Watch Your Language: Why We Should Stop Skinning Cats

Language Wordle

People often ask what is more important – what you say or how you say it?

They are both important – this post focuses on the language we use to convey our ideas, and how they can effect the conversations we have.

As someone who believes that life is 50% content, 50% presentation, the language we use in our daily lives fascinates me. I’ve seen people who have a lot of great things to say, but their delivery made for a less than compelling message. On the flipside, I’ve heard people who are amazing presenters and communicators, but they lacked substance. In the marketing world we are in, we tend to embrace the latter, and they may succeed at least in the short-term. Ideally, you can have a strong message that is presented well, and it ‘sticks’.

Why do we talk the way that we do? Do you think about the origins of what you are saying or the impact of how you speak on the effectiveness of your message? Or the end results?

The words we use affect our conversations. Think about a racial slur, a derogatory term, a swear word, a slang word for a body part. These have more obvious effects because of the societal taboos put upon them. They draw instant emotional reactions.

Now think about these other categories of phrases and words that we use that impact your conversation in ways you may not even think about – until now.

Phrases with violence to animals

For some reason, a lot of these phrases have made their way into our regular vocabulary. They are quite graphic and violent, and yet are spoken by some of the most mild-mannered and peaceful people, because they are widely accepted phrases.

  • There’s more than one way to skin a cat
  • Kill two birds with one stone
  • Let’s stop beating a dead horse
  • Not enough room to swing a cat

Instead, can we find less violent alternatives? They don’t have to be boring and can convey the same message. How about instead of skinning a cat, we say, “There’s more than one way to scale a mountain”?

Failure talk

When we use certain words or phrases, there is a subconscious psychological effect on ourselves or others. These phrases can be especially toxic in organizations because they can destroy productivity and creativity.

  • “I will try…” or “I aim…” or “Hopefully…” or “If we are successful…” – these phrases imply the possibility of failure and are proven to make the achievement of whatever you say afterwards less likely to happen. Instead, say “I will…” or “When we succeed…”
  • “It’s impossible…” or “I can’t do it…” – by saying these phrases, you are creating negative reinforcement pathways in your brain. Steve Jobs had the sentiment that you can achieve the impossible if you don’t know that it is impossible. Keep an open mind and think about how you can make something happen, and you will be surprised at the results. If you must say you are not doing something, say “I choose not to…”, which at least reinforces your own power to make choices.
  • “That’s a bad idea…” – as adults, we often shut each other down before letting great ideas breathe. This can stifle creativity and eventually make us stop generating or sharing ideas. This is an innovation killer. Open your mind to new ideas. At the very least, we can learn from and build on ideas that initially may not make sense to us. Huge change doesn’t happen without creativity.

Bad apologies

Apologizing is a difficult thing to do. When done right, you can rebuild bridges, repair relationships and ease tension. When done poorly, you can make things much worse very quickly. The first step is being sincere about apologizing. Next is making sure the language you use doesn’t have the opposite effect you intended to have.

  • “I’m sorry but…” – think of the word ‘but’ as a magic eraser that eliminates everything you said right before it. This apology doesn’t take on any accountability, and that is what the other person is usually looking for.
  • “I’m sorry that you were offended…” – saying it this way also doesn’t take accountability for your actions. You are disowning your role in the situation.

A real apology would start more like this – “I’m sorry for what I did and for offending you.” An earlier post I wrote talks about how to really apologize.

Compliments

Sure, we all like to be told something nice. Maybe for a few moments, it makes us feel good about ourselves. Usually, a compliment is superficial and doesn’t require much understanding of who you are as a person. It doesn’t hit deep into our souls, so it likely doesn’t have a lasting effect. Check out what compliments sound like:

  • I like your shirt
  • Good job
  • You are awesome

Nothing is wrong with compliments – they can be nice and uplifting. However, if you really want someone you care about to know that they are important to you and really elevate their spirits, consider using acknowledgements which are very specific and speak to the essence of who the person is. Here is what an acknowledgement sounds like:

“The way that you handled that situation really speaks to your courage and resolve. You always have such a strong way of reading people and what is important to them, and I’m sure that is why you are able to manage difficult situations that come up.”

So what can you do to start using better language? The main thing you can do is to really listen to yourself and others – by being conscious of the language you are using, you can make better choices and increase the success of your communications. That is, if you care about that sort of thing.

Constant Questions: What language do we use that has effects we may not even realize? How can we become more aware of the impact of the language we use, and change it for the better? I guess we can’t do it, because it’s impossible. I’m sorry if you are offended, and I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, but your idea is bad. Well, at least you’re wearing a nice shirt.

This post was inspired by conversations with my great colleagues at Future Possibilities for Kids, where we talk about random issues like this all the time in the interest of self-development and building our own leadership and coaching skills.

BONUS: Another thing that has an effect on others around us is grammar. Like it or not, when you use bad grammar, it may take away from your message. Weird Al preaches on this below.

FBO – Why charities need it

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There are an estimated 85,000 charities in Canada, 180,000 in the UK, and 1.1 million in the US.

