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Great Communicators Know That Adjectives Are Your Friend


Great Communicators Know That Adjectives Are Your Friend

We get our languages confused. Allow me to clarify.

We communicate via 2 languages. The language we write. The language we speak. And that’s just our surface conversation.

The more we think of these as two separate but complementary languages, the more impactful our communications will be. The demands of each are often quite different. When it comes to writing, our collective preferences – especially in business – have morphed toward concise, efficient, condensed, pared down. Less is more. When it comes to spoken language, we more often than not want to be engaged, moved, inspired.

Not always as concise.

You’ve spoken to those colleagues whose verbal communication sounds like a written memo. Not pretty, right? Think of it this way:

Written language = little color

Spoken language = a lot more color

These thoughts were upfront in my mind as Steve, Head of Engineering for a global manufacturing firm, and I were reviewing his communication styles this week. We looked at some of Steve’s written strategy documents. Lengthy, detailed, and yet lean. And then we explored how Steve can add a lot more color as he speaks about what’s written.

Enter adjectives. We have eliminated adjectives from most written communications. When we speak, however, it’s the single most powerful clarifier and context-shaper at our disposal. Here are some examples:

Statement #1: This is the outcome of our research study.

  • This is the tentative outcome of …
  • This is the promising outcome of …
  • This is the exciting outcome of …
  • This is the concerning outcome of …

The adjective instantly changes our understanding of this statement, doesn’t it? It adds color. It clarifies context. It expands or constricts. Most importantly, it deepens meaning.

Statement #2: These are our actions for Q1 of next year.

  • These are our very robust actions …
  • These are our innovative actions …
  • These are our limited actions …
  • These are our aggressive actions …

The adjectives clarify how we hear the statement. Since adjectives are feeling-words, they also immediately activate a more emotional response within us. We start to care more deeply about what is being said. The premise of all marketing and advertising.

Statement #3: We will have a holiday gathering on December 14.

  • We will have a festive holiday gathering …
  • We will have a joyful holiday gathering …
  • We will have a reflective holiday gathering …
  • We will have a celebratory holiday gathering …

The adjective sets the mood. It creates an expectation. It primes us for a future experience – and simply by saying it will be so, it is more likely that it will, indeed, be so.

Adjectives are that powerful. We have banished them from one of our languages – the written. Do not banish them from your other language – the spoken.

Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, conducts speaker-listener research about how two brains gets into sync. He calls this process “neural coupling.” This coupling is the means by which two people understand each other. In Hasson’s research, the key area of the brain that shows coupling is the insula, an area linked with conscious feeling states. In other words, neural coupling and richer connection are much more likely when you activate an emotion inside me.

Adjectives are not the only way to activate an emotion. They are, however, the absolutely simplest way of doing so.

If you’re not an “adjective guy” or “adjective gal” – that’s just not how you talk – please dump that story of yourself. Language is learned behavior. Learn to, in this case, speak a language that deepens context and clarifies meaning. Speak the language of adjectives. Do some thesaurus homework if you need to. Broaden your verbal palette. Cultivate a vocabulary of richly resonant adjectives. And then start sprinkling your speaking language with contextually helpful adjectives.

People will hear you differently.

They will respond differently.

Be amazed.

Related: The Rewards of Telling the Truth

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