Leadership and the Power of Words

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Yesterday I gave a keynote speech at a resort and spa nestled in the Colorado Rockies. (Hey, sometimes you get a resort; sometimes you get a Motel 3.) This resort had signs posted throughout the facility touting a luxury pedicure available in the spa. This was the last line of the sign:

“A pedicure from [name of spa] will be a lovely caveat to your evening.”

I’m not sure what word they were trying for, but the last time I looked, “caveat” meant “a warning.” I even checked a dictionary to make sure there wasn’t some other definition of which I was unaware. There wasn’t. So what they’re saying is that their pedicure will be a lovely warning to my evening.

Now, I don’t know if this signage (which the front desk, after I pointed it out to them—yes, I am that irritating—told me they’d been using for months) has actually cost them any business (I didn’t partake in the pedicure; but then, I wasn’t inclined to anyway), but it brings up a crucial leadership skill that doesn’t get talked about all that often.

The ability to use language effectively is vital for anyone who aspires to lead a team, a business, or a country. Language is made up of words, and words have precise meanings. Mark Twain once said:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Look, a leader’s job, at its core, is to communicate a clear vision and to inspire others to achieve great things. Wishy-washy—or worse, incorrect—words will lead to wishy-washy—or worse, incorrect—results.

But the right word—the precisely right word—has power. It is, as Twain said, lightning. Look at these two examples:

  1. “A day that will live in world history.”
  2. “A day that will live in infamy.”

The first example was the actual first draft for FDR’s momentous speech of December 8, 1941. [Note to younger readers: FDR was once—well, four times, actually—the president of the U.S. His December 8, 1941 speech was about…you know what, just look it up yourself. But it was pretty important.) But think about these examples. The first is wishy-washy. It doesn’t captivate, it doesn’t motivate, it doesn’t inspire. But the second quotation—wow! Lightning.

The Beatles understood the power of the precisely right word. In John Lennon’s Dylanesque song, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, he originally wrote the lyric, “If she’s gone I can’t go on, feeling two foot tall.” But in the recording studio, during an early take, he mistakenly sang, “…feeling two foot small.” McCartney and Lennon looked at each other and instantly realized, “That’s it! That’s the right word!”

“Tall” would have worked. The sentence would have had virtually the same meaning. It was the almost right word. But look at the difference with the precisely right word. It adds a depth, a richness that the original version just doesn’t have.

The research shows that leaders who have a superior vocabulary and who use it properly—leaders who know and understand the power of words—rise further and faster than those who don’t.

Really, it’s a pretty simple question. As a leader, would you rather be the lightning-bug or the lightning?


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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