This informal CPD article Word Up: Impactful language for successful online meetings was provided by Hannah O’Sullivan of Host Media Consultants. Hannah is a specialist personal impact and presentation skills coach, media trainer, and communication specialist.
Language is Key
Our language is key to our ability to influence others positively. Words matter: They are the vehicle for our expression and the mechanism for making others feel, believe, and behave. We reveal ourselves and our biases through unguarded language when it leaks out unchecked. I have spent much of my career as a TV and radio reporter attempting to say a lot with few words. FYI it takes a second to speak three words if you are planning a timed presentation (You’re welcome).
Even though lockdown is easing, the English language has been left with some residual scarring. If we take the most obvious examples of Covid vocabulary: ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘self-isolation’. These words carry negative connotations that can only increase our sense of being disconnected from our herd. Think how differently we feel about the notion when we rephrase the same thing as ‘safe relating’: The assumptions implicit in these two words are that we can still communicate with each other with the reassurance that we will be looking after ourselves and others. You can find out more about this re-orientation through language from a series of videos by the renowned clinical psychologist, Professor Paul Gilbert. Professor Gilbert and many other experts who have shared their expertise and offer online psychological resources to support us through the effects of the pandemic.
Language is very powerful in orientating our own and others’ feelings, so I want to give you some suggestions about how to think about your language as we will be communicating in a semi-detached manner on virtual platforms for some time to come. In the absence of the nuance of face-to-face communication, it is even more important than ever that our language is clear, memorable, and inspiring.
A subject expert needs to explain complex concepts with clarity and in terms that are easy to remember to have a chance of convincing an audience. We need to answer questions while still respecting alternative views. We need to manage our own and others’ emotions. Most of all, we need to influence positively and motivate others.
But what if the rules have changed in lockdown? What if our notion of leadership has evolved? If so, our language must change too. Many organisations rely on a paternalistic hegemony where everyone in the hierarchy is aware of their place. This plays to the age-old concept of the competitive, singular leader at the apex; the winner. I propose that ‘successful’ i.e. innovative, productive virtual meetings where ideas are expressed clearly, discussed thoroughly, with decisions made and actioned, require a more affiliative versus ‘top-down’ approach of the old order. Some of the most successful virtual meetings are conducted within a collegiate organisational culture without letting in chaos. Our language is key to facilitating this affiliative approach.
We may consider changing the architecture of our online communication to mirror this evolution towards a more democratic decision-making process in the virtual space: The creation of distinct virtual ‘rooms’ - some for recreation (to create the virtual water-cooler moment), others purely for business.
At this point I am giving a shout-out to Max Curtis, Communications Director of Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing Trust. MTVH is a housing association and charitable organisation which manages and maintains 57,000 homes.
Max and his team have risen to the challenge of keeping their 2000 colleagues connected with an online platform called MTVH Connect which has a delightful smorgasbord of daily slots where colleagues on the front-line post what they are doing for residents; coffee zooms create a virtual hangout space, ‘In Conversation’ slots with senior execs; everyone in the loop on organisational updates; and special guest speakers including ‘The Playful Monk’ provide relevant and entertaining insights. Max tells me that a wonderful upshot of the experience has been that the team feel more engaged with each other: It is a non-hierarchical space which is informative, fun and nurtures a sense of pride in the achievements of frontline colleagues. I have also had the pleasure of joining the team as a guest speaker.
So, let’s begin at the beginning. We have 4-7 seconds to make a positive first impression. Think about your greeting: ‘Thank you for taking the time to meet today’ sets up a power balance, and it does not favour you.
- Watch out for negative phrasing such as ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’ as it detracts from your credibility and people are left feeling you are unsure of your detail. Use a specific number if you have it. A close relative of ‘kind of’ is ‘I think’. Aim to ‘believe’ based on what you ‘know’.
- Use shorter sentences. Less is more.
- We remember what we see, and we remember what we feel. Speak in pictures and use positive language that references emotions e.g., ‘reassure’ and ‘proud’. I use this technique when writing speeches or when media training key messages.
- Use analogies and metaphors to describe abstract concepts and make them relatable to your audiences. This is one sure way to build a ‘trusted expert’ impact as it shows an ability to make complex concepts accessible to non-specialists.
- Impactful language in action means describing how the idea or concept will look or feel through one specific example to sell your vision of something in in the future to an audience. This technique makes it easier for people to remember your point and, crucially for influence, they will then cascade your ideas beyond the meeting in the manner of disciples.
- Use language and references appropriate to your audience: ‘He’s like a bull in a china shop’ could confuse international colleagues. Jargon is one sure fire way of making others feel excluded and decreasing your chances of agreement.
- Don’t repeat negative language: ‘No, it’s not daylight robbery’ should switch to a more positive ‘I don’t accept that. What this is, is…’
- Finally, avoid clichés. Hackneyed phrases such as ‘in our DNA’ are lazy… I’m already tired of ‘new normal’.
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