For something that's at the core of every interaction, it's surprising how often language is ignored. Whether typified by emails that use six paragraphs to say what only needs a few sentences, to systems that display messages that actively confuse users, effective use of language can change an interaction for better or worse.
Mastery of language does not require an extensive vocabulary, or the ability to diagram a sentence or explain the differences between a gerund and a split infinitive; rather, a few simple considerations can help you use language to your advantage.
Become the listener
Perhaps the single largest source of poorly-used language is not putting yourself in the shoes of the listener. Explaining the exact same situation to a colleague versus a boss or customer is an obvious example of how different language might be employed. A more nuanced approach to communication is thinking through what action you want the reader to undertake immediately upon hearing or reading your message, or how you want a customer to react to one of your customer service channels. Even the department or organization of the listener should drive how you communicate. Certain groups might be more visually oriented, or more receptive to formal versus informal communications.
Whether it's a phone call, formal speech, email, or marketing communication, putting yourself in the listener's or reader's shoes is the best way to ensure you use the right language to convey your message, and ultimately compel a desired action based on that message. If you use language solely for yourself, the listener or reader will quickly allow your words to fade into the background or stop reading the message.
There's an art to simplifying a message that extends beyond word count. Humor or colorful turns of phrase might appall a student of Hemingway, but these techniques can also make complex or unsavory topics accessible. For IT leaders, simplification of complex technical topics can be an art form, and a critical one if you hope to be regarded as more than a wonky technologist. Effective use of examples, analogies, and visuals can simplify these topics and make them relatable. The best leaders can distill the complex to understandable and actionable goals, a talent that's in short supply in a complex field like technology.
Think before speaking
Oddly, many of us interpret silence as a sign of weakness, and strive to fill any gap in conversation with banalities, poorly-formed thoughts or, in the worst case, ums, likes, and aahs. However, next time you're in a conversation, take a moment to compose your thoughts before speaking, consciously avoiding the temptation to fill the intervening silence with any of the above. A momentary silence can often generate more attention, and following the silence with a thoughtful and well-delivered comment reinforces the importance of the message you're delivering. Use this tactic repeatedly, and you'll find that conversation naturally stops as you draw a breath or a thoughtful look crosses your face as you prepare to speak. Consider your own experience as a listener. Rarely is the person who speaks the most or fills every millisecond of silence paid the most attention; rather, those who deliver a concise and thoughtful comment command the attention of their peers.
Become a student of language
With spoken and written language all around us, it's easy to find examples of its practical application, and use those examples to inform our own use of language. As you listen to your colleagues and find someone whose message regularly resonates with you, try to determine what in particular creates that appeal. Is it how they speak? Their word choice? An ability to condense the message, or relate it directly to the listener? If you're willing to invest more time in using the power of language, listen to podcasts, audio books, or radio programs, and try to identify what you like or dislike about the speaker. How do they combine language, delivery, tone, and pacing? Even standup comics can teach us about delivery and timing, or relating subject matter to the listener to establish a connection.
As you identify appealing themes, focus on adopting one or two at a time. You might start with something as simple as eliminating filler words from your delivery, or vowing to eliminate acronyms from your spoken and written communication. For written communications like emails or presentations, spend a couple of minutes reading the document from the perspective of the recipient. Do you answer the questions they're likely to have? Do you capture and hold their attention? Is it clear what they should do differently after reading your message?
Even if you focus on the simplest aspects of your delivery, in a matter of weeks you'll find colleagues paying more attention to the message you're trying to deliver, and more action resulting from your use of language.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.