Words are the most misunderstood part of that crowded, undisciplined and noisy group of ill-fitting elements that together make up what we call communications. In fact, words often get in the way of communications, like rider-less horses in a race or hooting stationary cars in a traffic jam.
We misunderstand each other in some way every day, even when the meanings of the words seem complete, certain and fixed. And just like cars for transport, words are built for communication. Neither are good in a jam..
Words never are completely understood by the audiences to which they are addressed, and that’s because of three key characteristics.
First, words mean very little on their own. They need context for meaning. Outside their context they are meaningless – not just confusing. Their meaning depends upon their company, what is going on around them, on what has previously been said, or on what will be said next.
Second, words change their meaning as soon as they are spoken or read. Once expressed, once out, they start wandering all over the place, they get diverted, impeded, refracted, reflected; they meet other words you don’t even know and didn’t say or want, sounding stranger than you thought they sounded when you wrote or said them in the first place. What you say is very rarely what other people hear, even when they are listening very carefully, and even when you have taken trouble to be clear in the words you use. And it’s almost the same with the written word. Any misunderstanding will still be catastrophic. Everyone will still understand something different from the writer’s intention.
This is even truer of business language, where vocabulary gets limited and reduced by the need to avoid those words with their loose ways and their wandering meanings. Business writing has to tie these words securely down with strong pegs that don’t allow the words to flap around and confuse people or give them changed, different, or new ideas. In business writing the principle task is to keep the range of meanings to a minimum with lots of rope, ties, tape, glue and formaldehyde. Those butterflies cannot just flutter by. They must be caught and mounted in glass boxes so that they don’t move, and for their dead beauty to be seen.
The third overall property of words is that they are tools – means to an end. They are all we have as a form of communication to help us understand each other in any detail. We need to make sure that that the words we use don’t stop us in our efforts to do what we want to do with them. Words can add to your strength, to your conviction; they can improve your argument; they can make a sale or win a debate. Or they can let you down; make you look weak, muddle your direction, make you seem confused and directionless. But the great thing is, we can choose our words – and it’s our responsibility to be clear.
People concentrate a lot on improving their appearance, using make up, brushing their hair, cleaning their teeth, shaving, putting on nice smells, lipstick and generally creating an impression through appearance, sight, smell and so on. But what about sound? What about voice?
Unless you’re snoring or playing the guitar, your words and the way you use and deliver them make the critical impression. They are for us to choose. And as already stated, there aren’t any bad words on their own. There are only poor combinations. In any given context, a word can be imprecise, flabby, flowery, boring, or perfect. It’s up to you, the writer, to choose the right combinations and contexts.
Essentially, a reasonable rule for business writing is to use your writing to show, not to tell.
And in an environment in which words are highly controlled, use a word every so often that lets in the light and allows the reader or the listener to appreciate that these words are your choices and not forced on you. Facts, like words, are not often persuasive on their own – they always need introduction and context
To be more memorable is largely to remove those empty, stale, boring or lazy words and add stronger flavours. Courage in word selection is the foundation of successful communication – and successful communication is the basis of great achievement both in your personal and professional life.