The power and danger of words


All forms of communication require the use of words and while the well thought through use of individual or sequences of words can create a powerful impact, words can also be dangerous. A book was published in 1938 called The Tyranny of Words that looked at the dangerous side. There have been many books and other publications that look at the positive side.

Examples of well-known people who understood the power of words are Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Hitler is often quoted as also being a great user of words but is mainly associated with the use of words to support evil intent.

There is so much that could be said about words that my focus here is on words used in the context of business communication and in particular selling.

A research perspective

A limited piece of research undertaken in the 1960s concluded that prospects evaluating what a sales person is saying will assign 55% to the observed body language, 38% to the tone of the voice and only 7% to the words used. I have always had an issue with this as it simply does not tally with the way I behave when I am the prospect. I wonder, for example, how people cope when talking on the telephone; do they draw a conclusion from just 45% (they cannot see the body language) or is the 55% re-allocated to the other two areas and if so in what proportions?

If these figures are correct it could be argued that you don’t need to bother with the words at all. Just moving around miming should work!

But seriously and giving the original research the benefit of the doubt, it was after all limited in scope and reach, it could be said that communication techniques have adapted to suit the modern world and include many formats other than the sales person standing or sitting in front of the prospect spouting. I do not recommend that the sales person ‘spouts’ at all rather that questions are used to develop, guide and steer communication. So, this brings us full circle to the role of power and danger words in the context of sales engagement.

Words in business communications

Questions provide a powerful communication tool used in all areas of business activity and of course questions are a collection of words as are the answers. In addition to the individual words and the sequence in which they are presented, other factors such as volume, pace and tone form a key part of the total message and when face-to-face body language also plays a key part in the overall impact of the message being conveyed.

So, I agree with the research that body language (when face-to-face), tone and the words used combine to create the message but without the words the remaining silence isn’t going to get you very far.

Most people are comfortable asking open questions in their personal lives, in fact they come quite naturally to most of us; which parent hasn’t been driven mad by an unstoppable stream of “why” or “why not” questions?


But different folk have different views;key questions
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

from The Elephant’s Child; Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling 1902.

However, when it comes to the work environment many people are uncomfortable asking open questions as they feel they are perhaps cheeky, rude, abrupt or impertinent. When you look deeper into this, it isn’t the fact of asking a question as such rather the primary words used in open questions; who, why, etc., that seem impertinent. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of overcoming this concern allowing yourself to use the power of open questions and the words that define them.

It is common that people will use various devices to ‘soften’ the impact of the power words without appreciating that this can also dull their impact. While talking to an experienced sales manager recently he told me about a sales person who was uncomfortable about asking open questions so always started with something like do you mind – “Do you mind if I ask; what is your budget for the project?” Do you mind imparts an impression of nervousness, doubt, uncertainty that combines to weaken the overall impact of the key part of the question about the budget. It is also the case that there are two questions here; do you mind – CLOSED and then what is the budget – OPEN. This confuses the other person and gives them the opportunity to obfuscate when answering.

So, while there are power and danger words it is also about how those words are used.

Power words

A key group of power words are those used to create open questions; who, what, where, when, why and how.

Other power words are those that portray; certainty, commitment, agreement, etc. Words that help the other person to trust you and believe in your sincerity; you say what you will do and you do what you said you would. This is especially important when engaging with new potential customers as having not worked with you before they will need to feel they can rely upon you not to let them down.

A few specific examples of other power words and phrases are:

  • I don’t know. It is definite, there is no attempt to pretend and it cannot be misconstrued. This is even better when coupled with; but I can find out, or I know someone who does (exemplified by the AA), or we will put in the time to find out for you.
  • Thank you. Coupled with something like; that is really helpful and it will enable me to … The other person feels good that you have appreciated what they have done and it is a part of the process of “token exchange” whereby relationships are built from a whole lot of small tokens; things done for each other.
  • Yes. When you can do something, or you agree with them, say so. You can strengthen the yes by confirming what you are agreeing to; yes, we will deliver before the weekend. This is referred to as “yes, and”.
  • Because. If you are agreeing to do something that might be unusual or may typically be seen as undesirable to do, you build confidence in your answer by deepening it; We can provide cover on Saturday mornings because the technical team are always in the office undertaking weekly maintenance.

