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  • Writer's pictureJim M. Morgan

Executive communications: Word choice matters



Having written hundreds of speeches, presentations, op-eds and other communications for corporate and non-profit leaders, there is one thing above all others that I’ve learned: word choice matters. The words we use – and the ways in which we use them – are of the utmost importance. Here are three questions I’d ask any executive before drafting a message.

 

What tone are you setting?

 

Not all words are created equally. Some encourage dialogue and collaboration. Others, not so much. Some foster an expectation of inclusion. Others throw up barriers and encourage division. Think very closely about the words you choose. Consider the tonal difference between the following messages delivered at a company all-staff meeting: “You just need to get to work and get the job done,” versus, “Let’s work together to solve the challenges we face.”

 

As a leader, you set the tone of discourse for those around you – employees, stakeholders, even the wider community. Our children base their behavior on what they see adults saying and doing. That creates an immense responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly or, worse, treated recklessly. A good rule of thumb: If you find yourself using “I” and “them” far more than “we” and “us” you might want to rethink your approach.

 

What support are you sharing?

 

It’s been said you can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Think about when you were most vulnerable, when you most needed the help of others and the support of those around you. What did you need to hear? What words made a difference in your life, or would have made a difference had someone said them? Perhaps those are the words for you to share today.

 

If you are speaking to an audience of any size – large or small – odds are at least one person in that crowd is feeling vulnerable. Assuming that’s true, you have the chance to make a difference. Consider the power of the following: “Growing up, I was not a good student and was never prepared for tests. Then, one day, a teacher told me the secret to effective preparation…” By being vulnerable yourself, you build connection with your audience and open opportunities to share support.

 

What tomorrow are you building?

 

History is littered with leaders who used their words to build very dark futures. They chose to amplify and encourage mankind’s worst impulses for personal gain or to further their own agendas. As a leader, you can use your words to shape our collective future. Will that future be one in which those who look to you for guidance will have more opportunity, rather than less? Where a spirit of collaboration and commonality replaces one of antagonism and marginalization?

 

Consider the differing impacts between the following messages if delivered by a CEO regarding an impending merger between two medical providers: “This is going to be a lot of work, but you just need to put your heads down and push through. This must be completed by the end of the quarter…” versus, “This merger is going to require sacrifice from each and every one of us. But once this is complete, the combination of their company and ours will enable us all to help more patients and deliver more comprehensive care than ever before…” The first establishes a present need for some; the second describes a preferred future state for all.

 

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