Language is one of the most powerful tools that we humans use to distinguish ourselves from each other. When we choose words carefully, we are viewed as being in command, powerful, as we describe the world around us. Leaders go one step further. They use the language of leadership to produce a world and a future that would not otherwise exist. We choose to follow others who paint pictures and compelling images of what could be.
These words (illustration, left) appeal to individuals. These words evoke positive emotions that inspire us and imply a promise of something we yearn for. They get right to our core, our innermost needs. By using these words authentically, a leader causes us to believe in ourselves and in the leader.
Of course, it's not advisable to use words as weapons. Because these words do persuade and have a certain power, they should be used judiciously and selectively. It's irresponsible to use these words only as a way to manipulate or trick others. A leader’s power, when gained by hollow words, will soon diminish as he or she is exposed for not making good on the promises and possibilities that were so compelling.
It has been said, for this very reason, that talk is cheap. So leaders may need to do more in order to be persuasive.
The strongest leaders, those who inspire followers over a long period of time, are those who make good on the promises they put out there. They start with the language of leaders, but they sustain through their actions. Their follow through is at the heart of their credibility.
10 Ways to Exhibit the Language of Leadership
Here are 10 ways you can improve your leadership language:
1. When speaking, relate the new ideas to something that is more familiar.
Make links to what is better known and more comfortable so people have a safe starting point.
2. Start out with the most important information.
Given the choice between a slow build and a strong opening, go with the high-impact opening every time. It will get the attention you need so that you can follow up with the history, details or background information needed for context.
3. Create a picture.
Many people are visual. They need to “see” something to understand it. More so, they need to see themselves in the picture in order to understand the relevance and importance for them.
4. Be sure to use actual examples.
While some people have an interest in and desire for the “out there” abstracts, others have a low tolerance for anything that seems untested. Be sure, for them, to include concrete data, examples, precedents and tiebacks.
5. Use plain, simple language.
Words are more powerful when they are understood. What’s more, to inspire large groups, you need to have common understanding. People may not have time to process complex ideas. So go for what’s clear.
6. Include a call to action so you don't leave people hanging.
You're inspiring others with persuasive language and even painting a verbal picture that includes them in that picture, Once stirred, people desire an opportunity to do something with their passion. Outline those next steps at the same time you’ve shared your vision.
7. Strong statements have an active voice rather than a passive one.
To be convincing and compelling, be sure to phrase your sentences with an action verb and an ownership noun. Say “We shall overcome” rather than “it shall be overcome.”
8. Anticipate unasked questions and answer them even before they've been posed.
Remember that no one wants to be left with a feeling of uncertainty and everyone wants to know “what’s in it for me.” The unasked questions will likely center on those two themes, so put some thought into those questions and your answers. Then weave your story in a way that directly addresses those issues.
9. Don’t be shy about appealing to basic human needs.
If people are hungry, homeless, feeling disconnected or experiencing a lack of stability in their lives, then you can’t expect them to be interested in a higher cause. Basic human needs must be met before next level needs will be of interest.
10. Be yourself.
You will never speak any words that are more powerful than your own. Your convictions, your voice, and your authentic self are nobler and more appealing than you think. Try speaking from your heart instead of overthinking what you will say and getting in your own way.
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(Editor's Note: This article was originally posted in June 2013 and was recently updated.)