What Your Words Say: Five Communication Rules

WordI obsess over words and spend ridiculous amounts of time selecting the right words or phrase for what I am trying to say or write. As someone who often writes communications for others, I agonize over what the words I choose say to a reader or a listener and how they make a reader or listener feel about the speaker and the message.

I have developed a few rules about words to use and words to avoid. What would you add to this list?

  1. Me Me Me!! When I am writing something for a senior executive, I write mainly from the first person singular “I” perspective. “I” connotes “I am responsible.” When I write something for an organization – a company, a school, or a work team – I usually write from the “we” perspective to be more inclusive and to reflect the bonds joining the speaker and the listener. Each perspective has its strengths. The key is to pick one and use it consistently; flipping between “I” and “we” in the same communication will leave your reader confused as to who is talking and leave you open to subject-verb agreement problems.
  2. Lots of Will. “Will” can be a powerful word for conveying commitment and intent. “I will get you the report by Friday.” From your lips to God’s ears.
  3. There is no “try.” As much as I love “will,” I detest “try” for its flakiness and lack of commitment. And combined together, as in “I will try to get back to you by next week,” they contradict each other! Stick with “will” and (goes without saying?) make sure you do what you say you will!
  4. Nope, Not, Nein, Nyet, Never, No Way! One executive for whom I wrote internal employee communications refused to allow any negative words in his messages. Not a one! I found this directive incredible difficult to comply with and even accused him of being Pollyanna-ish in his desire to avoid bad news. He responded that he had built his professional reputation on having a positive outlook and he wanted his communications to reflect the same. And, he challenged me to find a positive way to share his messages. Writing for him taught me the power of words to convey someone’s values and personality as well as their message, and made me a better writer.
  5. Don’t be a “needy” communicator. “Need” is a wimpy word that conveys more about the speaker than his or her audience. I cringe when I hear people over-use “need” (eavesdrop on any fast food drive thru window or parent-child negotiation and you will see what I mean). I need a cheeseburger and a sweet tea. I need you to pick up your room. I need an analysis of the market for gizmos in Turkish Armenia. It all sounds pretty selfish, doesn’t it?

When communicating in your professional or personal life, select words that convey more than just the strict definition found in the dictionary.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at hnelson@people-results.com.