Words Count


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The overwhelming trend these days among what’s written about presentations and communications in general is toward visuals and stories to evoke emotions and leave lasting impressions.

That’s a good thing in a lot of ways, especially if it will kill the “wall of words” approach that sadly is still too prevalent in slide presentations today.

But words still count for a lot. In fact, one word can evoke such strong emotions that it overpowers all the context around it. The most glaring example of this in the recent news was Dolphins’ lineman Richie Incognito’s use of the “N-word” in his text message to his teammate Jonathan Martin. Regardless of what comes out of the investigation that is ongoing, the use of that one word has irrevocably changed his life.

Of course most of our daily business and personal communication is not so emotionally charged, but we would do well to continue to pay close attention to the effect that our word choice has on our listeners. Why?

  • Words can be as memorable as visuals. Did Obama have a slide showing behind him when he said, “Yes we can?”
  • The right combination of words can compress complex thoughts into one memorable phrase:
    • “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”,
    • “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”
  • Although it’s true that a lot of emotional meaning comes from nonverbal sources such as tone of voice and body language, that assumes face to face communication, which is clearly declining as a proportion of the time that we spend communicating and influencing others. Text, twitter and sound-bites make word choice even more important, because words are all we have.

So What?

Choose your words carefully. Keep in mind that words often carry emotional meaning far beyond their dictionary definitions, which is why armies of political consultants make a living changing gambling to gaming, or inheritance tax to death tax.

Know your audience. Don’t tell a room full of Lanier salespeople during a training class to “Xerox” their sales call plans, as one of my instructors once did.

Use short, simple words. They pack more punch.

Don’t overdo it. Words are so powerful that we use euphemisms to avoid political incorrectness, and sometimes lose clarity. My pet peeve is the horror at using the word “problem” or “weakness” when coaching others. There may be times when someone needs to hear very clearly that they need to solve a problem, not “address an issue.”

Rehearse. When you have to choose your words carefully, don’t count on winging it and being able to confidently say the right thing. I made this mistake once when I was delivering my wrap-up after a two day class to a sales force. I told them they were “pretty good”; two words that negated two days’ worth of enthusiasm—and I couldn’t say a thing to undo the damage.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Malcolm
Jack founded Falcon Performance Group in 1996 specifically to combine his complex-sale expertise and his extensive financial background to design and implement complete sales process improvement initiatives at top national and international corporations.


  1. Jack – your mention of Lanier and Xerox reminded me about my past project with Microsoft. In any face-to-face meeting, when the need to look something up online occurred, you never, ever could say “Just google [xyz],” Instead, “search for [xyz]” was entirely appropriate. Happily, I didn’t trip up once. I am sure of this because I know if I had, I would have been immediately reminded.

    Regarding your recommendation to use “simple words,” I don’t agree – I think you need to consider your word selection based on the people you are speaking to. That requires a fair amount of empathy.

    In general, if a certain word best fits in context, by all means, use it – don’t worry about whether it’s “simple.” It’s fair game, as long as the word can be found in the dictionary. Around election time, I listen to quite a few speeches, and I’m always amazed at how patronizing the candidates sound when 100% of the words they use can be understood by any third grader. I know they’re coached this way by their handlers, but when the subject is the dangers of a nuclear Iran, it doesn’t give me a positive vibe. I especially chafe when they drop the “ing” on participles in favor of “in” (strugglin’ , workin’). When I know that’s not how they really enunciate, this comes across as incredibly fake.

  2. Andy, I know what you mean; I’ve heard of others making that mistake! Another one actually happened to me: one of my new instructors was training at Verizon and used his Sprint phone during the break. I had to do some fast talking to soothe that one!


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