Monday, September 05, 2005

The Power of Words

Words can change the way people think.

“So what if you don’t meet the goal?” he said. He was the millionaire, one of five partners who owned the company. He had read our plan for turning around his company. He had a right to ask.

Even my fingers hurt at hearing the question. The words were wrong. The meaning was skewed at a cellular level. A gifted man was saying exactly the wrong thing.

It appeared a reasonable question, particularly coming from the guy with the money. It was not. I don’t advocate the back door look in the best case scenario. Discussion of failure would be disastrous in this reality.

The partners had bought this company thinking it was one thing, when it was another. Their perception had caused them to think it was ready to fly higher, when it was headed into a dive. The last three years the company had lost 10%, 10% and 9%. I had arrived about six months before, and it had taken every minute of four person’s time to get people believing again. At last we were ready with the plan and the energy to move in a forward direction. His words could make or break the momentum.

He’d been invited to review our critique of the past, our plan, and the concrete upon which it was built. One hint that a miss was acceptable now would say that retreat was an option. If he took the stance of a disbeliever . . . call the game; there was no point in playing.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you mind if we edit your question?” I asked. I was lucky. He had encouraged such questions—that was a good thing because I couldn’t help asking them. I learned a lot by watching him. He asked a lot of questions himself. He knew the value of information. He earned his living by risk-adverse curiosity.

“Go ahead.” he replied. “Educate me.” All eyes turned my way. This wasn’t a contingency we had planned for when we put the meeting together.

I spoke slowly and with respect. “What you say affects how we think. How we think affects how we run your company. It makes a difference in where we direct our attention. You want us thinking about making the goal, not thinking about what we’ll do if we miss it.”

He got the point. He was quick on the uptake. He knew I’d keep talking until he let me know it. He said, “Ok Liz, no need to hit me over the head, I hear what you’re saying .” He glanced at the plan for a moment. Then started up again differently.

“Now that I’ve heard your plan,” he said, “You know the business. You know the plan. Persuade me that it’s going to work.”

The physical posture of every person in the room changed. The energy level rose by degrees. The conversation became animated. The plan attained visibility.

The company grew over 40% that year, which was 15% higher than plan, and by more than 25% for many years following. During the same years, the industry was growing at less than 3%.

That meeting was a critical moment in the company’s life, in the lives of the employees. The words that were said and heard were words that affected real people. They caught the attention of those in the room, who lead the rest of the company. In plain fact, those words were the difference between no job and job security.

The turn of a phrase turned around a company.

—me strauss Letting me be


Anonymous said...

Powerful, thanks, I am going to remind myself of this in my classroom, and all over the place in my personal life.

Anonymous said...

This is good point for people in leadership positions to rememeber.

Anonymous said...

"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
-- Rudyard Kipling

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Hey FineArtist,
It was a most important meeting I don't what possessed me to interrupt him like that--probably that it was a most important meeting.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Hi Liz,
What keen insight you have to understand that. People like you wouldn't need a class to remember it. And unlike me--I'm a little inconsistent on this point--I bet you'd remember it when you were talking, and not just when other people were talking.

The point is so subtle, a lot of people would have looked at me like I was crazy--or worse gotten mad at me--for asking him to change the question because they wouldn't see the point. In fact there was one in the room who did. She was the kind that no leadership class would ever help and showed that later in that same meeting.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...


Yesterday Popeye, today Kipling you never cease to amaze me with the depth and breadth of your education and versatility.


Anonymous said...

This concept is a big focus in the works of life coach Anthony Robbins.

Personally I feel that in addition to using positive word framing to enhance our business and personal lives, we must comprehend that limited vocabulary is realted to limited emotions, limited vision, and limited experiences.

If we work to widen the vocabulary of the poor, might it be a lifeline that could help them escape poverty?

The social implications of your thinking can be attached to so many areas of society.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Thank you. Your comments add such a rich context to the discussion. I was thinking as I wrote it how much vocabulary played a part in the equation, but I had not linked it to the impact to could have in the more global sense in the areas you mention. My thoughts were centered more in the realm of literacy. I thought that was a big idea--granted one already researched and waiting for enough people to take seriously.

I can't write any more, because I keep interrupting myself imagining the possibilities of what you have just proposed. Thank you for stretching my world view.


Anonymous said...

I like the idea of how one thinks affects the outcome of a process. It's just like they say input=output. The way one approaches a problem, a concern, or even just a quandary affects how that one arrives a solution.

I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm stuck for answers.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Mojo shivers,
What a great idea. I should do that more often too. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think this shows an enviable awareness of communication and of the real goal - motivating others with yout concept rather than saying your set piece. Its about 'being heard' on another level?
I am having to read to learn this, but wow, what an example :-)

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Hi Cheryl,
Thank you for finding motiviation in what I write. I suppose I do a lot more showing than telling. My dad was always telling stories. I guess it comes to me naturally.


Anonymous said...

I liked this post.
You actually do speak your mind. It's good to know :)

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Thanks, Melly. I think. :)

Was that fact ever in question?

Anonymous said...

Back when I was a minister words and their power was one of my pet passions/sermons. The Bible says that death and life are in the power of the tongue. That is one of the few things from the Bible I still believe.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

What a beautiful quote to add to the conversation. Thank you. It makes sense that you take your writing so seriously.

As do I. I agree completely.