Why Leaders Need To Be Wordsmiths



As a leader how much attention do you pay to the words you use?

✓ You probably spend a lot of time crafting speeches and presentations.

 You might take extra care with e-mail communication knowing it can be misconstrued.

 You hopefully prepare well for appraisals and more challenging conversations.

But what about day to day communication?  Quick catch-ups in the office?  Those ad hoc interactions in the corridor or kitchen?  They’re not that important are they?

Mehrabian’s Study

Let’s face it, you were probably taught what I was taught in management/leadership training.  That according to Albert Mehrabian back in the 1960s (currently a professor of psychology at UCLA) it’s non-verbal communication that really matters.  Remember the numbers?

Body language 55%
Tone 38%
Words 7%

Unfortunately this is one of the most misquoted studies in the field of communication!

The studies undertaken by Mehrabian and his colleagues back in 1967 set out to determine how people decide whether they like each other or not by exploring the relative impact of facial expressions versus the spoken word.  In the study they used photos of strangers and separate audio recordings to make the comparisons, not communication between people who knew one another or in a live face to face situation.  Thus the studies were relatively limited and only relevant when discussing feelings or attitudes according to Mehrabian himself.

The findings are both interesting and useful when considering:

First time encounters

We now know through advances in neuroscience that we make up our minds whether someone is friend or foe in just .07 seconds.  This will be predominantly through non-verbal signals but also the chemistry we feel when we come within 10 feet of another person.  The words that follow will either confirm our worst suspicions or make us change our view.

The challenges with e-mail communication

Email evidently didn’t exist in 1967 but nevertheless the findings in this study highlight why e-mail can be a dangerous form of communication as we only have the words to consider not the body language or tone with which to check our interpretation.  Hence why it’s such a shame so many of us bang out an e-mail rather than going and having a conversation with someone – a far better way of building a productive relationship and ensuring we get the right message across.

So, whilst there are interesting and relevant learnings from the studies even today, they cannot be generalised to cover all communication as they so often are.

Words are incredibly important.

What’s in a Word?

Stop and reflect for a moment.  What’s in a word?

Words are how we make sense of the world.  They are the labels we use to explain what we see, hear and feel to ourselves and to others.  They are how we make meaning of things.

The trouble is that despite potentially using the same words we often have different meanings we attribute to those words. It’s why communicating effectively is such a challenge not just for leaders but for all of us in every area of our lives.

The fact is our words are imbued by our life experiences.  They trigger different feelings and emotions depending on the context in which they were used in our past lives and our resultant associations with those words.


Take the word Trust. A word bandied about in organisations all the time.

If we were bought up in a loving environment; if we were able to trust our caregivers to look after us and care for us; if our parents had a loving, trusting relationship; if we had positive relationships in our lives and were able to trust important people around us to deliver what they said they would and so on, then the word trust would have extremely positive connotations for us.

If the opposite were true; if we felt we had been let down time and again in our lives it would have very different associations and we would respond to it in a very different way.

It’s one of many reasons why, as leaders, we need to get to know our people personally as well as professionally.  That way you can begin to recognise positive and negative triggers, understand where they come from and adapt your language accordingly.

As Judith E. Glaser says in her excellent book ‘Conversational Intelligence’:

“Words create worlds”

Your Impact As A Leader

As a leader, whether you like it or not, your team hang on your every word.  Everything you say (along with all your non-verbal signals) will be analysed, dissected and interpreted by each and everyone you lead.

To complicate things further they’ll all have their own take on your words and they’ll all create their own meanings and their own narrative as a result.  It’s why you get water cooler moments – people coming together to try and make sense of things, to share their individual interpretations and seek to come to a common understanding.

Essentially, as leaders, our words, the way we frame things, the way we talk to others, whether we ask or tell, dictate or discuss will either open up the channels of communication creating a positive, harmonious, productive working relationship and environment or close them down with the opposite effect.

The Neuroscience

As ever, the brain is responsible for our responses and resultant actions.

If you generate a positive response in others via your communication, the hormone oxytocin, often called the trust hormone, will be released creating a strong feeling of connectivity and safety with all the positive outcomes associated with that.

If you generate a negative response the stress hormone cortisol will be released. Your audience – be they one or many – will go into survival mode triggering defensive reactions and behaviours.  They might challenge you aggressively (fight), try to avoid the issue (flight) or act like a rabbit in the headlights (freeze).  The trouble is that the hormone cortisol can literally block the neural pathways to the pre-frontal cortex where all our higher human powers reside.  The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for our ability to analyse situations, rationalise, judge, even empathise.  Without access to these skills we naturally revert to our baser instincts.


Thus if you want to lead effectively, you’d better add ‘wordsmith’ to your required skillset and start paying serious attention to your choice of words in every interaction not just the big set pieces.

In the words of Winston Churchill:

“We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.”

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