Make words work (what did you say?)
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 all misunderstand each other in some way every single day, and even when the meanings of the words we use seem complete, certain and fixed. How often have you claimed to have been clear in what you said when the evidence is that you were not? You were not heard properly. Maybe your ‘clear’ message didn’t get through. Because, just like cars for transport, words are built for communicating, not for stopping. Neither are good in a jam.
Words never are completely understood by the audiences to which they are addressed, and there are at least three reasons for that.
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 what other words they are with, what is going on around them, what has previously been said, or what will next be said .
Second, words change their meaning as soon as they are spoken or read. Once expressed, once out of the bag, they start wandering all over the place, they get diverted, impeded, lost; 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 cause some sort of conflict. Everyone will still understand something different from the writer’s stated 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 wander 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, pins, tape and glue. They cannot be allowed to escape. They must be caught and tied down so that they don’t move but can be seen.
The third overall property of words is that they are tools – they are 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, arm 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 all choose our words – and it’s our responsibility to choose the right ones to convey our true meaning.
People concentrate a lot on improving their appearance, using make-up, brushing their hair, cleaning their teeth, shaving, putting on lipstick, using perfume, and generally creating an impression through appearance, sight, smell, and so on. But what about sound? What about voice?
Your words and the way you use and deliver them make the critical impression on other people. 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 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. You will be better understood if you keep to this rule.
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. Make words work for you and yours.