When I was 13, I began to read the dictionary, thanks to the extensive vocabulary of English author Thomas Hardy, whose works were required reading in my Grade 9 English Literature class back in Jamaica. The experience was akin to a treasure hunt for me and I could easily expend an hour at a time uncovering the treasures within those pages. There I learned the POWER of well-chosen and well-spoken words, not for a second imagining that my love for and application of words would one day take me around the world.
Now, as a professional communicator and communication coach, I work with words continually, and as I have oft heard, ‘words MATTER.’ Now, to some people, words are ‘no big deal’ as long as the words do a fairly decent enough job of conveying the general idea of what they’re trying to express. Some individuals will make statements like, “You know what I’m trying to say, right?”, “I’m not quite sure how to put this into words, but you get what I mean, don’t you?” and “you understand what I’m getting at” as they sometimes ‘reach’ for the most appropriate language in any given situation.
Over the years I’ve learned that words most often have a strong EMOTIONAL effect that can be positive, or negative. However, to some, words are devoid of emotion, and they treat words as such. Take my friend Lisa, for example. To her, words have ZERO emotional significance. This became glaringly evident from an exchange she had with one of her associates, Eric, who enthusiastically shared an idea with her. While there was a great deal of merit to the idea, several things would have to be changed to make the idea viable. Were I in Lisa’s position, seeing Eric’s excitement, I probably would have tried to give direction without discouragement, perhaps by saying something like, “There’s a lot of potential there, but a few things will need some more work. Here are a couple of suggestions.” Not Lisa. She blurted out…rather loudly…”That’s the DUMBEST idea I ever heard! You should just do X, Y and Z!” WOW! Here’s the thing. In Lisa’s mind, her words and mine conveyed EXACTLY THE SAME MESSAGE. She had absolutely no regard for the EMOTIONAL IMPACT of her words. One word…’DUMBEST’…was like a high-caliber bullet fired from a gun. Not for a second did it even vaguely occur to her that Eric could interpret ‘DUMBEST idea’ as ‘DUMBEST PERSON’ and would walk away deflated.
I agree that Lisa is a rather extreme example. However, it’s important for us all to consider our words carefully when communicating in print, or in person. As a Toastmaster for more than 25 years, I am well aware of the technique of providing CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM when delivering speech evaluations. If a new Toastmaster feels that they are being heavily criticized, they can very easily become discouraged, and walk away vowing to never again darken the door of another Toastmasters club. Conversely, a single word of encouragement…like ‘IMPROVING’ or ‘BETTER’…could provide the spark to ignite hope, or change the trajectory of someone’s life. An ancient book of wisdom put it this way: “The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver.”
Our choice of words isn’t just about how poorly or how well we criticize or evaluate others. Word selection is a powerful tool if you are a presenter of any kind, an attorney, a leader, a parent, an educator, a storyteller, a politician, a speaking professional, an author, a minister/imam/rabbi/teacher/priest/spiritual advisor…or just a human! Well chosen words can convey ideas with clarity, paint visual pictures that inspire, share stories that move masses, give reassurance to a frightened child, or provide the key to unlock a closed heart. I’m not necessarily talking about ‘motivational’, rah-rah, ‘you-can-do-it’ words; I mean the words we use in daily conversation, without fanfare, not on a platform or pulpit. In our words, we have at our disposal powerful tools which, like just about anything else, can be used destructively or productively.
We can all continually improve how we use words so here’s a suggestion; when you find a good word to convey an idea or to elicit an emotion, as a vocabulary exercise, try to find an even BETTER word. One tool I recommend is the website www.thesaurus.com; there’s gold to be mined there. You could also download a free dictionary app like the free dictionary app at TheFreeDictionary.com (I wondered how many times I could use ‘free dictionary’ in a single sentence) and have the words at your fingertips.
So what’s in a word? PLENTY…and you don’t have to be a ‘word-nerd’ like me to find out just how much.
Mark L Brown
Dream Big; Work BIGGER!