Meaningful Words

Words that Inspire Confidence

In response to a prior blog about meaningless words, commenter Brett wrote, “It would be interesting to see those words and phrases that do inspire confidence and trust. That would be a great follow up.” Here you go, Brett (and Aggressive Reader, who seconded Brett’s suggestion). This discussion of meaningful words is primarily about replacements for weak, meaningless ones, while the prior discussion was about the complete elimination of condescending, insulting or self-deprecating ones.

Attorneys have long cautioned officers and employees of corporations to avoid forward-looking statements. The financial scandals of the past decade have made those attorneys even more diligent about language. As a result, corporate presenters now fill their pitches with sentences formed in the conditional mood. Phrases containing “we believe,” “we think,” and “we feel” pervade presentation narratives to such a degree that they spill over into sentences where caution is unnecessary. More to the point, the spillage weakens what should otherwise be assertive language, as in the following sentence:

With this large opportunity and our superior technology, I think you’ll see that our company is well-positioned for growth.

The words “I think” introduce doubt, even if only subliminally, in the minds of your audience. As a presenter attempting to persuade an audience, your job is to provide them with as much certainty as you can. The way to get from doubt to certainty is to switch from the conditional to the declarative mood by eliminating the offending words:

With this large opportunity and our superior technology, you’ll see that our company is well-positioned for growth.

That simple nip and tuck strengthens the impact of the entire sentence.

This is not to say that, when the outcome is uncertain, you should make forward-looking statements or forecasts. That’s risky business. In such cases, you must use the conditional mood, but instead of the weak words “think,” “believe,” and “feel,” try these stronger options:

      • We’re confident . . .
      • We’re convinced . . .
      • We’re optimistic . . .
      • We expect . . .

With this large opportunity and our superior technology, you’ll see that our company is well-positioned for growth, and we’re confident that growth will translate into significant revenues.

From the sublime of persuasive words to the banal of airline travel, think of the announcement you typically hear on the public address system when your flight touches down at your destination:

I’d like to be the first to welcome you to San Francisco.

Sound familiar? It’s boilerplate; not just in airline travel, but also in political speeches, college lectures, church sermons, award ceremonies, acceptance speeches, wedding toasts—the list is endless. In business presentations the sentence sounds vague and indefinite. Besides, if you’d like to do it, why not just go ahead and do it?

Welcome to San Francisco

And then there is this often-used phrase:

What we’re not is…

Huh? Well then, what are you? Negative statements fail to provide information. Tell your audiences what you are, not what you are not. Moreover, negative statements sound defensive. Always make positive statements.

As you read in a prior blog, one of history’s most famous negative statements was President Richard Nixon’s infamous defense of himself in the Watergate scandal, “I am not a crook.” Had he framed his statement positively as “I am an honest man,” history might remember him more forgivingly.

Meaningful words stated in the declarative mood, assertively, and positively are more likely to beget meaningful actions.

(This post appeared on Harvard Business Review Blog)