When it comes to getting things done, we need fewer architects and more bricklayers.
-- Colleen C. Barrett

 

   

The MONTHLY Motivator - June 2008

Powerful use of language

Language is the primary way in which we communicate with other people. As such, skillful use of language is critically important to success in practically every area of life. Whether written or spoken, over the phone, in front of a large audience, in an e-mail message, or in a book, what you say and how you say it make all the difference in the world. Your use of language will significantly impact how well you are understood, how effective you are at persuasion, your ability to get a job done, and your overall success in life.

Among all the tools available to you, language is easily the most flexible and powerful. As you consider how difficult it would be to communicate without it, you naturally realize the importance of language. And just like any tool, language becomes more powerful as you learn the right way to use it.

Language allows you to extend your influence far beyond your own physical and temporal limitations. Your words, especially now in the age of the Internet, can travel to places and times where you’ll never go in person. Language is part science and part artistry. The “what” of language comes from your life experience, your observation, study, reflection, inspiration and interaction with others. That’s the artistic part. The “how” of language is the technical, scientific part. That is primarily what we’ll concentrate on here.

Most of us learn basic language skills in grade school -- spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and the like. These are the “rules” of language, without which language fails to function. If you say, “I went to the store,” most people will understand what you mean. Yet when you change the words around a little, and say, “Store the I to went,” it makes no sense at all. Beyond the basic rules that we learn in school, is another set of principles that bring the effectiveness of language to a significantly higher level. In this Monthly Motivator, we’ll look at some specific principles that will add power to your language

Here is an example. Suppose I’m applying for a job, and writing a cover letter to send with my resume. I can say something like:

If you think I might qualify, I wouldn’t mind coming to visit your office in person.

Now, let’s look at a different way of putting it:

After you review my qualifications, we can immediately arrange a face-to-face meeting.

It should be obvious to you which statement would have the best chance of persuading the employer to set up a meeting. Now let’s briefly analyze why. (We’ll get into more detail in a little bit -- this is just to whet your appetite.)

The first statement immediately starts out on the wrong foot with the word “if”. The problem with “if” is this -- in order to make logical sense of the statement, the reader is forced to consider the negative possibility. So when you say “If you think I might qualify", then you’re reminding your reader of the other possibility -- that you may very well not qualify. “If” can be a powerfully negative word to use. Computer programmers are very aware of the dual meaning of “if”. When programmers use an “IF” statement, they must also tell the program what to do “IF NOT”. The word “might” does the same thing -- it forces the consideration of “might not.” And “might” is very wishy-washy anyway. The combination of “if” and “might” is linguistically fatal.

The rest of the sentence is flawed in a couple of ways. First is the use of the word “I”. Using “I” makes the words come from the perspective of the writer, causing them to lose effectiveness. For your writing to be effective, readers must be able to identify with it. Try to use “you", or at the very least “we”. With “wouldn’t mind” again we see something stated in the negative. This could easily be replaced with “would be happy to” or “can easily arrange to”.

Now, let’s look at the second statement again, and analyze why


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—Ralph Marston