Many of our conversations about leadership revolve around the who and what. Who is making decisions? What are their key ideas? But just as important is the how — how you present your ideas and communicate with your team. And that ultimately comes down to language.
People tend to underestimate the power of language. As anyone’s who’s received a passive-aggressive email knows, tone and diction play huge roles in how we develop relationships. To excel in a leadership role, you must be aware that language shapes our reality. So the question is, what do you want to cultivate with the words you use? Let’s explore several key principles for speaking like a leader.
Effect Matters More than Intent
The meaning of what we say depends on how it’s received. We may intend to say something inspiring or authoritative but have it come off as flippant or bossy. Or, we don’t speak clearly, which opens a door to misunderstanding.
Language is communication, which means we must be aware of our audience. You know this is true from marketing, but it applies to your leadership as well!
That’s why leaders must be precise in their language. When you use “weasel words” or make vague statements, you contribute to miscommunication. The effect of your words is your responsibility.
To speak effectively to your team, consider your language as part of the overall sensory experience. It complements the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic aspects of your communication. For example, tone is often misread in emails and text messages, because the reader can’t see the speaker’s face or hear their voice.
As a leader, you should be able to craft your words for the medium and audience at hand — and acknowledge when you’ve misspoken. Try mirroring your listener’s speech patterns and vocabulary. Pay attention to how they communicate: some people gesture a lot. Others make small sounds throughout the conversation. Mirroring shows that you’re listening and helps your language resonate with your audience.
Words’ Meanings are Not FIxed
As a leader, you must be conscious of the words you use and how their meaning can vary. Depending on your listener’s upbringing, dialect, age, and many other factors, they may not take your speech to have the same meaning you intend. That’s because words are much more than their literal meaning. They have connotations (positive or negative) and etymologies that may be problematic. And even the dictionary definition can shift over time. Just look at how the words “awesome,” “gay,” and “jerk” have changed
It’s easier than you think to use language that makes the wrong impact. However, it has little to do with sensitivity or ignorance. When you use words with pejorative connotations, slang or colloquialisms that don’t match with your audience, or words that may be perceived as slurs or epithets, you miss out on effective communication. (For example, the phrase “chop-chop” originates from Cantonese pidgin and connotes a powerful (white) person’s authority over a (Chinese) servant.) Remember, effect matters more than impact.
If in doubt, use clearly defined and neutral words rather than trying to sound fresh or “hip.”
Language Reflects Our Position
Let’s dive a bit deeper into the problem of speaking vaguely — or on the flip side, hyper-focusing on the details. Many executives have one or both of these problems. Their teams may think their language is “pie in the sky” or “stuck in the weeds.” Of course, most entrepreneurs have big ideas and like to focus on the big picture. If they’re not careful with their language, people might interpret their speech as being very “head in the clouds.” And most managers have a lot of nitty-gritty details on their minds, so they get so specific that their teams aren’t sure of the “Why” behind what they’re doing.
In either situation, the entrepreneur or manager is not communicating effectively. Once again, mirroring helps you get your message across. Is your listener in a very specific position where they need detailed guidance or instruction? Or are they ready to absorb big-picture concepts and brainstorm some ideas? Use the right vocabulary and framing to connect with them.
All that said, the best way to be a culturally conscious and clear communicator is to listen more than you speak. As the saying goes, have big ears but a small mouth! This will help you identify the right words to make an impact — and encourage your team to communicate in turn.
This blog is inspired by an interview with Ray Ciafardini on the Simplifying Entrepreneurship podcast. You can watch the entire interview below.