Using the right words

When trying to persuade people of something—particularly something where the stakes are fairly high—it’s important to be aware of words that are and aren’t appropriate. This doesn’t just mean being polite and business-like; it also means understanding the context and history that your audience has. A certain word or phrase might sound innocuous to an outsider but be weighted with baggage and complexity for those listening.

I was once asked to help an organisation, and in the process I learned that the people who made significant decisions about a product were not the people who were accountable for its success. I therefore suggested that these two things were brought together, and that each product manager make the key decisions for their product, but also be accountable for its cost and profitability.

Unfortunately this suggestion caused a great deal of unhappiness among senior management, and it was only after a few days that I understood why. I had carelessly used the phrase “profit and loss”, and in that particular organisation it was part of the career structure that only managers at a certain level would have “P&L responsibility for a business unit”. I thought I had been suggesting that product managers track their products’ overall value and be accountable for the results; my audience heard that I wanted to promote all the product managers by at least two grades. Furthermore, these career-related financial responsibilities were so embedded in the organisation’s culture that no-one realised it wasn’t obvious to this newcomer, which is why it took a few days before someone realised the objections needed to be explained.

Politicians rarely make such mistakes. As I’ve noted before, they focus their messages carefully and avoid distractions such as analogies. They may sound boring, but they’re much less misunderstood.

For my part, I’ve learned to test not just ideas, but also the language that describes them. Getting feedback from a variety of people early on can yield unexpected and valuable results.

Photo by Marcin Wichary