” these very words put us into a prison. That if we say, “You never listen to me,” then these very words are a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As early as 1946, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell castigated the use of official or bureaucratic lingo to distort facts and numb people. Orwell wrote immediately after the end of the Second World War, when all the warring factions were engaged in massive language distortion.
Of course, Nazi words like ¨Konzentrationslager¨ (“concentration camps” instead of extermination camps) or ¨Endlösung¨ (instead of systematic murder of the Jews) were a complete cover-up; but the Allies also found new words like “fallen” (instead of killed in war) or “defense minister” (instead of war minister), a term that has since become the norm in virtually all governments.
Euphemisms are pervasive in modern day communication
The euphemisms continue, perhaps even more so in today’s age of political correctness, feel-good society, and litigation. Here are just a few examples many of us have grown numb to.
- In war and politics: “Neutralize” (the enemy) instead of killing. “Innovative interrogation techniques” instead of torture and waterboarding. “Collateral damage” instead of civilian deaths in air raids.
- In healthcare: “Putting to sleep” instead of killing. “Passing on” instead of dying. “Died unexpectedly” instead of a heroin overdose. “Heavyset” or “plus size” instead of fat.
- At home and school: “Restroom” instead of toilet. “ADHD” instead of fidgety. “Recycling” instead of throwing out.
- Almost everywhere: “Precise” instead of pedantic, anal or know-it-all. “Thrifty” or “frugal” instead of stingy or cheap. “Special” (a favorite word of my wife) instead of inappropriate or bad. (She also likes to say that “nice” is the little sister of “shit.” But don’t tell her I told you.)
Finally, in business, consultants and managers have outdone themselves to create pleasant words, often with an eye on the stock market or the media rather than on reality.
“Creative bookkeeping” instead of forgery. “Resourceful” instead of exploitable.
“Account Executives” instead of sales. “Assertive” instead of authoritarian.
“A dynamic personality” instead of a dominant control freak.
“Giving feedback” instead of reprimanding, scolding or pushing something down your throat.
“Discharged” or “downsized” instead of dismissed. “Human capital” instead of employees or workforce.
“Streamlining candidates” instead of people about to be fired. (The English language offers more than 50 euphemisms for firing people.)
And the list goes on. Fake news is not a new concept. “Creating synergies” sounds a lot more positive and less reprehensible than “Firing employees,” so managers need more painless words for this unpleasant process—after all, it should not be personal. And it should placate impatient investors or keep the media from publishing bad news that might send the stock price plunging.
Such euphemisms are the logical consequence of the modern corporation. As its name suggests, the Limited Liability Company was created to limit personal responsibility for decisions.
Effective leaders use communication to generate alignment & action
Leaders go far beyond using communication merely to acquire information (“Want fries with that?”) and to convey it (“Yes”). They use communication as a vehicle for generating alignment and action.
In the 1940s, during the Chinese revolution, Mao told his comrades that Chiang Kai-Chek and his Kuomintang forces were an outwardly strong but inwardly weak “paper tiger.” This image of the paper tiger became so real for Mao’s followers that it gave them the confidence to bring about Communist victory in China.
What the football coach says to his players in a huddle can shape the play that results in a touchdown (or a goal if you prefer European football). Revolutionary leaders mobilize their troops through communication.
And when I consulted to the retail team of a multinational energy company, we worked on upgrading communications with the gas station owners. The result: the company produced 0.74 Euros more per customer (i.e. $74 million additional revenue).
With another company, a multinational bank, the result of our communication strategy for a difficult internal change affecting 5,000 knowledge workers—was even more staggering: that year, the bank saved $200 million and made a $9 billion profit—while maintaining morale.
As I put it in my book Communicate or Die: Getting Results Through Speaking and Listening, “if properly harnessed and skillfully used, communication (yes, mere speaking and listening) is the biggest bang for the buck, the highest-leverage return on investment in any organization – for the simple reason that it is also one of the most under-researched and under-utilized levers for breakthrough results.”
What do you think? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning you are masterful with communication, 1 meaning you suck, where would you rate your overall capacity to communicate? And can you think of an example where you communicated especially well, and one where you did especially poorly? And a final question: Which words, in your experience, have power, and which words have no power? What story do you have about the difference a right or wrong word can make? I look forward to reading you.
For further details on how you can leverage effective communication for greater impact and results for you and your team, email me at email@example.com