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The Power of Words

  • “A very good part of the mischief that vex the world arises from words.”
  • —Edmund Burke

As Dr. Frank Luntz says, “It’s not what you say. It’s what people hear” (Luntz 2007, xi). The meaning of this is the audience will translate your message through a prism of their own biases, interests, knowledge, awareness, feelings, attention span, and many other interpretative filters.

Once you have spoken words, they are no longer yours. Other people will translate them, evaluate them, and measure them. Choose your words, make them appropriate for the situation, and be aware of the power of words. Poorly chosen words or speech used for personal, hubris, or evil can impact self-esteem, destroy morale, kill enthusiasm, inflame bias, incite hatred, lower expectations, hold people back, and even make people physically or mentally ill. Inappropriate words can make work and home toxic, abusive environments. There are many empirical studies showing that people who live and/or work in toxic environments suffer more colds, more cases of flu, more heart attacks, more depression, more of almost all chronic disorders, physical and emotional, than people who report living and/or working in happy, enjoyable, caring environments.

The old parental advice, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you,” was simply bad advice. However, well-chosen words or speech for the benefit of good or hope for others can motivate or inspire others to greater feats and deeds. They can offer hope; create vision; impact thinking beliefs and behavior of others; and alter results of strategy, plans, objectives, and people’s lives.

Peggy Noonan, the national syndicated columnist, knows a thing or two about words and how they impact us. She wrote recently about the advice Clare Boothe Luce once gave the newly inaugurated U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Ms. Luce was truly a remarkable woman. Her career spanned seven decades and nearly as many professional interests—journalism, politics, theatre, diplomacy, and intelligence.

According to Ms. Noonan, the sentence idea comes from a story Clare Boothe Luce told about a conversation she had in 1962 in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy. She said she told him that “a great man is one sentence.” His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. “He preserved the union and freed the slaves” or “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.” You didn’t have to be told “Lincoln” or “FDR.”

She wondered what Kennedy’s sentence would be. She was telling him to concentrate, to know the great themes and demands of his time, and focus on them. It was good advice. History has imperatives, and sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are met, and sometimes not. When they’re clear and met, you get quite a sentence (Wall Street Journal 2009).

Let’s look at a more contemporary example: the historic 2012 presidential debates. These debates may have more significance than previous ones because of the words chosen by the candidates, their rhythm, and their physical, nonverbal cues. A big part of communicating successfully depends on how well we negotiate the paradox of how the vast majority of human communication is conducted.

We know that more than 97% of human communication involves nonverbal cues (body language). To have a successful presentation, speech, or presidential debate performance, we must compose a sophisticated but seamless message, uniting our words in the proper rhythm, and use the corresponding nonverbal cues. If the words chosen don’t match the nonverbal cues or vice versa, the audience will be confused and the message will be diminished or, worse, ignored.

In the world of movies, theater, art, and entertainment, words have a dramatic impact. In a recent Wall Street Journal edition, a special report entitled “What’s In a Name?” discussed a number of box office successes that might have had a different result if their original titles had not been changed. For example, the Bogart classic Casablanca had an original title of Everybody Comes to Ricks. The Julia Roberts/Richard Gere blockbuster Pretty Woman had an original title of $3,000. The successful G.I. Jane was supposed to be released as In Defense of Honor. The world might not have ever remembered Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Anhedonia, which was fortunately changed to Annie Hall (Wall Street Journal 2012).

Words have the power to affect both the physical and emotional health of people to whom we speak, for better or for worse. Words used to influence are inspiring, uplifting, and challenging. They encourage, motivate, and persuade; they can be visionary; they can change people’s lives for the better. Verbal communication is a powerful human instrument, and we must learn to use it properly. We need to not only learn to think about speaking in new ways, but also learn to think about language and human nature, psychology, and sociology.

Throughout history, there have been many examples of memorable quotes to demonstrate how what is said is just as important as how it was said. For example, when Lyndon B. Johnson was stumping for political office, he was debating an opponent and was asked the difference between himself and the opposing candidate. He famously replied, “He matriculated and I never matriculated.”

Some of the most famous speeches made by Abraham Lincoln are memorable not just for the message, but also for the fact that he condensed an enormous amount of information into them. It was not only the power of his words, but also his cadence that made the impact of the speeches more powerful. His second inaugural speech was only 700 words and the Gettysburg Address was just under three minutes.

