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issue 38

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Training Bulletin Issue 38

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it

Gordon Brown gives the impression of being distant, Nick Clegg comes across as honest and David Cameron as indistinct and cautious. This isn’t my opinion but the result of an analysis of the kinds of words the three party leaders used in their recent televised debate.

How would you like to have university academics putting all your words through a computer program that can infer your level of honesty from the way you speak or write?

On the one hand, those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. But if the same program can also predict how confident or honest you seem, and whether you give the impression of being personal or distant, then there might be implications for any writer of business documents – would you want a potential client to be analysing your bids this way, for example?

What is interesting is that the analysis was made not on the basis of what the politicians said, but the way they said it.

And what are the implications for business writing?

When applied to the candidates in the 2004 American presidential election, this technique highlighted clear differences between the language of John Kerry and John Edwards, who lost, and that of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the winners. This was despite a common perception that the Democrat candidates were more intelligent and more competent than the Republican winners. Overall, Bush and Cheney were seen as more optimistic than the more guarded Kerry and Edwards.

Closer to home

The choice of words that made Gordon Brown seem distant and impersonal were his preference for saying “we” rather than “I”, and more words associated with negative emotions such as anxiety. On the positive side, his use of lots of verbs, or action words, and articles (“a” and “the”) suggested dynamic thinking about specifics.

David Cameron, like Brown, used lots of negative words but more the kind associated with anger than anxiety. He used the kinds of verbs that convey ideas of necessary or possible behaviour (could, should, would), which made him seem moralistic.

Nick Clegg said “I” more than “we”, immediately seeming more personal and accepting of responsibility. This also gives the impression of honesty. His language was more optimistic overall.

In the wide press coverage following the debate, Clegg emerged as the winner, an outcome that surprised many, given his party’s position as a distant third. It’s interesting that the language analysis supports the public’s perception of how the three leaders performed.

So, how can this work for you?

I don’t want to suggest that this is some devious or Machiavellian technique to influence readers’ thoughts. If this were possible, advertising agencies could reliably make us all troop mindlessly off to buy products we don’t want or need…um, hang on a minute…

Seriously, though, the analysis of the politicians’ speeches did not provide a handy table with a list of words one could use to guarantee an effect. It’s a bit more subtle than that.

I or we?

Saying “I” instead of “we” implies personally being involved and accepting of responsibility. It tells your reader that somewhere out there, another human being is focusing on them and their situation rather than their just being another speck of fodder to some large and impersonal corporation.

Emotive or neutral words?

If you deal with complaints or unhappy clients, consider the words you choose. I think that most people just greet with a groan the overused statement that “it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity!” But avoid repetition of words like problem, dissatisfaction or inconvenience. Talk instead about the situation, the matter, the circumstances. These words are more neutral and can help to move the focus away from unhappiness with a product or service, and towards the resolution.

Optimistic language?

This isn’t an area for wild overstatement. But listen to the difference between these two statements:
“If you accept our offer, we could visit you to discuss the details.”
“When you accept our offer, we will visit you to agree the details.”

Engaged or removed?

“The replacement will be sent next week.”
“I will courier your replacement widget to you on Tuesday.”

Use the active voice rather than the passive and be specific rather than vague. Write as if you are speaking to the client.

Competent and professional?

Finally, whatever else your clients and colleagues think of you and your organisation, being seen as competent and professional has to be one of the most important impressions you create. The best way to do this is to make sure there are no mistakes in what you send out.

Incorrect punctuation remains one of the most irritating components of business writing and will give your reader the insidious notion that you may not be competent in other areas.

If you have an hour to spare, from 16:00 to 17:00 BST 12th May, contact us for an invitation to our free webinar on punctuation. You will learn how to avoid some of the most common problems around the most frequently used types of punctuation.

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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