May 13, 2013
Talking Points

Choose words carefully; their impact will linger

Bernard Kavaler

In a world where what you say will determine your future, it's best to take care with your words.

A Greek philosopher once suggested that "words have a longer life than deeds." If that's true, there will be an awful lot of words lasting a very long time in cyberspace. Perhaps American author Jennifer Donnelly had it right when she said, simply, "words are more powerful than anything." That is a notion worth considering, even in this increasingly image-dominated world.

It underscores the importance for any organization of exhibiting care in what is said and how the message is delivered, in both complex and casual exchanges. Evaluating the checks in place to accomplish that objective — whether they be dependent upon personal judgment or formal procedures, or both — is worthwhile before the send button is pushed or the printer starts rolling.

Once said or sent — today more than ever — words last forever. They can be apologized for, but they cannot be unsaid. There is an important difference — especially now, when public apologies occur routinely, and are routinely dismissed for being too calculating, done under duress, or severely lacking in sincerity or seriousness. Even in those instances when an apology is accepted, the damage is not forgotten.

I am a firm believer in the adage that "they can't print what you don't say." That has been the advice I've always given individuals before they engage in a media interview, but today they extend to everyone who is about to click "send" on even the most seemingly insignificant email or text message. Once words have left your lips, or been sent by your device, they are out of your control. There is no rewind. And there is often a video camera or cell phone recording the communication anyway.

Clearly then, it is best to take care with your words. For any organization — business or otherwise — embarking on crafting a message, and deciding which combination of words to select, the stakes are appropriately high. Whether they are to be used in a headline or a tagline, on a website or in a brochure, in a print ad or a You Tube video, the words chosen to represent the organization — and how they are presented — will create what is likely to be a lasting impression in the mind of the listener or viewer.

Choosing words carefully, considering their individual and collective meaning when they are heard or read, as well as thoroughly assessing whether they will advance or hinder your efforts, are all essential. When in doubt, check it out. We repeatedly see companies going to great expense to name a new product, only to find out that the name they've selected may sound wonderful in one language, but is an abomination in another. (Recently, after weeks of promotion and advertising, Target had to change the name of its Orina woman's sandal when they learned the word meant "urine" in Spanish.) Recent court proceedings involving Martha Stewart, JC Penney's and Macy's serve as another reminder of the risks accompanying words.

Growing up, we often heard the admonishment to think before we speak. As with so many lessons of our youth, they were accurate long before we could understand why. There's no doubt about it now. It is as true for planning a product launch as it is for texting a colleague or competitor. Employees should be reminded of the perils as well as the opportunities to communicate effectively and productively. A review of company policies and the preferred manner — consistent with the latest marketing approach — to describe products and services is helpful. Even so, the reliance on sound individual judgment is ever-present.

None of us is perfect, as individuals or as organizations, so unintentional mistakes will happen. No matter how often you get right, it is the single mistake that is often remembered best. This is not to suggest that one should be so paralyzed as to be unable to act.

It is only to suggest that when words are about to be selected, spoken, sent, or printed on behalf of an organization, take a moment and consider what you recall most vividly about the otherwise excellent career of a major league baseball player named Bill Buckner. And then do everything possible not to make that error.

Bernard L. Kavaler is founding principal of Express Strategies, a strategic communications and public policy consulting business in West Hartford. Reach him through the firm's website at www.express-strategies.com.

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