Today we’re going to talk about a topic that has fascinated me long before I started mentoring and coaching women in their careers, and that topic is language.
I vividly remember working my first ever sales job in Biotech where we had a fantastic sales coach (Colleen Francis – check her out!) and when asked what topic we wanted to cover in the next session I would almost always want to touch on language.
I was fascinated with the way words or phrases could have such an impact on the outcome! I remember writing down the top 9 powerful words to use and pinning them up in my cubicle – I can’t remember all of them anymore, but I do remember: love, you, help, new, easy – and I remember crafting sales emails and intentionally incorporating these powerful words to make them more impactful.
It’s funny, because although I became obsessed with perfecting my customer emails and communication, I didn’t intuitively apply this to myself when I was moving into leadership.
In fact, as someone who was used to winging it in so many areas of my life, I soon discovered that management meetings were not a great place to wing it. My ideas weren’t landing the way I wanted them to. Sometimes I had a great point I wanted to make, and wasn’t able to make it as effectively as I’d hoped.
As I reflected more on the way I was presenting myself, I realized that my own language was getting in the way of the leader I wanted to project.
I know I’m not the only one, so today we are going to dive into 4 areas of language where it relates to career advancement. They are:
- What NOT to say
- Effective phrases and powerful language
- Positive vs. negative framing
- How to get started
Let’s jump in friends!
What NOT to say
Let’s start with where you may be tripping up today. As women, we’re often conditioned to use certain language that makes us smaller and softer in an effort to be likeable.
I’m going to get into all of the reasons this is total BS in this newsletter, but let’s just acknowledge that it happens.
As a result, when you enter the corporate world, some of the verbal habits you’ve developed may hold you back. I’ll give some examples:
Laughter padding: This is where you add a gentle giggle at the beginning and end of a sentence. People often do it completely subconsciously, either because they’re nervous or as a way to soften their comment or opinion.
Uptalk: Raising your voice at the end of a sentence so your statement sounds like a question.
Filler words and qualifiers: Adding qualifiers to your statement like, “I’m not an expert in this but…”
Apologizing: Many women over-apologize. For not being able to take on an extra project, for a mistake made by them or their team etc.. (note, apologizing when its warranted is a good thing).
As you can probably guess, each of these verbal habits can create an unwanted effect. They can make you seem less confident, less serious or even less competent than you really are.
The language you use will impact people’s perception of you, including the leadership team who you may be trying to impress for that next promotion. So it’s worth paying attention to.
Effective phrases and powerful language
So then, what SHOULD you say? Obviously you still want to be you, so don’t parrot phrases that don’t feel authentic, but the key message is to use phrases and words that project confidence, certainty and competence.
You want to sound as though you know what they heck you’re talking about, because chances are you do!
So once you’ve removed filler words, uptalk and laughter padding start adding in some phrases that feel more empowered.
Here are a few I’ve adopted because I find them to be impactful:
“I recommend we…”
“Based on XYZ, my recommendation is that we move forward with ABC…”
“Help me understand… what’s the primary concern / goal?
“I feel strongly that we…”
“I’m confident we can…”
Another powerful phrase happens to be “Thank you” which is why I love substituting if for “Sorry” when appropriate.
For example, if a colleague catches an error in your report, instead of saying, “I’m so sorry about that, I’ll fix it right away” you could say, “Thanks for catching that. I’ll make that change right away.”
As you can see, each of these phrases projects confidence, even when asking for clarification or responding to constructive feedback.
Positive vs. negative framing
The framing I’m talking about here is different from what I get into in my newsletter all about framing and the 3 C’s (if you haven’t read it, I recommend you go back and check it out). I’m talking about framing suggestions or ideas in a more positive way in order to get a better response from your CEO.
Many female leaders I’ve worked with have shared their frustration when they highlight a business risk and are labelled as ‘negative’ or ‘complainers’ by their CEO. Why does this happen?
Well, your CEO is likely a visionary. Part of being a visionary also means being optimistic almost to the point of delusion (I feel I can say this because I am one). Ie. We don’t like people sh!tting all over our brilliant ideas.
Are you using a sledgehammer or an ice cream cone?
I was at a dinner sitting beside a good friend of mine who’s a C-level exec at a booming company. During our conversation, he talked about a metaphor he learned from Michael Margolis called the sledgehammer and the ice cream cone.
You see, when talking to the CEO, he would often use the sledgehammer approach: Focusing on everything that could go wrong, all of the risks to the business and why something wouldn’t work. His goal wasn’t to be a downer, but instead to highlight the need for more resources or a revised timeline. Unfortunately, this was causing a lot of tension and was not getting him what he wanted.
Once he learned about this analogy, he decided to try the ice cream cone approach: Instead of focusing on everything that would go wrong he focused on the growth they could create, and how things would succeed under his recommendations.
Same ask, different frame. This approach was was much better received!
This is where is important to know your audience. Your CEO is probably a visionary, and we love our ice cream cones. However, if you’re talking to the CFO she may want the doom and gloom spelled out.
Bottom line: be intentional about the way you frame your ideas based on who you’re trying to convince.
How to get started
We’ve talked about language and framing, but how on earth do you get started if you’ve been stammering through meetings and apologizing every 3rd sentence?
Step 1 is awareness. Start to pay attention to the way you speak. You can also ask a colleague you trust to give you honest feedback and point out when you slip back into old habits (after the meeting of course).
As with so many other things, simply becoming aware of where we are starting can not only be eye opening, but can create some initial change on its own.
You’ll also want to start noticing how others are speaking. If someone on the leadership team phrases something in a powerful way that really resonates with you, write it down! Consider how you may use similar phrasing when given the opportunity.
Finally, if you try pitching something in a meeting and it doesn’t go according to plan, spend a bit of time reflecting afterwards. To be clear, don’t spend this time beating yourself up for messing up, but instead ask yourself how you would have like to have phrased your idea and take note for next time.
Step 2 is preparation. I mentioned earlier that I spent a lot of my life winging it. School, sales… I was always able to fly by the seat of my pants. That is, until I got into leadership. This was a whole new ballgame.
Suddenly winging it made me look unprepared in meetings. Not practicing my pitch led to people challenging my ideas instead of supporting them.
Once I started to spend time adequately preparing for important conversations and meetings, I saw much greater success. I would carefully consider what points I wanted to make, and even how I would respond if asked certain questions. It allowed me to look as though I was great at thinking of my feet and have much more control over the conversation.
Step 3 is to practice. If you’re presenting in a meeting, practice it in advance! Don’t just create the slides and expect it to all go as planned.
Practice how you’re going to ask for that raise. Practice how you’re going request that new headcount. Practice how you’ll respond to your rating in your annual review, even if you don’t know what it is yet!
I always say, especially if the stakes are high, you never want the first time you say something to be when you’re in that key meeting!.
So there you have it, to summarize:
- Start by building awareness into how you communicate, and how others do
- Focus on removing disempowering language and phrases
- Add in some new phrases that project confidence
- Know your audience and adjust
- Prep and practice
You’ve got this!
Until next time friends… ✌️💜