We’ve all heard the 19th-century quote from Edward Bulwer-Lytton suggesting that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and Shakespeare’s early 17th-century observation in Hamlet that “…many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills”, and even earlier with Greek Philosopher Euripides in the 4th century BCE reminding us that, “…the tongue is mightier than the blade”. Throughout our history, the power of the words we use has been commented on…
Communication channel bias
As a public speaker, trainer, tutor, and more simply, as a human being, I’ve come to appreciate the power that our words can have. As behaviour analysts, we often discuss the importance of being aware of all channels of communication, that is, Face, Body Language, Voice, Interactional Style, Psychophysiology, and indeed the spoken words also. Many of us have a tendency to focus on the words we hear, at the expense of the inputs from the other channels, sometimes missing out on potentially valuable information.
However, although we may focus on the verbal communications we hear, we often take for granted the words we use in day-to-day communications. Too often we appear to allow our unfiltered thoughts to torrent from our mouths, when perhaps they might have benefitted from being tweaked, more consciously, before allowing that torrent to flow. Much like emails, once our brain tells the mouth to ‘SEND’ there is no cancelling, rewinding, or retraction function.
A deeply rooted ancestral skill
Imagine the scene…
You’re huddled together in the mead hall of your village during the Middle-Ages, eating and drinking with friends, family, and other villagers by the light of the central fire. Your conversation is mainly focused on the worrying poor harvest this year and the almost consistently stormy weather outside. Over the hum of village chatter, and the crackle of the hearth fire, you hear the hall’s large wooden doors creak open… Everyone turns to look at the wet, cloaked stranger, framed in the doorway and backlit by the moon. The chief of your village, sat in the high seat at the end of the hall, beckons the stranger in from the cold, telling him to warm and dry himself at the fire, offering some food and drink to the weary-looking stranger.
The cloaked figure approaches the fire and lowers his hood… “I am a simple bard and have travelled for two days in this weather, I thank you for your kindness and hospitality.” On hearing the stranger is a bard, the chief requests a tale. The bard smiles then pulls a small lute from his pack and starts to speak and sing. In an instant, as you listen to his words, you and all those villagers present, are taken on a journey around the country you’ve longed to explore; you are introduced to people you’ve never even dreamed of meeting. Your mind is taken into the heart of a King’s very castle; you see the King in all his armoured splendour; you fight alongside the warriors of the King’s army in huge battles against all odds; you hear of the evils that have tried and failed to invade your very homeland; you find treasures the likes of which would amaze the King himself. You feel the fear of battle, the relief and joy of victory, the sadness of the loss of the fallen warriors, and the pride in your King. Then, as quick as the tale began, it ends… You are back in the mead hall, the fire is crackling and everyone claps the stranger for his tale.
But things have changed, right?
More than a simple teller of tales, the bards and skalds of old were, in the middle ages, the equivalent of our modern newsreaders, historians, and motivational speakers. In the telling of a tale, a bard could cause a huge following for a Monarch and drum up support for their campaigns. But equally, they had the ability to end a Monarch’s reign with a few well-placed words in the right ears. Bards or skalds were the early Public Relations agents and could, if required, peddle propaganda to suit the needs of those holding the coin. Unfortunately, we still live in a world of media spin, propaganda, misinformation, and often alleged “fake news”, now piped into our hands via mobile devices and instant access. If you have a keyboard or a microphone then YOU are a potential bard. But what stories do you tell?
Whilst we may not be literal bards, skalds, or consider ourselves “storytellers”, when we speak to our employees, to our children, to our students, or to a keynote auditorium, we have power. We have a platform to be heard and listened to, and in some cases a microphone to give us literal auditory power. Depending on our experience, position, fame (or infamy) we often have a position of authority, and words uttered by us may be taken very seriously by the listener.
I once made a comment in a joking manner during a training course, whilst stroking my beard, on the trustworthiness of bearded men, only to notice that a student, taking notes diligently, took me “at my word” and missed the joke. This could have led to some serious misinformation being spread about men with facial hair being more trustworthy than those that are clean-shaven. Whilst mildly humorous as an anecdote, this taught me a strong lesson. Choose your words carefully and purposefully. Limit the potential for misunderstandings. Think before you speak, and where possible, plan your verbal message with a goal in mind… But, be flexible and let your message flow with passion and spontaneity. There’s a fine line between a structured passionate discourse and an overly rigid lecture.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 that highlighted the civil rights movement in America, was artful in its construction but also partially off-script and spontaneous allowing for King’s passion to power the speech. Key phrases were repeated having a strong impact on the crowd and audience, for example, “Now is the time…” repeated four times, “I have a dream…” repeated seven times, and “Let freedom ring…” repeated nine times. These repetitions, coupled with his fluctuations of speech rate, volume, pitch, and tone marked the speech and King in the pages of the history books.
As a speaker of authority, whether that’s as a parent or a professional keynote speaker, you have a responsibility to transmit accurate information, to honour the trust the listener is placing in YOU as a speaker, and take care with any calls to action, whether explicit or implied. Words can motivate, they can cause laughter and smiles, they can transmit love and kindness. But words can also hurt, they can scare, they can cause panic, and they can drop people into despair.
A word misplaced, or a statement misinterpreted, can be the difference between a motivational speech of empowerment, a cautionary anecdote, or destructive proselytising speech, article, or news segment filled with bias and prejudice, or worse into hate speech leading to potential violence. This might be to an audience of hundreds or solely to the open ears of a single child you care for. Either way, care needs to be taken.
So, whether you are writing a letter with your goose quill or pen, typing an email with your mighty keyboard, or loosening your tongue to talk to a family member or a keynote audience, remember the potential power of the words you wield and use them wisely!