Words are the least understood 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. Complaining about them is like hooting at stationary cars in a traffic jam.
We misunderstand each other in some way every day and every time we speak, even when the meanings of the words seem total, complete, certain and fixed. And just like cars for transport, words are for communication, but neither is very useful in a jam.
Words are never completely understood by the audiences to which they are addressed, and that’s because of three key characteristics.
1. Words mean very little on their own. They always need other words to provide context and generate meaning. Outside their context they are meaningless – not just confusing. Their meaning depends completely upon their company; upon what is going on around them, upon what has previously been said, or even upon what will be said next.
2. Words start to change their meaning as soon as they are written, 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 know and didn’t need or want. Once out, they start to sound stranger than you thought they sounded when you wrote or said them in the first place. What you say is almost never 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. How often do you hear politicians say ‘Let me make this completely clear’. Do you think that ever happens? It’s why they say it because in the absence of being able to make it happen, they need you to feel guilty when it doesn’t, as they know it won’t. And it’s the same with the written word. Every single reader will understand something different from the writer’s intention, as all good novelists are well aware. This is even truer of business language, where vocabulary gets sucked dry – limited and reduced by the need to avoid those promiscuous words with their loose ways and their wandering meanings. Business writing has to tie these words securely down in ways 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 immutable beauty to be seen. But even then it doesn’t work.
3. Words are also tools – means to an end. They are the most important tool we have as a form of communication to help us understand each other in any detail. The words we use must not stop us in our efforts to do what we want to do with them. Words can add muscle to your strength; embolden your conviction; improve your argument. They can clinch a sale or win a debate. Or they can let you down; make you look weak, muddle your direction; lose you. They can make you seem confused and directionless. But remember that we can choose our words from an infinity of choice – and it’s our responsibility to be as clear as we can – if that is what we want to do. Although even this point is moot, because road signs, information sources, news and other notices especially on the screen increasingly use graphics as they abandon the use as tools of those unreliable words.
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 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 interesting, amusing, apposite and perfect. It’s up to you to choose the right combinations and contexts.
Essentially, a reasonable rule for business writing is, counter-intuitively, to use your writing to show. Words employed to tell are unreliable in their impact. The best advice for business writers to give up the futile attempt to remove words’ freedom of movement and let them run free and naked across all the frontiers and barriers of the world. Business writers should study creative writers for their skills in understanding that words are promiscuous and mischievous. They incline less to help than to hinder. But the task of effective communication is a key task and cannot be evaded or ignored. Therefore your job remains the selection of the appropriate surrounding words that help keep all the words you choose within the pale or the paddock that you wish to create.
And in the business environment in which words need such close control, 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 by custom. Words, which share their properties with facts, are not often persuasive on their own – they always need introduction, illustration and context.
To be memorable in your writing is to remove or supplement empty or flat words to add stronger flavours, just as rice or pasta is made more interesting by a sauce. 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.