Have you ever thought deeply about words; the combinations of single letters that come together to form the foundation of language as we know it?

For most of us, words come naturally, simply pouring out of our mouths whenever we need them. However, it’s surprising how difficult it can be to use words to truly express ourselves.

Following on from part 1 of my expert communication series, this article investigates the idea that single words that can either make or break the message you are trying to send. One word can make all the difference, and I am willing to bet that you have never considered what those single words are.

Don’t use don’t

This is my favourite rule, and the one most commonly broken.

If I said to you, “Don’t think of the colour red,” what would you do? The same as everyone else: think of the colour red. Our brains have real trouble processing negatives. That is, we cannot think about what we don’t want to think about without thinking about it. Expert communicators know this, and as such tell people what they want them to do rather than what they ‘don’t’ want them to do. A simple example is modifying, “Please don’t forget to get me the report by Tuesday,” to, “ Please remember to get me the report by Tuesday.”

Why oh why do we use this word

The brain appears to be deeply hard-wired to negatively respond to the question ‘why?'. I have no doubt this stems back to our childhood; to interactions with parents and teachers who requested information about something we’d done wrong. Even though the negative response to the word may be slight, as expert communicators we need to be aware of this.

While coaching, I always replace ‘why?’ with ‘for what reason?’, or ‘for what purpose?’, and consistently receive better responses.

Softening words that make you weak

There are some words that, when used in the incorrect context—usually as a prefix—significantly reduce the impact of the message you are trying to send.

I like to call these word softeners. They tend to send the message that you are not really convinced of what you are saying, and at the same time confuse the listener.

The examples of these words that I hear most regularly are: ‘I think’, ‘Maybe’, and ‘I hope’. Let me give you some examples:

“I think that this is the correct decision for the business moving forward.” – Is the leader saying this is the best decision, or they only think it is?  Either way, it is highly ambiguous.

“Maybe we should investigate this further.” – Does the leader want it investigated further or not?

“ I hope you will read the report before our meeting on Monday.” – It is something the leader actually wants done, or not?

Although the emphasis I am placing on single words may seem finicky, using the correct language makes a huge difference when it comes to conveying your message clearly.

Communication is all about the response you get. Getting the simple things right significantly increases your chances of getting better responses, and it is also what makes leaders seem magical when delivering messages.