When words are given flight – from the globally renowned likes of ‘just do it’ and ‘I have a dream’ to manifestos known only by their followers – they have power. And, for every few powerful words, millions have negligible impact. Earlier this year, I estimated I had written words of some form for more than 13,500 hours across my career. Here are a few insights I’ve learned about giving your words power.
1. Decide if you need to.
This may seem a little crazy. When wouldn’t you want powerful words? Actually…plenty of times. Instances of pure function need to be understood, but they don’t need to be a rally cry. Often, clarity is all we need as recipients of words. If you’ve ever received a sales email when you’ve already been sold, you’ll understand this. You don’t always need to appeal to the hearts part of ‘hearts and minds’. In fact, misplaced power can undermine effectiveness. If everything you say aims to be anthemic, you’ll lose people just before you really want to win them. Avoid overdoing it if that effort isn’t called for.
“Don't use words too big for the subject.
Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’;
otherwise you'll have no word left when you
want to talk about something really infinite.”
2. Determine why, if you decide you do.
Note, pen hasn’t hit paper yet. Good…because you haven’t figured out your objective yet. Are you trying to inspire? Challenge? Assure? Get clear on this. It will save loads of time but, more importantly, it will give you some way of measuring whether you might achieve your objective. Decide why your words need power and then care more about your message than your words. The goal shouldn’t be to impress, but to impress upon. It takes more effort, but is mandatory if you want to be genuine. Knowing your objective will also help you know where to draw the line. Great communication should say what needs to be said and then stop – quality over quantity…value-adding adjectives not padding adjectives…sincerity not verbosity. Let your clear sense of purpose drive effectiveness.
3. Make it all about your audience.
Ineffective words abound in written and spoken form. The common culprit is failing to take as much of you out of the picture as possible. This doesn’t mean your powerful words can’t be riddled with self-interest. They can. Sometimes, they should. A less-than self-interested vision is inauthentic even if it’s all about others. But, please, write for your audience. If you care about your outcome, you can’t compromise on this. Caring about your audience is then the difference between patronising ‘dumbing down’ versus thoughtful simplification. It drives length, style, tone, the examples used, the generalisations made and so on. This includes speaking in your audience’s ‘language’ (eg employees), even if your reason for communicating with them is to move them into new language (eg a leader resetting culture). Depending on the context, you may even consider involving your audience in the writing process.
4. Pick up your pen (or writing device of choice) and give it time.
Words with power are words with a strong foundation. Points one to three are about creating that foundation. Then, allocate time based on importance, not length. Vision, mission and purpose statements, value propositions, major campaigns, critical speeches etc, should take as long as they take to get them right. False deadlines are among the bigger bores in business because they are too often linked to ignorance, ego or someone’s inability to manage time effectively. Even things like tenders and award submissions – things that generally have externally-imposed deadlines – can lose out on a great idea that’s poorly communicated simply because people left the ‘words’ to the end. Which leads me to…
5. Recognise that powerful words start at the beginning.
Words that need to be delivered and received with power should be a first responder in any process, because words don’t start when that pen hits that paper. Great words start as soon as you’re framing a problem or opportunity. They start when we are making sense of the world or shaping our place in it. They ultimately hold real power when they are infused with experience. One reason why some of the best books or speeches in history are considered lifetime works is they took the lifetime to get the message.
These aren’t five magic steps by any means. They are more like principles you can follow to hone the art of giving your words power (when you really need to). And please give them a try! You don’t need to be a writer. You only need to be someone who cares passionately about the connection between your message and your audience…for good reason.