Poorly chosen words can nullify both influence and leadership efforts. The examples that follow serve to remind us that when we influence, we are leading; and that, as leaders, we invite more scrutiny than we do as followers. Sometimes, the glare of the spotlight may be so intense that we try to remove ourselves from it by using “weasel” words. These not only smack of dishonesty, but they usually evoke scorn. By studying the writing styles of those leaders who wield tremendous influence through public speaking, we can learn what works and what doesn’t.
Examples of Non-Influential Statements
To paraphrase the inimitable Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot just by studying. Contained within the speaking/ writing styles of the great communicators are innumerable tips that, properly analyzed, will afford tremendous insight into successful styles. And, conversely, by studying the mistakes made by less-than-great communicators we can also learn what works and what does not. Here are examples of the latter: non-influential statements, uttered by “leaders” in one sense of the word only.
Asked about the Holocaust, Dan Quayle replied, “It was an obscene period in our nation’s history.” A reporter intervened, asking if Quayle meant something other than “our nation’s.” Mr. Quayle grasped the opening, explaining that he had meant to say “in this century’s history.” He then elucidated further: “We all lived in this century–I didn’t live in this century, in this century’s history. We did not have, as a matter of fact, we fought, Hitlerism. The Holocaust is a critical point in history that we should as a nation understand.”
Of course, when understanding of your essential point eludes your listening or reading audience, it is virtually impossible to influence them towards a course of action you’ve deemed worth pursuing. Other examples follow to show how incomprehension can negate leadership.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig was (correctly) quoted in his definition of diplomacy: “The conduct of international affairs is essentially dialectic and you have a sine curve of attitudes. We felt there had to be some clearing of the air.”
“Things happen more frequently in the future,” Washington governor Booth Gardner declared, “than they do in the past.”
A Wall Street Journal article (Lee Berton, “The Simple Truth of It Is That He Was Channeling Immanuel Kant,” March 22, 1989, page 1) provides another illustration of the importance attached to using language that enlightens rather than language that leaves us in
Candido Mendes, a Brazilian political scientist, offered his views on global environmental problems, “The fiat of sustainability of [the report] asserts the necessary engineering of totality built this first basic intertwining between development and environment in an at-random set of the inner dynamisms of those ecosystems, with no assessment of their self-closing, or disruption, or dependable reading of their effective interplay.” (Reprinted by permission of Wall Street Journal © 1989, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide)
In his defense, it is only fair to note that his remarks were not intended for a lay audience. So, when asked to “translate” the essence of the article for the non-scientific mind, Mendes gave this explanation, “It asks whether sustainability should be considered from an a priori or ad hoc approach.”
Inadvertent insensitivity also negates whatever good intentions you may have had. What’s worse, the more visible your position, the more likely you are to be publicly criticized for remarks that, on the surface at least, appear callous.
Gil Lewis, Speaker of the House for the Texas legislature, addressed a wheelchair-bound audience on Disability Day. He foolishly asked, “And now, will y’all stand and be recognized?”
Actress Joan Collins gave an interview that was not only politically incorrect but historically incorrect as well: “It’s like the Roman Empire. Wasn’t everybody running around just covered with syphilis? And then it was destroyed by the volcano?”
Francophiles, similarly, may easily take offense to the remarks of Prince Charles: “Life is not worth living unless you have a choice of all the gloriously unhygienic things which mankind–especially the French portion of it–has lovingly created.”
Of course, “weaseling” one’s way out of difficulty not only doesn’t work, it makes one’s sins seem even more egregious. When former New York City mayor David Dinkins was asked by reporters about his failure to pay taxes, he unsuccessfully attempted to create his own definition: “I haven’t committed a crime. What I did was fail to comply with the law.”
John Hogan, the Commonwealth Edison employee responsible for “news information,” had to deal with charges by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that two operators at a nuclear plant were found sleeping on the job. His reply: “It depends on your definition of ‘asleep.’ They were stretched out. They had their eyes closed. They were seated at their desks with their heads in a nodding position.”
