Chris St. Hilaire - How the words you choose can make all the difference when chasing success Featured

8:00pm EDT September 30, 2012
Chris St. Hilaire - How the words you choose can make all the difference when chasing success

We recently met a defense attorney who chatted with us about wooing a potential client who had a big case against a “whistle-blower.” What was our free, unsolicited advice for that meeting?

Stop calling the plaintiff’s key witness a whistle-blower. A whistle-blower is someone who comes into the case with a distinct credibility advantage, and therefore is someone jurors want to protect.

Instead, we suggested he describe it as a lawsuit filed by a “disgruntled employee.” Rather than ramping up that person’s believability, this language calls into question his or her motives for testifying.

Defining the language allows you to control the debate. Instead of allowing others to control the conversation with their potentially biased vocabulary, set your own terms with language that tells your story.

Control the terms

This is how so many companies became the leaders in their markets, because they controlled the terms: Kleenex for tissue, Chapstick for lip balm, Xerox for photocopy — and Starbucks for the Tall, Grande and Venti sizing system that most of us still use even when we’re buying coffee from a competitor.

Groupon’s catchy name — short for “group coupon” — has now become the word of choice to describe any online daily deal. Perhaps this is why, according to a Bloomberg report released this in August, Groupon still holds the majority of the market share in its industry.

Language can also be used to help you connect with others on a fundamental level. We recently worked with an emergency room doctor whose humility was in sharp contrast to the stereotypes about arrogant, presumptuous physicians. When he described his background, we were immediately taken in by his story of growing up in rural Kentucky and eventually going to medical school overseas.

But a few descriptors painted an even more appealing picture: This doctor was raised by an apple farmer and a schoolteacher, and after helping with the farm for several years when his father died, was named a Rhodes Scholar and earned his medical degree in London. Just a few more words, but the portrait is much more captivating — and his testimony that much more credible.

Watch for connotations

Language also worked — and didn’t work — for health care providers we met with in North Carolina. When we asked a doctor involved in a medical malpractice childbirth case why he chose his specialty, he gruffly replied, “It had the shortest residency.”

The answer might be 100 percent accurate, but it is also 100 percent likely to turn off a jury. A nurse at this same hospital had by far the better response to why she chose to work in labor and delivery: “I wanted to be there for that miracle.” Even we cynical jury consultants melted — and when she testified a month later, so did those jurors.

Your ability to define and control the language, whether it’s for a product, service or telling your side of the story in the courtroom allows you to own the terms of the discussion.

For example, Best Buy’s Geek Squad is so newsworthy that the media even reports when it switched its fleet of Geekmobiles from VW Beetles to Ford vans.

The Apple Store and its Genius Bar attract millions of visitors each year, and they’re not just gawking at smartphones. The Apple Store chain’s 2011 sales of $3,085 per square foot ranked first among U.S. retailers in terms of sales per unit area in 2011, almost double that of second-place retailer Tiffany & Co., according to a story by David Segal in The New York Times.

Whether in business, the courtroom or in the coffee shop, owning the language means your product or service is the one people will remember.

Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of 27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams, and politicians.