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Are You Choosing Words That Actually Mean Something in Your Business Communications?

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Are You Choosing Words That Actually Mean Something in Your Business Communications?

Small businesses are becoming increasingly specialised and dynamic. However, it seems that our language is still tainted with words that are highly generalised and static.

Do you notice a pattern among the words below – apart from the fact that they are commonly used in business?

All these words depict abstract concepts that you can’t see, hear or touch. They are nouns created from verbs, giving the illusion that they describe real, tangible things. But if I asked you to draw a picture of ‘implementation’ or ‘satisfaction’, you would probably just roll your eyes. (If I’m mistaken, and you’re up for the challenge, please send me your pics. I’d love to see them!)

These words, of course, have their place in our language. But we do need to be careful, as they can play tricks with our minds and lead to much confusion.

As touched on in an earlier article – 3 hypnotic writing mistakes that could lose you your readers’ attention – words that describe abstract, big-picture concepts can be tempting to use. They allow us to express ourselves in a way that’s hard to argue against, and they help us sound smart and confident even when in reality we don’t have a clear picture of the details.

This can create all sorts of havoc. For example, I had a long conversation recently with a change manager. Her clients have been spending serious amounts of effort and dollars on improving their staff members’ ‘well-being’, implementing various carefully planned ‘initiatives’, but the programme generated no ‘engagement’. The leaders of this business have now run out of ideas about how to close the divide. Meanwhile, the company’s culture is suffering, along with staff productivity.

I strongly suspect that one of the culprits is language – language which seems innocent on the surface, but which easily leads to miscommunication. ‘Well-being’ means different things to different people. So, while business leaders probably did their best to promote their own interpretations of ‘well-being’, staff were looking for something completely different.

I could cite similar stories about ‘productivity’, ‘innovation’ and ‘collaboration’ initiatives which have failed spectacularly, largely due to the fact that everyone had different ideas about what ‘productivity’, ‘innovation’ and ‘collaboration’ actually meant. But since leaders and employees all used the same generalised words, the misunderstandings were never fully uncovered.

The fact that scientists, journalists and bloggers are also fond of using generalised, intangible nouns – perhaps with the aim of avoiding controversy when addressing a mass audience – doesn’t make things easier. Just as I was writing this post, Google brought the following article to my attention (and I’m not making this up): The benefits of integrating workplace wellbeing into performance management. Within a single headline, the author of this article has almost scored a full ‘Bingo’ using the table above.

While, articles promoting ‘well-being’, ‘productivity’ and ‘performance’ might be packed with useful insights, the chances are that the suggestions are completely irrelevant, or perhaps even damaging to your business. (For example, many widely-promoted ‘productivity’ strategies these days come from studies on call centre employees. How relevant can that strategy be, say, to a lawyer?)

So, before you take on any advice, either from literature or from your colleagues or experts, it’s best if you really drill into the details.

When generalised concepts come up at critical points in communication, I suggest that you check in:

  • What does this concept mean to you?
  • What does it mean to other people in the conversation?
  • What does it look like, sound like and feel like, in the context of your business?
  • What are some of the examples of it?
  • How will you know if you’ve improved it, achieved it, or succeeded in it?

What ‘productivity’, ‘innovation’, ‘collaboration’, and so on mean to you and your people should be specific to the nature of your business and culture. If the same answers could possibly come from a doctor, a massage therapist or, say, a cooking specialist, you’ve got to dig deeper.

When you find that the answers you get (or come up with) are still vague, you can ask these questions over and over again. This takes some effort, of course, but you’ll eventually get some really valuable insights, I promise, and will be able to make business decisions that actually bring you the results you’re after.

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