It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

“Devastating”,”monster hurricane”, “most catastrophic storm ever”, “apocalyptic storm”, “like a lawnmower from the sky”. Those are some of the words the media used to describe Hurricane Irma, the Category 4 storm passing over Miami as I write this. How do those words make you feel? Based on the mass exodus, gas shortages, long lines at the supermarket and violence over plywood and gas, I’m going to guess they make you feel panicked. It’s not your fault—those terms are designed to put you on alert.

Saying “the storm that, according to the models, may cause devastation in Florida” is not quite as attention grabbing as “the storm that swallows Florida in the latest forecast”. The former also doesn’t move us to take action, to prepare with the same urgency. I calmly traveled to Iowa two days before Hurricane Irma “made its way toward south Florida”. I changed my flight back to Miami and started preparing when Hurricane Irma became “the hurricane that will make Florida disappear from the map”.

Most people don’t think twice about the words they use when they communicate but word choice matters. Not only can it spur emotion like it was intended to do pre-storm, but it can also prevent miscommunication. (And, based on these ten examples, even seemingly small miscommunications can have massive consequences.) It is a tool that when properly used, can vastly improve the understanding of what you want to convey. And, if you take it one step further, can even get others to do what you want.

During my quarantine, I watched this George Carlin skit about saving the planet and was blown away by the effectiveness of his word choices in communicating his message. At one point he claims the human race will go extinct by referring to us as an “evolutionary cul-de-sac”. Let that visual sink in for a second. Isn’t it the perfect metaphor given the configuration of the tree of life? (In case you forgot your high school biology, I’ve included an example of a tree of life below.) It helped me really feel the finality that the end of our species would entail.

Tree of LIfe

This week pay extra attention to the words used by others when they talk to you. What were words and phrases others used that conveyed a clear, concise message? Which were ambiguous or confusing? The nuances you pick up when you’re on the listening end can help you be more effective when you’re on the communicating end.

Also, pay careful attention to the words you use when you talk to others. These 25 tips will help you make better choices. They’re intended for writers but are just as applicable for verbal communication—plus, the author’s examples of poor word choice are hilarious. In the end, I am confident you will find they’ll help you become a better communicator.

And now, for your quote of the day:

“Words are free. It’s how you use them that will cost you.” —Unknown

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