Words wield enormous power. They can build up or break down. They can persuade or dissuade. Connect or disconnect. Words can form wonderful pathways of understanding and create a capacity to change. They can open us up to new truths. They can impact the direction of our lives.
Yes, words matter. And not just to someone who makes their living telling stories. The words we have running through our minds – and out our mouths – determine how we see ourselves and our world and how the world sees us. It pays to be mindful not only about what we think and do, but also about what we say. There is a connection.
At the annual meeting of a large trade organization I once belonged to, there was a ceremonial passing of the gavel from the outgoing president to the new.
As he took the podium in front of 300 people, he was asked to say a few words. After surveying the crowd, he tried to eke out a smile, then fumbled as he pulled a piece of folded paper from his pocket.
“First of all, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to lead this great organization in the coming year...oh, wait...before I say that, let me tell you public speaking is not one of my strengths. And I hope this speech goes more smoothly than the rollout for Obamacare.” Silence.
What the heck was he thinking? Actually, it was quite apparent what he was thinking. Read a prepared script, painfully, one word at a time. But maybe start with a joke because that’s what some public speaking manual says to do to warm up the room.
And it was wrong on so many levels. It was a dated reference to begin with. It needlessly introduced politics, an inherently divisive issue. It was self-deprecating, but in a way that decreased his credibility, not enhanced it. And it ultimately served no purpose.
This new leader did not give words their due. He discounted their power. He was very ill prepared for that moment, unrehearsed, and extremely careless with his language and use of the podium time. Not a good start to his tenure.
A couple of years ago I did some pro bono marketing and communications work for a non-profit veteran's housing project, and several of us associated with the organization were asked to present to members of a board who were considering funding the project.
We had hard copies of a five-slide PowerPoint presentation to distribute to the 17 board members that was going to serve as the framework for my short overview of the project.
The board chair opened the door of the meeting room, went out to the hallway where we were standing, said they were ready for us, then advised, “Elevator speech only. Short and sweet.”
So we ditched the handouts, I limited my description to about two succinct paragraphs per section, and was done with the prologue, the problem, the project, the people and the plan in three-and-a-half minutes.
Then came the Q & A. In answering only one question each, my colleagues took twice as long as my entire overview. Even at that, in one instance they failed to answer the question the board did ask, and in the other, answered questions the board didn’t ask.
At one point, the founder of the project admitted, “I’m rambling here. I’m surprised I’m not getting kicked under the table by my communications colleague.” Meaning me.
Again, this is an instance where someone was not giving words their due by using so many of them so ineffectively. In the process, he diminished his value, and that of the project, while disrespecting the valuable time of a large board.
I guess the presentation to the board wasn't a compete failure though, because I was invited to present our idea to a much wider membership group the next day.
Just before we went on, I was standing off to the side outside the ballroom where the meeting was being held, and going over my remarks kind of under my breath.
My long-winded colleague says, “I notice whenever you present you get a kind of game face on, remove yourself from the group, and practice.”
It was nice of him to notice, but yes, I do practice, and prepare when speaking publicly. I try to make sure I am deliberate with my language and choice of words, and can demonstrate to the audience, quickly, that what I have to say is of value and worth listening to.
People have a very limited attention span, no matter how good our information or insights are. In fact, 90% of what someone thinks about us is determined in just the first three seconds. Make good use of that time!
Do you speak - and write - with purpose? Or to hear yourself talk? Or type as it were?
Knowing the impact and clarity of language adds strength and credibility to who we are and what we do. By becoming our own language coaches we all can help create the vision we want for the world, and for how we want the world to view us.