As a kid I was taught that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. At the time, this was a nice phrase to scream at somebody that was calling me names, but in reality words can inflict significant pain and suffering when delivered with venom and hate. Words can also heal wounds and express gratitude and love when coming from a friend or loved one.
Words carry great power. American bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss said, “Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.
As a public relations (PR) professional I am very aware of the power words carry and I try to help my clients understand the impact the words they speak can have on an individual or audience.
In Disney’s 1993 movie, The Three Musketeers starring Charlie Sheen, Keifer Sutherland, Chris O’Donnell and Oliver Platt, O’Donnell plays D’Artagnan, a young hotheaded would-be-Musketeer. In one scene, Sheen’s character, Aramis and Platt’s character, Porthos are teaching D’Artagnan that to be a proper Musketeer he must be schooled in the art of “wenching.”
Porthos demonstrates the proper way to “wench” by grabbing a barmaid and kissing her. The character of Aramis is far less bold and believes that there is a better, more effective way to win a woman’s heart…through words. Porthos disagrees and thinks words are a complete waste of time. The scene goes like this:
Aramis: Only the wrong words are waste of time. The right words can make a more lasting impression than a thousand of Porthos’s kisses.
Barmaid: Not likely.
Armais: As morning hues of sun swept fire caress your passion face. Alone with thee in pure desire, to worship your untold grace. My soul would cry in silent prayer, for hours spent apart. Your essence warms the evening air, as I dance into your heart.
The barmaid says it’s beautiful and proceeds to kiss Aramis. D’Artagnan decides to give Aramis’s way a shot:
D’Artagnan: As morning hues of sunswept…
D’Artagnan: …fire caress your… poisoned face.
[Aramis looks pained. D’Artagnan gives up, and sweeps the bar maid into a kiss]
Porthos: I declare, the boy’s a natural!
There is a significant difference between the words passion and poisoned. When said correctly, the barmaid was swept off her feet by Aramis and gave him a big kiss. When told she had a poisoned face, well … D’Artagnan had to shift gears and take a new approach.
I bring this up because the right words really can make a huge difference. They carry great power and can motivate or destroy a person, sometimes by mistake or unknowingly if you’re not careful. I advise my clients all the time to choose their words carefully and make sure they say what they want and mean what they mean to say.
Something as simple as saying “thank you” when somebody helps you or provides a service can mean a lot. A simple “please” when requesting assistance is seen as having good manners. There are a number of ways you can affect a person or group of people through the use of the right words.
The other day while talking to a friend, the conversation of my son came up. I mentioned how he likes to read and my friend asked, “Is he (my son) kind of nerdy?”
My initial response was to go on the defensive and say something like, “Hell no he’s not nerdy.” Before I did that though, I realized my friend wasn’t trying to be mean or offensive. I don’t even think he really realized what he said or the word he chose as he asked the question. My friend was simply trying to differentiate whether or not my son was more academic or athletic in nature.
In another instance, a colleague was telling me about his sister and her new husband. His new brother-in-law is in to weightlifting. He’s naturally tall, but due to his weightlifting he’s also considerably bigger than the average person. In this case, my colleague used the word big or huge to describe him. As a guy, those words are ok and it provides a pretty good idea of his stature. The term big or huge is not offensive. In fact, my colleague’s brother-in-law would be proud to be referred to in those terms.
There are examples where these same words, “big” and “huge” would not be appreciated when describing a person. For example, if my colleague were to use those same terms to describe his sister, he’d probably get punched in the mouth. However, if this same colleague used the word “big” with is four-year-old daughter to describe an accomplishment she’d be thrilled.
Here are a few tips to ensure you’re prepared to say the right words and avoid an unfortunate misstep.
- Know what you want to say. I wrote about this previously, but understand what your key messages are and what you want to tell people. Knowing the message doesn’t mean you’ve memorized a set of lines and are simply repeating those lines. It means you know the message and can communicate it effectively (8:40 mark). If you know the message and what you want to say, practice it so when the topic comes up you know what you want to say. Knowing this will eliminate mistakes and communicating the wrong message or words.
- Pause before speaking/answering. If you’re not sure what to say or how to describe something then pause before speaking. Think about the question and make sure your thoughts are clear before blurting out a response. Jeff Hornacek, the former NBA player and current head coach of the Phoenix Suns used to do this all the time. You could always tell because he’d pause and then almost as if to buy more time or make sure he had his thoughts in order he’d say, “Well,” pause some more and then answer the question. There is nothing wrong with taking a minute to think about the question so you can answer it appropriately.
- Pay attention. By listening to the question you’ll likely know how to respond. If you don’t hear the question or don’t understand the question then ask for it to be repeated or for clarification. Don’t guess as to what you think the question may have been.
- Keep it Simple Stupid (KISS). Answer the question and don’t try to overthink it or over-complicate it. The simpler you keep your answer the less likely you are to say something stupid. Don’t try to use big words or sound sophisticated. Be yourself and stick to the facts, Jack.
The ability to use the right words will empower you and help you communicate more effectively and use the power of words to make a more lasting impression.
Author: Jeremy Kartchner | Google+