Countdown’s resident lexicographer and etymologist, Susie Dent, offers her guidance on how to find the words to inspire and win employees’ hearts and minds
The word “inspiration” is a telling one. At its heart are two Latin terms that mean “breathe into”, so it could be said that to inspire people is to give them the oxygen they need to be confident and creative.
The language of leadership isn’t only about the words you use. Inspiring language is just as much about emotional tone. The vocabularies of firm command and empathy are quite different, but they’re also perfectly compatible.
My years of interviews with team leaders, managers and CEOs have revealed some consistent pointers – and pitfalls. Here are some of the linguistic lessons I’ve learnt from them.
1. State your goal
If your intent is clear and you share it often, people will follow you anywhere. It’s a slightly overtold anecdote but no less instructive for that: when President Kennedy was touring Nasa’s space centre in 1962, he encountered a janitor mopping the floor. “Hi,” said JFK. “What do you do here?” The janitor replied: “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”
2. Take risks
All of us talk like humans and some of us take risks. Good leaders do both. If you look at some of the most striking recent advertising slogans, you’ll find copywriters pushing out the linguistic boat. With its “Think different” slogan, for instance, Apple dispensed with the adverb and illustrated its point perfectly in the process.
3. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself
The chairman of a leading advertising agency once offered me the following gem of advice: the moment you think that people are getting tired of hearing your message is the same moment it’s starting to stick in their minds. As he told me: “Make it simple, make it sticky, make it stick.”
4. Use good jargon
We love to knock the jargon that suffocates meaning, but good jargon does exist – and it works. This is jargon of the tribal kind that unites us and makes us feel part of something special. If you can develop a lexicon that is colourful, memorable and direct, you’ll give your team a strong sense of identity. For example, when a rubbish collector warns a colleague of incoming “disco rice”, they are using an in-joke in a concise message to relieve the stress of a maggoty encounter.
5. Love the word ‘because’
It may seem rather obvious, but studies have shown that if you give a reason for wanting to do something and express it well, this will greatly improve the outcome. Asking people to do a task is one thing, but only by explaining why it’s important can you make them feel fully invested in the process.
6. Appeal to emotion
Don’t give talking points; tell stories. As Brené Brown, professor of social work at the University of Houston, puts it: “Stories are just data with a soul.” Find the equivalent of O2’s “Be more dog” campaign, which beautifully urged us all to wag our metaphorical tails, ditch the cynicism and embrace the new.
7. Increase your word power
A person’s vocabulary level is the single best predictor of their occupational success. Encourage your people to read, learn, play word games, watch Countdown and, above all, have fun with language – it has unlimited potential.
8. Harness your zeal
Lastly, you can’t hope to inspire others unless you’re inspired yourself. One sure-fire way of avoiding bad jargon is to draw on your own passion and use your own words. This is your dream, so why use other people’s words? Passion is contagious, passion provokes and passion makes us happy.