The Power of Words

The Power of Words

The Power of Words first appeared in Business Times on 21 March 2022

Whichever view we have about the Ukrainian War most of us will have two lasting memories – first, the dreadfulness of war at any time but especially in 2022 and second, the amazing power the Ukrainian President has managed to bring to his words of encouragement rallying his people. Those who remember Churchill’s speeches at the start of World War II (WWII) will find some resonance in what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been saying. Indeed, he has admitted that Churchill’s speeches have given him guidance in the dark hours his country is facing. Great words seldom lose their power to motivate and inspire.

Why is that? Almost everyone has an aspect of their character that yearns for good. Our day to day living, with all its pressures, means that we behave practically, not perfectly. We trim our sails to suit the wind. Politically we use the word ‘pragmatic’ to describe this need to adjust our attitudes towards those who may be friends and others we suspect are enemies. Our worldwide political system, based as it is on individual countries, is set up to generate competition that is often only a short step from war. Through all this we remain keen to be decent citizens. No civilised society can sustain itself unless the majority of its people have this objective.

We aspire to be perfect

To compensate for the daily hussle we have our more high-minded aspirations, to search for perfection even if only to glimpse it for a moment or be inspired by it for an hour. Most arts contribute to these flashes of hope and light – at a price. The art that is available to all of us is words, but they have a problem, too. They cost nothing to use and equally nothing to abuse. Which is why we hear so much slang and bad language. It is a tragedy when the young are brought up with brutal and obscene games. The misuse of any form of communication is untenable. Bad words expel the possibility of the beauty we can envision, even with a minimum of education.

The first sounds we create as a baby are vocals of purpose. A young child will quickly learn the skill of screaming to get what it wants. Words describing food and bathroom, love and hate, tiredness and exuberance will follow quickly. It will be primary or secondary school before the beauty of dialogue becomes apparent and it may be many years before the full joy of language can evoke an inspiration. We nearly always underestimate the power of the language learned at school but the ability of words to persuade, convince and determine a course of action become startlingly relevant when we have to sway a jury or motivate a work team.

Our duty to motivate others

Motivation is a lifelong use of words. From begging to bullying we quickly discover the crudest language to attract attention and to threaten convincingly. Think of Trump and his rabble-rousing ability even when what he is proposing is patently false. Putin may beat him at his game but it is certain that others opposed to both of these men also mislead with lies and threats. World politics is littered with the use of dishonesty to sway voters and disarm opponents. And this occurs in the world of business too. The legitimate use of jargon to describe new inventions has been wretchedly twisted to mislead potential customers about the terms on which they may buy or maintain a product or service. Words broadly retain their power whatever the purpose for which they are being used.

Most notable of the many examples of this are the social media where every statement from a birthday wish to a report of an atomic explosion appears to be of the same importance and identical truth. This applies to products and services, too. These new forms of communication actually replace gossip over the fence and would be fairly harmless but for the fact that a large part of the population are on the other side. Messages ‘broadcast’ on the internet also have a false validity, rather the way that a podcast has over manuscript.

Words built your business

Business has always appreciated the power of words, most vigorously since the end of WWII when advertising in the mass media started. Advertising agencies thrived for some thirty years during half of which they were protected by a highly efficient cartel. The growth of media advertising inevitably put paid to that, after which the business became extremely competitive. Great, and often controversial, slogans were produced, such as “Guinness is good for you” and “A glass and a half of milk” (in Cadbury’s milk chocolate). The need for proof stopped some of these and the advent of commercial television developed the others into jingles, many of which, like “Murraymints – the too good to hurry mints”, were adopted as pop songs.

Perhaps the business person’s use of words with his or her employees is only just being seen fully now. The Covid lockdowns and restriction on face to face meetings has certainly shaken the average employer. Many have found their employees, both senior and junior, exiting as if in an escape stampede. What can have caused such a move at a time when the next job is by no means certain and government support for the damage of the pandemic is coming to an end everywhere? Employees with years of service, many of them no longer in the first flush of youth, are carrying their possessions’ boxes out of the building without so much as a by-your-leave.

 A discovery of purpose

There are several reasons for this but the fundamental one is that they have discovered their purpose in life – and that is ‘to be happy’. It is amazing that this discovery didn’t arrive sooner. I think it did, but our widespread Calvinistic approach to right and wrong made pleasure seem sinful. Perhaps it is necessary to recall that slavery was abolished only a relatively short time ago and its shadows still linger over much of the earth. From exploited, disadvantaged workers to wives expected to work endlessly over the provision of food and comfort, the echoes of unrewarded tasking still persist, leaving some in luxury and others in poverty.  The not-so-well-off have experienced an unexpected measure of independence working from home, with a choice about when and how they completed their work and the conditions in which they carried it out. The rich have discovered that home is more comfortable than the office and the coffee is better. Some have decided to be self-employed.

Becoming self-employed

One of my favourite examples of how someone became a gig involved a lawyer. She was reasonably successful but didn’t have a “bedside manner” and was constantly upsetting her clients. She lost three jobs in quick succession – a severe warning sign for anyone. She was then offered two jobs at exactly the same time. One was with an old established and very successful manufacturing company, the other, with a tech start-up that promised to be successful. They were non-conflicting. I recommended that she offered to take both, negotiating her pay so that she came out about 10% better than either job on its own. She did so and then realised that she had a gig. She has run her own business happily and successfully ever since – and she now knows how to talk to the clients.

The gig economy poses a challenge to those employers who feel the need to ‘employ’ as opposed to ‘engage’ the work and service they need to make their business viable. Many jobs require residential workers though these will diminish rapidly with the advance of robotics and artificial intelligence. Increasingly workers will become businesses of their own, learning the skills of small business and enjoying the freedom to decide between toil and leisure. Engaging these suppliers will be as important as cooperating with the plumber or the auditor. The relationships with those who need their services is a skill of its own.

It is the skill of caring, sharing and fairing. Let’s hope it can be used for peaceful purposes. 

Peace is, after all, what will make most of us happy.

The writer is Founder and Chair of Terrific Mentors International