languageA recent article posted on LinkedIn received an enormous response of well over 1,300 comments (and counting) within one day. The article is not about how to negotiate harder, not about treating people right, not about how to turn war into peace. It’s simply titled, “40 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Dumb”. And then flow the torrent of comments listing people’s pained peeves about how others misuse the English language.

For leaders and those rising in their careers, this can be, sad to say, a make or break deal for their progression.

It ticks people off when you don’t use language properly or have ingrained, tedious habits of communication. And it often annoys them far more than any other subject under the sun. Get semi-literate people started on the subject, sit back and enjoy the results:

“I can’t stand how he always says, ‘Acknowledge’!”

“It’s ‘their’, not ‘they’re’! What’s wrong with these people??!”

“Aarrggh, why can’t they understand that you don’t put an apostrophe for “Its” when it is possessive?”

“They put the comma in the wrong place. It makes them look like an idiot.”

“They can’t even spell their company slogan correctly.”

“Why does HR keep saying they are running ‘trainings’? That’s not even a real word!”

“If I have to be ‘incentivised’ one more time, I’m going to go berserk!”

Why do people get so impassioned about this? Because they see it every single day and it wears on them!

Your level of discourse, your facility with language and your precision with language can all be important factors in others’ perceptions of your intellectual heft, personal characteristics, values, ideologies and effectiveness. It can change how they perceive, react and respond to you, for better or for worse.

Here are 5 ways to improve your level of discourse:

  1. Employ the appropriate language for the situation. If you are speaking with a CEO and say that ‘the fellas aren’t too good ’cause they’ve all been on the grog a bit, you know what I mean?’ then that CEO really will know what you mean: it’s that you aren’t serious enough to be at the executive level. If you need to hone up on your vocabulary, grammar and punctuation (for your written correspondence), and sentence structure do so – know your contractions from your possessives, your apostrophes from your commas and your plurals from your pronouns. By the way, speaking in whole sentences? That’s good.
  2. Don’t resort to swearing and cursing in your emails. Does this sound too obvious? I worked with a MD who would swear at the other directors in his emails, which only aggravated them, stirred up trouble and provided fodder for that potential lawsuit. As soon as he dialled back venting his feelings in emails, the relationships between the directors became much more constructive. Corporate scandals seem to hit the news every other day about a senior executive who emailed about all of the “@#%$” people working for him (let’s face it, it’s statistically more probable to be a male for many reasons) or their clients. Then the senior exec is forced to resign from their cushy job and relinquish the private washroom. Don’t let it happen to you.
  3. Be sensitive to the differing nature of discourse around you. The crux of this matter is: don’t assume that the folks around you are using the same mode of thought and language that you are. The current Australian PM, Mr. Abbott, caused a minor diplomatic stoush by saying he would ‘shirtfront’ Mr. Putin. The world around him (and many Australians too), thought he meant he would pull Mr. Putin’s shirt down, like a reverse ‘wedgie’. The term he was using is, however, an Australian Rules Football term, meaning that he would collide with the other player head on. His team had to work hard to turn the phrase into a plus, by pointing to his ‘colourful, idiomatic’ language. It would have been clearer and easier to navigate, had Mr. Abbott merely clearly stated what he meant. Understanding that other people do not necessarily employ the same language, ideas and cultural discourses that you do is helpful in building bridges between people.
  4. Be confident enough to use more elevated and professional language when it is clearer to do so. A few well-chosen words from a higher level discourse would have had much greater impact for Mr. Abbott, rather than requiring an embarrassing explanation. Reportedly, he is a very well-educated individual with a strong intellect. Unfortunately, his continual watering down of his language to lowest common denominator means that he is perceived at that level. I wish I could point to a public figure who consistently uses higher level language effectively in speeches and discussions, but I cannot think of one off-hand. (And “No”, Pres. Obama certainly does not count. Listen to him speaking without a teleprompter.)
  5. Be confident enough in your own personhood to not have to demonstrate that you are the smartest person in the room. It’s also not necessary to disgorge an encyclopaedia every time you talk with someone. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was fond of this tactic. He would obfuscate and pontificate at every opportunity. I know individuals – high level scientists and intellectuals – who found Mr. Rudd insufferable because of his desire to illuminate others with his self-aggrandised perception of his profound knowledge, wisdom and deeper understanding of any topic one cared to discuss. It is okay to use relaxed language and be you, while also using the specific vocabulary that you’ve spent a lifetime learning.

Clarity comes through choosing the right word at the right time for the right audience. Be careful about the words you choose.

Leave a comment. How have you seen your language impact your effectiveness? What misused words or phrases drive you crazy? What do you wish people would learn to say or write better?

© 2014 Peter J. McLean. Follow the blog at


How Language Matters for Leaders
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