Our final category of non-exemplars centers on the danger of making too declarative a statement:
Admiral W. Leahy, in 1945, assured President Truman that “the atomic bomb will not go off. And I speak as an expert in explosives.”
President Grover Cleveland assured the nation in 1905 that “sensible women will never want to vote.”
Producer Irving Thalberg felt strongly that Clark Gable had no career in the movies: “You can’t put this man in a picture. Look at his
ears–like a bat!”
Forty years ago, the head of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, declared, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”
Language to Avoid
We’ve seen how not to influence:
— By clouding rather than clarifying your point
— By using language that floats above the heads of your audience
— By being insensitive
— By being inaccurate
— By giving words your own definition so your errors seem less serious
— By being too emphatic.
Now let’s explore some of the successful verbal techniques used by influencers who are good at what they do.
Examples of Influential Leadership Language: Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan
The first 1996 presidential debate, held in Hartford, Connecticut, began with the President speaking these words.
“I want to begin by saying again how much I respect Senator Dole and his record of public service, and how hard I will try to make this campaign and this debate one of ideas, not insults. Four years ago I ran for President at a time of high unemployment and rising frustration.
“Four years ago, you took me on faith. Now, there’s a record.”
Do the same thing now. Study these four sentences and try to isolate elements that might influence voters to support the President and not his opponent.
Clinton has garnered praise from a number of sources for his masterful use of language. See if your analysis of his words matches the analysis below.
1. Clinton’s opening words constitute a very clever ploy. Not only does he appear gracious by expressing his admiration for the Bob Dole,
but he also places the debate on “high moral ground.” Should his opponent begin with attacks on Clinton’s character, he will appear to be relying on insults and not ideas. Few would dare make themselves vulnerable in this way after what the President said about discussing ideas.
2. Clinton acknowledges there have been problems–high unemployment and rising frustration. Typically, disclosure helps create the sense that the influencer can be trusted. Of course, the implication is that the President inherited those problems but nonetheless he cuts to the quick by telling us what his focus has been.
3. Clinton juxtaposes long sentences with medium-length sentences, with short sentences.
4. He indirectly compliments the audience’s good judgment in having taking him on faith.
5. He sets up a bi-polarity between faith and fact.
6. This bipolar structure permits him, in just a few sentences, to introduce the accomplishments of his first term in office.
President Ronald Reagan
Not surprisingly, we find the comparison to the earlier administration appearing in another inaugural address–that of Ronald Reagan.
“When I took this oath four years ago, I did so in a time of economic stress. Voices were raised saying that we had to look to our past for greatness and glory. But we, the present-day Americans, are not given to looking backward. In this blessed land, there is always a better tomorrow.
“Four years ago, I spoke to you of a new beginning and we have accomplished that. But in another sense, our new beginning is a continuation of that beginning created two centuries ago when, for the first time in history, government, the people said, was not our master, it is our servant; its only power will be that which we the people allow it to have. That system never failed us. But for a time, we failed the system.”
Once again, you have an opportunity to analyze the words of a beloved leader and learn how he used language, in this case, to influence the American public to sustain the confidence and optimism he had generated in his first term.
Perhaps more than any president in recent history, Ronald Reagan captured the hearts and minds of millions across the world. An examination of his linguistic style unearths several effective techniques.
1. Throughout his speeches are alliterative phrases, such as greatness and glory” in this excerpt.
2. Reagan inspires by appealing to a national pride–“But we…are not given to looking backward.”
3. He uses opposites, the past and the promise of a better tomorrow.
4. Given statistics about the number of people who have faith in a higher power, he bonds with the majority by using the word “blessed.”
5. He personifies, making the government a “servant” and not a “master.”
6. He uses turnaround phrases (technically known as “chiasmus”): “That system never failed us. But for a time, we failed the system.”
Words–we are blessed to have more than a million in the English language. With sufficient thought and analysis, you can find those that will shape your message and make it stick.
Dr. Marlene Caroselli is an author, keynoter, and corporate trainer. She writes extensively about education, business, and careers.