The power of words can actually harm others. Power verbs express an action that is to be taken or that has been taken. When used correctly, a powerful verb has the power to impact your life whether you are going into battle, running for president, or simply interviewing for a job. Researchers have observed that when students are given standardized tests and told the tests are “intelligence exams,” the average scores are from 10% to 20% lower than when the same exam is given to similar students and told it is “just an exam.”

We know that words create impressions, ideas, images, concepts, and facsimiles. Therefore, the words that we hear and read influence how we think and consequently how we behave. This means there is a correlation between the words we select and use and the results that occur.

Using powerful verbal imagery helps people to imagine vivid images and allows people to figuratively and literally see concepts being mentioned. This was first discovered in the early twentieth century and was initially known as the Perky effect and later called visual simulation. Individuals can project abstract thoughts. Almost everyone does this from time to time, but we refer to it as daydreaming. When a person daydreams, he is completely awake and his eyes are wide open, yet he imagines being somewhere else, doing something else, seeing smoothly, and doing something else.

Visual simulation impacts what people hear and how fast they respond. A cognitive psychologist, Rolf Zwann, has done a lot of research on how people describe objects and shapes to which they are exposed. The experiment includes just showing people visuals, asking for responses, and providing audio prompts before the visual stimulation. The results indicated people respond faster if they are given visual and aural stimulation before being asked to see the shapes. (Bergen 2012, 95). Many studies have confirmed that people construct visual simulations of objects they hear or read about.

People construct shape and orientation simulation. Studies show that when people listened, they more often looked at the set of objects that fit with the meaning of the verb, even before they heard the name of the relevant object. People make predictions about what the rest of the sentence will contain as soon as words that they have already heard start to constrain what could reasonably follow. People start to cobble their understanding of the sentence incrementally (Bergen 2012, 125).

Grammar helps get the visual simulation going by pulling together all the pieces contributed by the words in the correct configuration. People will more easily and clearly understand and comprehend your meaning if you have structured your sentence correctly.

One particular form is transitive sentences. It is one that has a transfer of possession meaning. They start with a noun or noun phrases, are followed by a verb, and then have one or two noun phrases. The following is an example:

The outgoing CEO kicked the problem down the road to the new CEO.

If we use the intended transfer definition, the ditransitive describes an intended transfer of an object to a recipient, and, naturally, the recipient must be capable of receiving something (Bergen 2012, 106).

Words we use and the impact they have can even be impacted by our background and other influences. Consider the words buy and invest. If you are selling life insurance, you want the customer to buy, but in your mind, the purchase is a long-term investment. The premiums will be invested, the face value of the policy will grow, there will eventually be loan value, and the investment will appreciate beyond the purchase price.

However, the customer thinks in terms of buying and how much it costs. The issue comes full circle again if the customer does buy and if he or she wants the insurance company to make good investments.

Nan Russell writing for Career Know-How introduces this word choice: problem or challenge. Would you rather your boss see your mistake as a problem or a challenge? Is it just semantics? Problems are things that are fixed; challenges are met. Different words evoke a set of different emotions and different feelings. People usually have a much more positive feeling about “meeting a challenge” than “fixing a problem.”

There is information about the medicinal benefits of power verbs as well as a warning about the power of words which, if used inappropriately, can actually cause individuals to become ill.

  • “In the study, published in Pain, researchers used functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI) to examine how 16 healthy people processed words associated with experiencing pain. The brain scans revealed which parts of the brain were activated in response to hearing the words.
  • In the first experiment, researchers asked the participants to imagine situations that corresponded with words associated with pain—such as ‘excruciating,’ ‘paralyzing,’ and ‘grueling’—as well as negative but non-pain associated words such as ‘dirty’ and ‘disgusting’ and neutral and positive words. In the second experiment, the participants read the same words but were distracted by a brainteaser.
  • The results showed that in both cases there was a clear response in the brain’s pain-processing centers with the words associated with pain, but there was no such activity pattern in response to the other words. Researchers say preserving painful experiences as memories in the brain may have been an evolutionary response to allow humans to avoid painful situations that might be dangerous.” (http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/news/20100402/words-really-do-hurt)
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