(Pause for gasp)

That’s not even factoring in the various other not-for-profits and causes that although they may not issue tax receipts, are still a destination for donors.

So…the big question. Why should anyone give to you?

You can’t compete only on:

  • Product (your cause)
  • Service (how you treat people)
  • Loyalty (how much people like you)

  • Why not? Because these things can be replicated and built by others. In this free market, openly competitive charitable world, when something is seen as successful, originators may win in the early stages, but imitators gravitate to your success. Unless there are real barriers to entry, they can do the same thing that you’re doing.

    So your differentiation factor, the unique space you occupy where there’s no room for anyone else, is the one thing you can use to stand out and get people to pay attention.

    If you don’t differentiate, you end up competing on…price.

    In the charitable sector, this could be seen as competing on administrative costs. As we know, in isolation, this is usually a weak indicator of how well an organization is doing. It also doesn’t connect someone strongly to you when a “cheaper” charity comes along.

    Guess what – it’s our fault.

    If donors want to keep comparing charities based on something like administrative costs, it’s because we haven’t given them something else to talk about. If you’re not different from anyone else, then what’s interesting about you?

    So what do you need to do? Find your FBO.

    Figure out what you do where you are the first, best and only. That’s your differentiation factor.

    First = longevity and trust.

    Best = credibility and confidence.

    Only = exclusivity and pride.

    Then find a way to build this into your branding, communications and organizational soul. More importantly, talk about what it means for people considering getting involved. (Plus gentle reminders to those that already are!)

    One caveat – this must be tempered with ensuring your donor and volunteer communications are focused on their role as the hero in the story. FBO is only for those rare moments when you are talking about yourself. By the way, also stop asking for money. Instead, start conversations.

    FBO – think about it. Then find it and use it! It’s the best shot you have in standing out in a sea of same.

    Thanks to Krishan Mehta for first introducing me to this concept and to Tim Rooney for his wisdom about the importance and mechanics of differentiation.

    Constant Questions: As an individual, what is your first, best and only? How about your organization or charity? Did you think that FBO was a typo and I meant FBI? If you’re worried about the FBI, what for? Something you need to share with us? Maybe this blog isn’t the best place – it’s a public space and I don’t want it to get virtual cyber yellow tape wrapped around it!

    Paying attention at a cocktail party

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    “You’re not listening to me.”

    If you have said this to someone (or if they have said this to you.. eep!), it probably means they were not being an active participant in the discussion. The person may have been hearing you, with the sound waves going into their eardrums, but not actively listening. Listening is paying attention, absorbing information, reflecting back what was said, building on and responding to what the other person is saying.

    The “cocktail party effect” in social psychology says we do have the ability to focus on one thing at a time and drown out everything else – provided it holds our attention.

    We are at a very large cocktail party in the Information Age, with noise coming at us from all directions, and many channels competing for our attention. We have to be selective with our focus – is it the person in front of us, the music, the dance floor, our own thoughts, or that person walking around with those teeny bacon-wrapped things on toothpicks?

    In these conditions, I’m sure that hearing vs. listening happens a lot. At the same time, we have an unprecedented opportunity to gather information from our customers and supporters and really listen to them.

    This leads to two critical questions.

    Are you listening to your customers and supporters or just hearing them?

    If you have a customer service phone line, email support desk or, more recently, social media feedback team, and collect information but don’t do anything with it, you’re hearing, not listening.

    In the noise of profits, revenues, budgets and strategy, it is easy to forget about the voice of your fans and supporters, whether they are giving you positive or negative feedback. This is a shame, because they are offering you plenty of clues as to how to keep them engaged, and ultimately, keep their business. So listen, and then (and this is key)… do something about it!

    If someone at your party likes their martinis shaken, not stirred, then shake them! Especially if it’s this guy.

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    The end result of strong listening should be taking necessary action.

    Are your customers really listening to you?

    The cocktail party effect also says that something will grab our attention if it is meaningful for us (like our own name or someone screaming “FIRE!”), even if we are focused on something else.

    So while infovores run rampant these days, it is possible to grab their attention for an important few moments.

    To move from hearing to listening, the message must be extremely relevant. Rather than just getting louder and more frequent (read: SPAM), make the messages better. This is the key for a strong elevator pitch – you must be able to answer the question that all of your audience will be asking – “Why is this important to me?”

    If a partygoer shouts “The spring rolls have gone bad!”, then I think anyone who cares about their own wellbeing will be raising an eyebrow because it impacts them.

    Don’t compete with the noise, cut through it with extreme relevance. They are sure to listen.

    Party on.

    Constant Questions: How can you ensure you are really listening? How do you ensure your message is relevant? How can you successfully get through with all of the random stimuli out there? Do you hear what I hear? Did you hear it through the grapevine? Whatever happened to the California Raisins?

    PS – Speaking of cocktail parties, this holiday season, or ever really, don’t drink and drive!

    PPS – If you’re looking for some great cocktail party tips for that upcoming work or personal event, check out Paul Nazareth’s awesome post about holiday networking.