Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Language, Power and Choices: What’s in a Word?

It’s impossible to read – or hear – the news without noticing how some words inflame people, some words inspire people and some words push people around. I want to say that last one is figurative, but the impact can be so substantial, it can seem as powerful as a literal push.

Choice of Words

One of the remarkable things about our relationship with words is the many ways we can control them to make an impact:

  • Choosing one word or phrase over another
    • “make love” or “get it on”
    • “dictator” or “leader”
  • Avoiding the use of a word altogether
    • never saying “climate change” when discussing extreme changing weather
    • never saying “abortion” when discussing the termination of pregnancy
  • Using words that minimize or marginalize
    • “only” or “merely” in front of almost anything
    • “non-consensual” s** when discussing assault (spam filters prevent me from using the word)
  • Selecting words that people may not understand
    • “sobriquet” for nickname
    • “grandiloquent” for long-winded
  • Combining words not usually found together
    • “fake news”
    • “shy performer”

Meanings and Understanding

Then there is the question of what a word means. The dictionary definition or denotation is the official meaning. But the common understanding and what’s associated with the word – the connotation – may be quite different. As a result, two words with the same dictionary meaning may evoke very different feelings.

See how you react to these examples:

  • The government checked with the local community before approving the development.
  • The government consulted with the local community before approving the development.
  • The change in policy had quite an effect on development.
  • The change in policy had quite an impact on development.
  • Police spoke with three youths about what happened that night.
  • Police spoke with three juveniles about what happened that night.

Then there is the issue of how we understand behaviour, resulting in the use of different words to describe it. One example would be the use of the words “assertive” or “aggressive.”  While most people would agree the meaning of these words is different, what one person calls an assertiveaction, another might call aggressive.

What to Consider in Choosing Your Words

To select the best words, there are some things you should keep in mind from the start of your planning.

Audience or Participants

  • Who are you trying to communicate with?
  • Is it the people you are talking to directly? Does it include others?
  • What do you know about their needs?
  • What is their perspective and understanding of the topic or situation?
  • What is their level of knowledge, education and literacy?


  • What do you want to achieve?
  • Is relationship building important?
  • Do you want people to take action?


  • What is the culture and background of the people you want to reach?
  • What current events may affect how the information is perceived?
  • Does the topic or the audience call for a formal or informal approach?
  • How much time will people have to digest the information?

The context can have a significant impact on how meaning is understood, as well as what words or phrases are considered offensive.

Ultimately, aim for words that help you achieve:

  • Clarity – which sometimes leads to brevity and sometimes requires more words
  • Accuracy – watch the things that affect perception
  • Value – make words count for you and your audience

No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. ~ John Keating in Dead Poets Society

Words and Listening

Much is made of the “power of the pen.” When it comes to facilitation, what is captured on flipcharts or a screen is critical! It’s essentially the “proof of listening.” Lack of listening – real or perceived – can have an incredible impact on how participants of a session feel. So, the choice of comments and words recorded can make or break the outcomes: both the product and the experience for participants.

If you’re facilitating a meeting, be aware of that power. If you need to participate or don’t have confidence in your ability to capture the right words, you may want to enlist the help of a facilitator.

I am a big believer in the positive impact words can have on people, and I enjoy using them to achieve results. Not only in writing, but also in facilitation, where perceptions are key. Please reach out if I can help you make better use of words.

3-minute Demonstration

This excerpt from Mohammed Qahtani’s award winning speech at the 2015 Toastmasters’ World Championship of Public Speaking really drives home the power of words.