How to develop leadership language that resonates and inspires

Word choice wizard.
Word choice wizard.
Image: Patrick Semansky/Pool via REUTERS
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With graduation season having come and gone, and the commencement speeches that accompany it, we’re recently reminded of the power of finely crafted rhetoric to inspire us to achieve our dreams.

Now, what if we integrated the same techniques into the language we use to communicate in everyday workplace scenarios?

The truth is that the ability to communicate visions that strongly motivate others to join us in pursuit of a goal has become the defining characteristic of the modern leader. Yet we often overlook the power of language in leadership, focusing more of our attention on our vision instead.

Leadership relies not just on good ideas, however, but also on how we convey those ideas through the words and structures we choose when delivering our messages. The right word choices can profoundly influence decision-making, while the wrong ones can come at a huge expense. Research has found that poor communication costs employers an estimated $64.2 million per year for companies with at least 100,000 employees, and $420,000 annually for companies with at least 100 employees.

Over the years, through our research as professors and corporate trainers, and in our work as intercultural communication specialists at New York University and the United Nations, we’ve identified three actionable linguistic strategies that can build your presence and influence as a leader, regardless of industry or level. Practicing these approaches will help you develop deeper connections with your team and empowering them to achieve greatness.

1. Ignite with vivid stories and shared goals

When we tell stories that are connected to values, we more vividly portray what’s important to us or to our organization. Across cultures, when listening to stories, we all tend to listen with our hearts more than our minds because we search for messages that align with our values. Therefore, identify a value important to your audience or your business and build a story around it.

You also want to tell stories that contain powerful decision-making moments in your life. By doing so, you focus on motivating colleagues and clients to make similar choices in their lives. Ultimately, stories are how we learn to make choices. Effective leadership language inspires the counterpart in the conversation with our own motivation. So end your story with a vision of successful action. What steps can the audience take right now? (Example: “So, as we enter a new era of remote work…”)

When we use language to connect our purpose with the values of those around us, we naturally create mutual goals that culminate in joint opportunities. Audiences who feel a story deeply and emotionally can learn from that story as if learning from an experience first-hand. Expand your stories from personal to human experience and your conversations will ignite deeper and lasting connections with your audiences.

2. Strike the right tone with your words and calls to action

There’s a lot to be said for using positive language, particularly in global leadership communication. It can do wonders for our intercultural relationships as well as our professional standing among colleagues when our words focus on successes, solutions, and possibilities—whereas a negative tone can introduce adverse scenarios into the minds of those around us, making it more difficult to collaborate.

Our tone is shaped by our word choice, which means we can use it to our advantage to inspire others. First, recognize the power of word choice in informative versus persuasive communication. Using neutral language when stating facts or events (such as “the report states”) welcomes audiences to make their own conclusions, while opinion-laden phrasing (such as “the report proves”) primes the listener to arrive at our conclusions. But if your aim is motivational speech, think about the effect of the following word choice: “the report inspires us to…”

As leaders, we all need to become better at avoiding the negativity trap by forgoing negative words such as “no,” “not,” “nothing,” and “never”—all of which can easily creep into our conversations, distort our messages, and shut down thought. Reframe issues in a positive manner (for example, instead of declaring that “the results are impossible to understand and cannot be determined,” try being more  positive and specific by saying, “The results are possible to understand if we can determine the source of the issue”) and welcome others’ opinions to arrive at a solution together.

To project a receptive tone of leadership, consider how others integrate your content into their own decision-making. Become more intentional by making a conscious effort to focus on employing words with a positive connotation that open a space for more constructive dialogues, joint problem-solving, and stronger relationships with global teams.

Ultimately, framing your visions to reflect possibilities will naturally motivate others to overcome challenges and become enthusiastic about the solutions you are presenting.

3. Pattern your messages for more noteworthy effect—e.g. try a triad

We live in a world made up of patterns, and, as humans, we try to find patterns in everything we do. Language is no different. While speech techniques such as repetition, rhythm, and balance are often ascribed to political orators or powerful graduation speakers, there’s plenty for business leaders to glean from these linguistic tools.

The rhythm of our words, similar to music, guides listeners through our ideas in a satisfying manner, creating a deeper connection with our content. In fact, research shows that people retain structured information up to 40% more reliably and accurately than information presented in a more freeform manner. As audiences tend to group information into patterns, each of us ought to reinforce our messages and help others better retain information by building patterns into our speech.

Two of the most useful literary devices for creating persuasive appeal as a leader are parallelism in combination with triads. You may remember Julius Caesar’s famous quote, “I came, I saw, I conquered” or eBay’s “Buy it, sell it, love it.” Both have a nice rhythm, right? When we reflect on the repetitive nature of rhetorical patterns from famous slogans or well-known speeches and listen to their use of parallelism, we find that the repetitive structure tends to make the information easier to remember and anticipate. What’s more, why is the number three so powerful? Three is the smallest number needed to create a pattern, while two only allows you to make a comparison or contrast. That’s why triads are effective in helping others retain information.

Try condensing your main points into triads to allow audiences to process the information more easily and remember key points (our brains are wired to recognize patterns which clearly applies to parts of speech). Using parallelism helps others to mentally group information, while heightening their senses to predict your next statement.

Leadership language involves more than just a formulaic string of words. Whether you’re an executive with years of experience or a fresh graduate just entering the workforce, training ourselves to use language as a powerful tool for framing information will have a tremendous impact on the decision-making of your teams, customers, and global partners.

Let us be reminded of the words by Stephen Covey, “Leadership is a choice, not a position.” Choose, too, to employ the power of leadership language so that your messages resonate with audiences, empower teams, and enable shared success.

Dan Bullock is a language and communications trainer at the United Nations and a professor at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Raúl Sánchez is a clinical assistant professor of linguistics/intercultural communication and the corporate program coordinator at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. They are co-authors of “How to Communicate Effectively with Anyone, Anywhere.” Try their free “What is your international presentation style?” quiz