Power words are essential because words have power

Change is hard. Everyone knows that. For successful change to happen, leaders need to convince, encourage, energize and inspire. Easier said than done.

Being inspirational and bringing people together around a vision or program requires preparation work and good communication skills. In my many transformational projects as a coach, I have seen good and not-so good practices.

I once attended a kick-off meeting for a strategic value initiative. The manager in charge, my client, started by saying: “We have to stop doing cost-based pricing. Our pricing levels go down every year and our margins are eroding. We are meeting today to look at our profit leakages and our discounting issues so that we can stop leaving money on the table. Our goal is to be much more value-oriented.”

These were literally his first words to kick-off the project. Here’s a quick analysis:

  • Words with negative connotations: stop (two), go down, eroding, leakages, discounting, issues, leaving = eight words.
  • Words with positive connotations: profit, value = two words.

Obviously, this isn’t the most positive and inspirational statement. My client was right with the content but wrong with the form and balance of words.

Positive power

Words are powerful. Positive words create energy, hope and confidence. Negative words have a tendency to reinforce negative patterns and resistance to change.

Leadership studies have shown the power of words. One study that counted word frequencies in the speeches of the most charismatic change leaders (Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Charles de Gaulle, Mother Teresa, etc.) found those leaders’ positive words far outweighed the negative.

Behavioral scientists, such as Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Barbara Fredrickson, recommend a ratio of five positive words to every negative word.

Try this exercise

Whether you’re a top manager, a middle manager or a project leader, pay close attention to the words in your speeches, presentations and emails. Here are some steps to follow:

1. Make a list of positive power words you want to convey in a formal document, presentation or speech. These words should support the overall goal of your project or initiative. Examples are: success, growth, profit, possibilities, hope and gains.

2. When reviewing formal documents to be shared with others, count positive versus negative power words to see how the balance works out.

3. Keep a ratio of three to five positive words for every negative word. In fact, make sure positive power words are repeated at least seven to 10 times. If a power word is growth or profit, for example, it needs to be noticeable.

You might think this is trivial. It is not. Serious academic research has demonstrated that positive power words work.

When crafting and deploying internal communication strategies to support change programs and strategic initiatives, leaders should go through this exercise. Your marketing experts or an executive coach can help, especially when you build positive stories and communication material for change.

 

Stephan Liozu, Ph.D., is the Chief Value Officer at Thales Group and an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. Stephan specializes in disruptive approaches in innovation, pricing and value management.