Actions speak louder than words, they say. But I’m not sure that’s always true. It is an area that I have been pondering recently, since it seems that every time I switch on the news or open a newspaper, I’m faced with ever-more dispiriting stories of things that are going wrong in the world. I started wondering how – or if – it might be possible to use language to change the world.
I believe that language does matter. It has always fascinated me that two people can essentially say the same thing, but if they use different words they can have a completely different impact on their listeners. My favourite example of the world-changing impact that choosing the right word can have is highlighted in the fantastic employee engagement book ‘Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk’ by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden:
“Martin Luther King Junior didn’t launch an entire movement with the words “I have a strategic plan”, did he?”
That’s essentially what he had, but by choosing to tell the world about his “dream”, he made his words far more powerful and compelling and did indeed change the world.
As preparation for writing this piece, I carried out a quick straw poll of my friends, asking them if they had to pick a word to sum up an ideal world for them, what would it be? The words they chose included peaceful, kind, fair and idyllic, with a few off the wall suggestions, such as bedtime and giggles.
Mostly the words could be summed up as concerning the way people treat each other and get along. What was most striking was that out of the 29 responses I received, very few were duplicates. In other words, although the sentiment was largely very similar, the devil was in the detail. An ideal world was represented by a variety of words, presumably influenced by the character, experiences and general interests of the individual responders.
I am an avid reader, as well as a keen writer. I am surrounded by words, just about all day every day. I use words to help me learn new things and to express my thoughts; to relax after a long day and to prepare for the next day. Most of all I use words to connect and collaborate with others. This seems to me to be a key way to use language to change the world.
We can all think of times when we have been persuaded to start or stop an activity – whether it be to campaign on a topic close to our hearts or to give up a bad habit; to spend time with an elderly relative or boycott our favourite brand because of some wrong-doing. Without the words that explained and persuaded, connections would not have been made; our world may not have changed. But if our world changes, then so does the world at large. And as Randy Pausch says in his book ‘The Last Lecture’:
“When we’re connected to others, we become better people.”
So choose the right words to connect and collaborate with your audience and you really can make the world a better place.
Until next time
Full list from the straw poll: