Power in words

William Shakespeare knew it. Jane Austen was a master of it. Barack Obama blows everyone else out of the water.

Great artists and leaders know that the language you use has the power to move audiences and create change.

Many professionals are also focused on language. Being able to influence an outcome through the words you use is a critical skill and a serious advantage in a competitive career marketplace.

And yet in many professions whose very existence is essentially founded on language (e.g. Law), most of the problems that I see arising in the workplace stem from mis-communication.

The better you become at expressing yourself, and understanding the expression of others, the easier you will find relationship, career and business building.

While this is a large and complex topic, I have put together some tips and pointers on the why, what and how of communicating with ease in a professional setting.

1.   State it

Knowing WHAT you want to say is one thing. Knowing WHY you want to say it is another.
Being clear on what you want to get out of a conversation will help you focus what you actually need to say.

2.   Shorten it

Don’t use 10 words when 4 will do the job. Pontification and justification detract from the power of your message.

3.   Zip it

If you’re in a potentially inflammatory conversation, practice saying nothing and listening first. The most effective business people I have met are able to stay calm and just listen even when the person they are speaking to is losing their head.

4.   Space it

In the practice of Vipassana meditation you are taught to create a space between the thoughts in your head and the reaction you have to those thoughts.

In other words, taking the time (even a split-second) to consciously think about the way you respond to a person’s words or actions can make a massive difference to the outcome that you achieve.

Call it mindfulness (which is trendy right now) or whatever you like. But it works. It’s the equivalent of writing an email message then getting up, walking away and coming back to it before you decide to hit “send”.

5.   Respect it

Everyone communicates differently. Learning the different styles of how people communicate can save you a lot of heartache and pain down the track. Knowing when to say “How’s your day, got a minute?” versus “I need 5 minutes, here’s the problem.” is subtle, but extremely powerful.

6.   Get over it.

It’s not personal. And yet it is. Deeply. Words can often hurt more than actions. But before you analyse, over analyse and then analyse it some more, do your best to take the personal element out of it and really focus on what the other person is trying to get across.

Phrases to Eliminate

In a previous post I wrote about the power of saying no, and gave you some suggested phrases you can use to be more direct and ensure no does not mean yes.

In a similar vein there are phrases I hear professionals use all the time that are counter-productive and should be eliminated from use. Here are a few of my pet hates:

“I’m sorry”.

Stop using this. Women, in particular, stop using it ALL THE TIME. If you stand on someone’s toe by accident yes say, “I’m sorry” but please, stop peppering every single phrase with “I’m sorry”. It’s overused and undervalues you and your ability.

“I’m just”.

This one falls in a similar category to “I’m sorry”. It’s used to soften the blow, tread carefully and make people like you. All it actually says is “I feel the need to justify this’.

Don’t. If you have something to say, don’t demean the message by adding the phrase “I’m just”.


The quickest way to light the incendiary in any potentially flammable conversation is to use the accusatory “you”. “YOU did this. YOU did that. YOU must. YOU should. “ YOU language is guaranteed to get someone’s back up: quickly, unless it’s being used in a very positive sense (e.g “you did a great job”).


Now this is a tricky one for anyone whose job is essentially to win an argument. I learnt this trick from a specialist language trainer a number of years ago and consciously removed the word “but” from my language, replacing it with “and”. The difference in the context and intention behind a conversation becomes remarkable.

For example “Thanks for your hard work on this project BUT there are a few things we need to do differently next time” versus

“Thanks for your hard work on this project AND there are a few things we need to do differently next time”. “But” gets the back up; “And” is inclusive. The message is the same, the outcome potentially radically different.

And finally…

I think the words we use create our reality. The more negative language we use, the more negative our results are likely to be.

Do your best to embrace more positive language. Rather than saying “Networking is really hard and I’m terrible at it”, say

“Networking is an area I’m working on even although it’s a challenge for me”. This is more likely to spur you on, and also presents you and your abilities in a much more positive light.

Use your words wisely – they have power over you and everyone you come into contact with.