Words Aren't Dead

Words play an important role in conveying meaning, which hasn't diminished with the rise of visual communications.In a world increasingly dominated by visual imagery, some wonder if written expression is dead. Hardly. Words remain powerful, especially when used correctly by writers and speakers who know how to frame language to paint pictures, to turn your words into powerful swords.

Nowhere is the mastery of words more important than in managing a sensitive public issue. Knowing what to say and how to say it can spell the difference between understanding and contempt and, ultimately, between success and failure.

Here are some tips on how to shape your words:

1. Use research. You know what you mean, but your audience may interpret your words very differently and take a different meaning from them. To understand how people react to your words, test them in focus groups, whether live or online. Your audience may find what you too full of jargon or too dense to comprehend. Focus groups can reveal the words or approaches that enable an audience to grasp what you want to say. Survey research is invaluable in zeroing in on the best arguments to use that change how people view a subject.

2. Paint pictures. The most memorable speakers and writers create vivid pictures for our mind's eye. This isn't just a clever technique. It taps into how our brains sort information, relying on familiar patterns. Pictures, which can convey a great deal of complexity, provide an instantaneous file cabinet for the brain that accelerates understanding and comprehension.

3. Include stories. Like pictures, stories also harness the familiar. Stories help listeners or readers relate to what you are saying, so they are empathetic to what you are saying. You can disagree sharply with someone, but find yourself agreeing with that person if they tell a story that touches a nerve or triggers a common response. Think of stories as more than punch lines at the start of a speech. They can draw an audience closer to you and, at least for a moment, share a common perspective.

4. Integrate words and pictures. Words and pictures aren't foes; they are intimate companions. Great communicators realize that combining well-chosen words and pictures can produce powerful results that show your audience what you mean. Some subjects simply cannot be described in a paragraph, but they can be demonstrated in a video, chart or photograph. When people can see what you mean, it frequently changes the conversation and lowers the temperature on disagreement.

5. Make Your Ideas Sticky. Chip and Dan Heath devoted an entire book to what makes ideas stick in people's minds. Apart from the specific techniques they describe — simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional, their main message is to think intentionally about how to make your ideas sticky. It may involve simplifying what you say, giving a concrete example or citing credible sources to support your views. You might surprise your audience, entertain them with a captivating story or take them on a emotional journey. But whatever you do, do it with forethought so what you say or write is remembered.

6. Show the Path. The Heath brothers, in their book about change titled Switch, underscore the importance of scripting a path you want your audience to follow. Or in marketing parlance, make sure you ask for the sale. You may be persuasive, but if your audience has no clue of what to do, you have missed a huge opportunity to move your influence to action.

7. Listen Before Talking. Many public controversies can be traced at their root to a failure to listen to someone's concerns. Careful listening can guide your response. Interestingly, large controversies serve as magnets for discontented people to voice their anger or frustration, sometimes at a wholly different issue than the one scrawled on placards in the protest. By listening to individuals, you may unravel specific concerns that can be addressed straightforwardly with simple steps, turning a critic into a disciple.

8. Master Your Subject. Your words will flow more naturally and truly if you really know what you are talking about. Preparation is key to mastering your subject matter. Nothing undermines credibility more quickly than misstating a fact or getting the details mixed up in a story. If you know your stuff, you convey confidence, which in turn breeds respect from your audience.

Embrace editing to make your words ring and stick in the minds of your audience.9. Turn a Phrase. We mock sound bites, but they work. Clever phrases resonate and stick in people's consciousness. They also are what radio, TV and print reporters seize when they quote you. You should craft a fetching phrase as you prepare written or oral comments. However, don't rely solely on sound bites to convey your meaning. They grab attention, but it usually takes a whole lot more to convince someone.

10. Embrace Editing. Editing is a good thing, not a bad thing, even if it bruises your artistic ego. Everybody's words can be improved. Ernest Hemingway, probably America's most gifted stylist, routinely and rigorously edited his own work. The result was polished prose. If you have a mental block editing your own work, find someone you trust and let them exercise the red pen.