You make decisions, allocate resources, and make plans-all based on words.
This is why it’s important to be mindful that your language accurately reflects a few things:
- Level of certainty
- Power dynamics
- Stakes (high or low stakes if you’re wrong)
These elements are even more important to consider if you’re sharing your idea remotely, where you won’t have facial expressions and body language to add context.
Who would benefit from thinking about their tone and word choice?
- People managers in positions of authority
- Customer-facing operators (customer service reps, account managers) who want to offer suggestions without overstepping or sounding presumptive
- Advisors, TAs, and coaches who want to prompt thinking without telling their audience what to do
- Change agents who influence how resources are allocated
1. Reflect your level of certainty
Qualifiers like might, could, tends to, and perhaps reflect your level of certainty, which adds context and meaning.
“This will X.”
“This tends to X.”
Those two are not the same thing.
If I know you aggrandize, I have to adjust everything you say for the curve. Why put that burden on your listener?
I consider it a red flag if a person talks in absolutes. It makes me wonder if they realize most situations aren’t binary. I want to work with people who see nuances.
If you speak accurately, then people can trust your expressed level of certainty. If and when you sound certain, your words will carry more weight.
2. Err on the conservative side if it’s expensive to be wrong
Conventional wisdom says you should sound more certain. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice:
“There’s no need to say ‘I think’ because people know it’s what you think. You’ll sound more confident if you remove this qualifier.”
It’s true to a certain extent: You can sound 100% certain if the stakes are low if you’re wrong. When you’re writing tweets or a Medium post to share your hot take, no one is going to come after you if you’re wrong. So by all means, sound as confident as you’d like.
On the other hand, it’s dangerous (and irresponsible) to sound overly confident if your boss is counting on your input to make a $50,000 decision.
This idea of speaking accurately was a big part of our office culture at Seth Godin HQ. While we wanted everyone to feel comfortable making assertions, we didn’t want folks to pretend they were sure when they weren’t.
Think about it this way:
If you act like you’ve done this a million times, I’m going to trust you to run with it.
If you’re honest that you’re not sure about a few things, we can work through key questions together.
Either is great-I just want to know what I’m getting myself into.
3. Words can encourage or discourage divergent thinking
Power dynamics matter.
When you’re in a position of authority, it’s even more important to be mindful of your words.
When bosses speak prescriptively, teams are less likely to push back. To encourage healthy dissent, try to speak with an accurate level of conviction. If you’re simply riffing out loud, encourage your team to speak up by showing that you’re not 100% sure either.
Another example: At the altMBA, we had to remind coaches not to speak too prescriptively. Coaches were in a position of power-so anything they said would be taken more seriously than if a fellow student said it.
It was important that individual coaches didn’t speak on behalf of the organization. We asked folks to use “I” instead of “we,” so students wouldn’t feel intimidated thinking the coach’s words were the end all be all. And to use softeners (see list below) to offer suggestions, not hard prescriptive rules.
This created an open, accountable culture for both coaches and students.
List of modifiers to strengthen or soften
As with everything, use your best judgment.
If you tend to speak with too much conviction, add modifiers. You’ll know you’re in this bucket if people say you steamroll them!
If you tend to sound uncertain, you have room to add more conviction.
To recap: Use words that accurately reflect what you mean. The benefit is fewer misunderstandings, fewer hiccups, and more productive conversations.
Here’s a list of words to help you speak more accurately and precisely.
- can, can be
- might seem
- in general
- have you thought about…
- may want to try…
- might want to avoid…
- one way you could do it is…
- that’s one way, and another way is…
- “a” versus “the” (“this is A way to do it” versus “this is THE way to do it”)
- “sometimes” versus “always” or “never”
- my point of view is…
- do this
- it’s like this
- the thing is, it’s like X
- it’s crucial
- this is THE reason why we do X
- we’re here to do X