Sunday, July 19, 2009

Appreciate the Power of Words

As business leaders we often fail to fully appreciate the ability we possess, for both good and ill, to influence people and situations through the simple choice of the words we use. Our teams are listening closely to what we say. The very best communicators select their words carefully and work hard to ensure that followers understand their meaning. This necessity to speak and write clearly is a truly basic leadership objective, but ever so difficult to consistently execute.

Last week I was honored to take a group of executives through a leadership seminar at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. At the end of our day-long tour of that sacred place, one of the participants read Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address near the spot where Lincoln delivered it at the National Cemetery in November 1863. As she read that beautiful little speech- only 272 words long- I was reminded of the power of an idea well expressed to move people to think differently and, sometimes, change the world.

Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling but he read constantly from an early age in an effort to educate himself. He became a master communicator whose innate yet carefully honed abilities as a story-teller and humorist enabled him to reach and teach ordinary people in unforgettable fashion. His deep study of the Holy Bible and Shakespeare influenced the lovely cadences of his speeches.

Lincoln's masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address, forever changed the way Americans think of themselves. He explained the meaning of the sacrifice of so many lives on the battlefield just a few months prior. He asserted the Declaration of Independence and its central idea- equality- as a matter of founding law. The Civil War, Lincoln told us, was the great struggle around and testing of this new principle. As historian Gary Wills said, "By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America."

Few people, even among great historical figures, possess Abraham Lincoln's gift for language. Of speeches that compare with the Gettysburg Address, for me, only the inspirational words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, telling his countrymen: "I have a dream today…"

So what does that leave for those of us who are mere mortals? For those of us who often get tangled in our own syntax? For those of us who dread having to put our thoughts down on paper?

There is a popular historical myth that Lincoln penned the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope as he rode the train from Washington D.C. to Pennsylvania. To the contrary, the speech was carefully composed beforehand at the White House. He wrote and rewrote, revising the speech even as late as the morning of the day it was to be delivered. Lincoln was incredibly particular in his choice of words, and he worked hard to get the message just right. He knew that his followers, and even future generations, would be paying close attention. In that way, he was a teacher to all of us who would aspire to be leaders who communicate well.

With written communication, take the time to be thoughtful. Who is your intended audience? What message do you want to convey? How can you write that piece- whether a short e-mail or a full-blown speech- in the simplest, most concise way, yet still get your point across (remember Lincoln's 272 words)?

Nothing is more frustrating for a team of people than to read something their boss or colleague has produced that causes confusion. Credibility is lost and time is wasted. Proofread what you write. Better yet, have someone that you trust check your work. Be open to suggestions and make changes accordingly. Like Lincoln did, practice your writing. As with any other skill, writing ability can be developed over time with effort, repetition and feedback.

The spoken word can prove more difficult because we frequently don't have time to be as reflective as we might with a writing assignment. We are often called upon to give an opinion quickly without the benefit of all the information we need to make a judgment. Still, the best communicators are thoughtful in speech as well.

Take a pause before you speak. Collect your thoughts. Consider the audience. It's okay to acknowledge what you don't know and take time to do some research. Gather data. Ask good questions. Select your words. Deliver them well. Confirm understanding.

As always, the old saying holds true: "Talk is cheap, but whisky costs money." Words without appropriate and consistent actions to back them up are mere words. With that said, leadership begins with words. Especially in the difficult economic environment in which we all live and work, anxious business teams are keenly in tune with what leadership is saying. So take the opportunity to be thoughtful with your words. The future of your organization may depend on it.

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