What you say – and how you say it – can have a monumental impact on your ability to demonstrate leadership, command respect, and set and influence policy.
It can help your employees and colleagues to understand your vision and place their trust in you, or it can undermine your credibility and hinder your chances of success.
In this article, we explore the transformative power of language in a corporate setting. We’ll look at some words and phrases that should be avoided, and how speaking corporate can instead enhance your message and inspire confidence in you as a leader.
Language and Executive Presence
Words are complex vehicles of expression with the power to change hearts and minds, for better or for worse. As such, choosing each word with skill and precision is a crucial element of cultivating your Executive Presence (EP).
Demonstrating EP goes far beyond dressing smartly or projecting an air of confidence. To be seen as a competent leader, you must learn how to express your ideas clearly and concisely. When you choose meaningful, positive words and deliver them assertively, you are much more likely to persuade and influence those around you.
Weak vs strong words and phrases
Since we can rarely – if ever – guarantee a particular outcome with 100% certainty, we have grown accustomed to peppering our speech with little safety nets. We tend to bookend our statements with conditional phrases such as ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, ‘I feel’.
These are weak phrases that, when used in a presentation, can inadvertently sow seeds of doubt in the minds of your audience. For the most part, this happens subconsciously, but it can have a negative effect on the delivery and impact of your key messages.
Of course, making promises or predictions that you’re uncertain about could damage your credibility, so it is sometimes necessary to use the conditional tense.
In these situations, substituting one phrase for another can make all the difference. Here are some simple yet effective substitutes you can use:
- ‘I think’ ➔ ‘I’m convinced/I expect’
- ‘I feel’ ➔ ‘I’m optimistic’
- ‘We believe’ ➔ ‘We’re confident’
The English language is rich and complex, with an array of synonyms and antonyms for almost every word. That means that you always have a choice when it comes to expressing yourself. Get into the habit of pausing before you speak and ask yourself: ‘Is there a better way to say this? Is this enhancing or detracting from my core message? Is there a stronger word I could use?’
Chances are you’ll be able to substitute a weak word or phrase for a stronger one, thus strengthening the impact of the entire sentence. This is a learned skill, one that takes time and practice before it becomes second nature.
Negative vs positive language
Sometimes statements are meant positively but use negative language.
For example, trendy company mission statements often use terminology like ‘What we don’t do’ or ‘What we’re not’. This is unnecessarily convoluted and can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
Use simple, positive language instead and tell people what you are, not what you aren’t.
A negative word or phrase can always be flipped to have a more positive connotation. Here are some examples:
|INSTEAD OF THIS:||SAY THIS:|
|Objection||Area of concern|
|Maybe/possibly||What we can do is|
|I’ll try||This is what I can do|
|I can’t/I won’t||I am unable to|
|I don’t know||I will find out|
|I’m sorry||I apologise|
|No||What I can do for you is|
Words to avoid when speaking to employees
The words you use have a massive impact on how well (or otherwise!) your message is received.
When you have to give an employee some constructive criticism, always choose words with positive associations. This will help them to take your feedback on board without confrontation or friction, boosting their sense of morale and enhancing their overall productivity.
Forbes asked the Young Entrepreneur Council to share the words or phrases business leaders often use – but shouldn’t – when talking to their employees and team members. Their suggestions for the top words and phrases to avoid include:
Broad, general words like this leave room for interpretation, which can be damaging when used without giving sufficient explanation or context. To ensure a continued high-performing work environment, executives should focus on maintaining consistent communication and providing feedback in the moment.
‘I’ll find someone else’
This is a negative phrase that creates a feeling of insecurity in the workplace. Employees who feel trusted and valued will always perform better than those who feel insignificant and replaceable, so it’s your responsibility as a leader to create an environment where people feel safe and secure.
Instead of talking about what you can’t do, shift the focus onto what you can do. This will foster a culture of positivity and growth in your organisation.
Using this word as a response to a statement or proposal implies that it was thought-provoking, but not necessarily positive or important enough to be acted upon. Try saying it was ‘insightful’ or ‘informative’ instead, as these words tend to elicit a more positive emotional reaction and an action-oriented response.
This word concentrates the negativity of a non-ideal situation into the way that the leader feels about it. Rather, the focus should be on what needs to be improved in a working dynamic, and how that can be achieved.
‘No problem’ / ‘No worries’
These phrases are often casually used in place of ‘you’re welcome’, and even though they are meant in a positive way, the use of the word ‘no’ gives them a negative connotation. It subconsciously puts the idea of a problem or reason to worry into people’s heads, therefore turning a seemingly positive intention into a negative one.
Undermining words and phrases
Now let’s turn our attention to the pervasive use of undermining language in the corporate world.
Tara Mohr, leadership expert and author of Playing Big, talks about how female leaders in particular often diminish themselves unknowingly through the words they use.
In Chapter 8: ‘Communicating With Power’, Mohr outlines some commonly-used words and phrases that seem harmless on the surface but can have a detrimental effect on your overall communication.
Hedging language (cautious/vague language)
- ‘Kind of’
- ‘I’m sorry, but…’
- ‘I’m not an expert, but…’
- ‘I could be wrong, but…’
- ‘I’m just thinking off the top of my head here.’
Mohr also talks about ingrained habits such as raising your voice at the end of a statement, which effectively turns it into a question and makes you seem unsure of yourself.
Jargon, buzzwords and fillers
Corporate jargon is part and parcel of the business world, but certain words and phrases are so overused that they no longer have any real meaning. These buzzwords might sound impressive to some, but all they do is fill spaces, diminish meaningful language, and undermine effective communication.
In fact, the results of a 2020 study suggest that using jargon is not a sign of intelligence or competence. Rather, it hints at insecurity and often serves a ‘status compensation function’.
One phrase, in particular, deserves a special mention here. Harvard Business Review has written an entire article on why you should never ask the question, ‘Does that make sense?’.
This seemingly innocuous expression implies two things, neither of which reflect well on you as a speaker. The first is uncertainty on your part about the accuracy or credibility of what you’re saying. The second is doubt about the ability of your audience to comprehend or appreciate the content.
Other filler words and phrases that should be avoided include:
- ‘You know’
- ‘Like I said’
- ‘I mean’
- ‘To be honest’
- ‘Pretty much’
When you are presenting to an audience, they expect you to know what you’re talking about. It is your job to present the facts with certainty, so don’t allow filler words to sneak in and undermine your authority.
Phraseology For The Corporate Environment – An Ongoing Learning Experience
You should never underestimate the importance of the language you use in the corporate environment. And, over time, the dynamics of language are constantly evolving. So pay attention to what you say and make sure you stay ahead of the curve and give yourself the best chance to demonstrate leadership, command respect, and influence those around you.
To learn more about how to lead, influence, and communicate with clarity and confidence, enquire about our Leader Presence programme today.