It’s easy to take words for granted; most of us use them as effortlessly as we breathe. But words hold power that we often overlook at our own peril, says media expert Steve Kayser.
“Language is the code that translates ideas so they can be shared. They give us an advantage in the natural world, which has enabled us to evolve as human beings,” says Kayser, author of “The Greatest Words You’ve Never Heard.”
“But in our personal and public lives, we are inundated with empty words; words that are used incorrectly; words that are drained of all meaning; and so fail to accurately convey the intended message; and words that carry unwarranted connotations and stigma.”
Words can change lives, destroy relationships and alter the course of entire civilizations, Kayser notes.
He shares examples of what to avoid, what to embrace and what to reconsider when trying to make your language more effective.
• Avoid John Kerry’s “crystal clear” nugget. Earlier this year, amid the ongoing foreign policy crises in the Middle East, secretary of state John Kerry, who has a linguistic reputation for long-winded political jargon, seemed to contradict himself in a single breath.
“I want to make this crystal clear,” he says. “The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate.”
It’s this kind of language that makes people cynical about our elected officials—when a politician’s mouth is moving and producing sounds, but he’s not saying anything. Or, if they are saying something, they use words that are overused and unnecessary. Businesses, too, can be notorious for this using corporate gobbledygook to obfuscate all meaning, Kayser says.
“What people want is authenticity in language, to say what you mean and mean what you say.”
• Emulate Mark Twain, the “straight shooter,” who employed wit, charm and incisive commentary in communications. No, most people cannot pick up where Twain, arguably America’s greatest writer, left off. But language and the way in which it’s used can be highly contagious. If you want to inspire authenticity and engage employees and friends alike with genuine communication, consider styling your speech more along the lines of Twain, rather than a dry business manual:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do,” Twain wrote. “So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
• If you’re in business, there are advantages to embracing the jargon. “Can we blue sky this synergy later?” “Cascade this to your people and see what the pushback is.” … Business lingo could fill a dictionary, and in many cases, requires one! Unlike political babble, business jargon has its purpose, according to a new study from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Business speak is code for “upper management material,” showing that the speaker is in a company’s inner circle and is a “big picture” person, the study reveals.
“Some of the language you come across in the business world can seem absurd to outsiders; some of these phrases, however, may actually reveal ambition in an employee,” Kayser says.
“The beauty of language is that it’s a common tool for everyone to use, yet it can be tailored to an individual. My primary suggestion is to do that in a way that authentically reveals your meaning.”