Precision in Language Redux
Fast Company August 20, 2014
I have blogged about the importance of precision in language on several occasions. Precise language is very important to effective and dynamic communication.
Dynamic communication skills are one of the keys to success that I discuss in Straight Talk for Success. If you want to become a dynamic communicator, you need to develop three important skills. You must become an excellent conversationalist. You must learn to write clearly and succinctly. You must learn to create and deliver dynamic presentations.
This week, I saw a person self destruct in a team meeting – all because of the choice of one word.
I was facilitating a meeting for a work group. Midway through the meeting one of the participants was reporting on a project on which she has been working all year.
When she showed a slide that highlighted the results that she expected this project to show in 2009, one of the other people on the team interrupted her and said, “I cannot ethically support this project.”
As you might imagine, that comment brought the meeting to a screeching halt. Silence reigned. It’s not often that you hear someone call a colleague’s ethics into question in a public forum.
Two things followed. First, the other people in the meeting began asking questions about why this person was questioning the information being presented. Most people, including the person who raised the question, had seen a preliminary version of this presentation previously. All of the other people in the meeting agreed with the ideas being presented, and wanted to understand the reasons behind this one person’s disagreement. The individual who criticized the project spent a lot of time explaining his position and arguing his point – unsuccessfully. As best as I could tell, he was taking issue with some of the assumptions on which the study, and its conclusions were based.
Second, several people called the person who leveled the criticism on his use of the word “ethically.” They felt that it was inappropriate to call a colleague’s ethics into question in such a public way when he had ample opportunity to dispute the findings previously and in private.
I intervened and did my best to provide the person who leveled the criticism with an opportunity to gracefully retract his words. He stuck to his guns on the word “ethically,” but could not demonstrate to anyone in the room why he felt that the conclusions being presented was unethical. After the meeting a few people said to me, “He was accusing her of lying, of knowingly presenting false data. This wasn’t the case.”
The individual who leveled the ethics charge did a lot to damage himself in the eyes of his teammates. All of this could have been avoided if he had chosen his words better.
If he had said, “I don’t agree with the assumptions on which you’re basing your conclusions,” he would have been more precise in his use of language -- and he would not have hurt his reputation among team members.
I reminded the team that one of its groundrules is to keep private the conversations that occur during team meetings. However, I predict that this conversation – and accusation – will leak and that the person who leveled the ethics charge will suffer further damage to his reputation. All because of a poorly chosen word that he refused to retract.
There are two common sense points here. First, precision in language is key to becoming an effective communicator. The more you find the words that exactly communicate what you want to say, the better your chances of communicating effectively. Second, avoid inflammatory words whenever possible. It is not wise to say something like, “I cannot ethically support your project;” when you mean to say, “I disagree with the assumptions on which your conclusions are based.” Be precise in your choice of words. Don’t compound the use of imprecise language by using inflammatory words.
That’s my take on the importance of precision in language – in conversation, writing and presentations. What’s yours? Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts on this topic. As always, thanks for reading.