I think by now you have got the point. Spend some time thinking about the words you use and how you use them and ensure you are making best use of the opportunity you have when speaking to prospects, customers, suppliers, your boss or a direct report. Ensure you leave them with the impression you wanted them to have.

Double edged words and phrases

  • Who is the decision maker? It is perfectly reasonable that a potential supplier should want to know the answer but asking this is fraught with danger. What if the person you are speaking to has effectively purported to be in authority but is not actually the DM? This will embarrass them and is unlikely to lead to a good outcome for the person asking. So, instead, ask; who else will be involved in the decision or using another approach ask about the decision making process thus taking the focus away from the person you are speaking to.
  • Benefit or value. Both very important and we all need to know what benefit and value we will enjoy as a result of an action such as making a purchase. However, these words are so overused these days their true value and impact is often lost.
    The main problem here is when the person sitting in the seller’s seat says; this is the benefit or value to be gained they mainly use a generic position rather than a specific one. For example; the benefit is this will save you money. This is based on the assumption, or hope, that saving money is all that matters to everyone on every occasion and this is absolutely not the case. Benefits and value are relative to the individual and by assuming you know what will benefit them risks damaging your credibility.Agreement as to what is beneficial or of value must be established collaboratively between the parties and this is achieved through the use of well-structured questions built around power words.
  • Imagine. Helping someone to visualise what it might look like if they go along with what you are proposing is a good thing but the word imagine is over used in sales and is associated with tricks and techniques rather than good solid communication.

Danger words and phrases

  • I think so. So, you are not certain or perhaps you don’t know but don’t want to say so. Always be affirmative leaving the other person in no doubt as to what you mean and what you will do.
  • Maybe or possibly. Even if you expand on why it might not be so, you have created doubt and uncertainty that will damage the impact on your main message.
  • Yes but. Again you have introduced doubt.
  • The implied but. This is primarily a matter of tone of voice or a pause that is too long or is in the wrong place. In a face-to-face situation, watching the other person’s facial reaction will help you spot if you have inserted an implied but and you need to tackle this straight away otherwise doubt will linger in their minds.
  • No problem, OK, cool, or other automatic responses. This is fine when someone serving in a restaurant agrees to bring you extra bread but it is too general for use in a serious conversation where both parties need to fully understand what is going to happen next.
  • Does that make sense? So, you think the other person is too thick to understand? Much better to say “How would that work for you?”
  • Phrases like; let’s run it up the flag pole to see how it flutters or blue sky thinking or thinking outside the box should be avoided. They are basically quite meaningless and can leave the other person with the impression that you don’t actually have anything substantive to say.

The final group of danger words and phrases are associated with the use of language relevant to your product, business or the selling process. Some examples of things to avoid would be:

  • Internal language that you use to talk about your products and services. In most cases this will be meaningless to someone outside your company. Use plain language that is commonly understood, such as there are a number of features on the new X25 model that increase the intervals between routine maintenance calls and also reduce the time taken by the engineers, and avoid jargon and acronyms; they do not need to know that MTBF has increased due to new wiffly waffly widgets!
  • The language of business. If you put two financial people together they may use terms such as; ROCE, discounted cash flow, transfer pricing and they will both know the meaning. However, when a sales person uses such terms there is a real danger they will damage credibility unless they really understand the full meaning of the terms and can engage in a deep conversation with the FD. The one term that is used widely enough that it is usually safe is RoI.
  • The selling process. As sales people we think in terms of; decision makers, competitive strategy, dealing with objections, negotiation, closing the deal and the budget. While these are perfectly acceptable and useful when discussing a particular customer with your sales manager the terms are inappropriate for a conversation with that customer.
  • Ego. Don’t use words just to show how clever you are as it will probably have the opposite effect. Danger words and phrases in this context could include; strategic, commercial landscape, and gaining buy-in. Boastful terms such as; best in class, market leader and number one all carry the danger of damaging credibility unless you can back it up with evidence.

It is always better to use simple plain language that describes things that can be easily understood and substantiated.

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