A painter’s palette is his creative toolkit from which he draws the raw material that could ultimately produce an ominous storm scene, a blissful portrait, or a thought-provoking abstract. It will be his strategic selection and mastery of the many colors within his palette that will determine whether he’s a dabbler, an amateur, or a true artist.
The same is true with words and how those who wield them in their written communication and oral presentations can produce verbal or literary mediocrity or mastery. Words are the speaker’s and writer’s most versatile and effective tools and the raw material from which audiences will draw their conclusions about the communicator’s intelligence, credibility, and believability.
But not all words are created equal and are meant for the same settings or audiences. Here’s a look at three fundamental types of words and their uses and ultimate consequences:
Use EXPLANATORY words to inform
Each audience has a unique composition and set of rules, lore, and terminology. What engineers say might fall on deaf ears to a room full of doctors, whose medical jargon might sound foreign to graphic artists, whose day-to-day lingo might sound unintelligible to accountants.
Explanatory words, most often used in information-dispensing settings, are those which are used to communicate the right word in the right context at the right time to the right audience. Like picking the optimal seat at the movie theater that is neither too far back nor too close, the right word is the one that is exactly right for the occasion. If chosen correctly, the communicator’s message is properly understood, believed, and followed.
Especially when used for explanatory purposes, words that are too technical and verbose can cause you to lose your listeners—and your credibility—because your audience expects you, as the expert, to know precisely what you want to say. You are expected to summon the most appropriate words to communicate your message. Similarly, words that are overly flowery, vague, or too generic may appear too inexact and anemic to fully explain your thoughts. If you choose vague or imprecise words, you stand to lose credibility and effectiveness.
Use STRATEGIC words to persuade
Whereas explanatory words are used for their precision, specificity, and exactness—they aim at being the perfect fit—strategic words are words that are used to persuade and move an audience toward a certain direction. There are definite premeditated tones implicit to them, particular motives imbedded in them, and specific end results expected from them.
Think of how the two sides define themselves in the high-spirited issue of gun ownership. One side defines themselves as “gun control” advocates, suggesting that their highest priority is the safety and responsible use of fire arms by individual citizens and implying that added restraints are necessary. Their counterparts refer to themselves as “right to bear arms” activists, suggesting that the issue isn’t as much about external controls as it is with personal freedoms, rights, and privileges.
Even though the above strategic words are intrinsically neutral, your blood pressure may have risen a few points—not by the mere usage of them, but by the power of their implications. Strategic words have a definite agenda and are meant to attract, entice, and engage certain feelings and emotions.
Use PROVOCATIVE words to incite
Used often in high-emotion settings, like courtrooms and political convention halls, provocative words are the most manipulative, most inciting, and most volatile in the communicator’s palette. These are often, quite literally, fighting words—to be used judiciously and sparingly.
Excluding curse words and crude vocabulary—which are inherently provocative but have no place in professional business communications—there are certain words that arise out of popular culture and enter our dictionaries because of the power and context in which they were created. Politics is a good breeding ground for such language because of its extreme high-risk and high-reward nature.
Think of the arguments that have arisen from the term “radical Islam,” and you’ll see how powerful these words are. And who can cease to shudder when you hear the term “basket of deplorables”? I’m sure Hillary Clinton wishes she had never uttered those words, which became a rallying cry for her detractors. Whereas strategic words seek to persuade and challenge the thinking, provocative words aim to incite and assault the heart.
Communicators are artists. They have a wide range of colors—their words—within their grasps to educate, persuade, and incite their audiences. It is the wise wielder of these words who knows when to use which ones.