Most of us could be more effective if we paid more attention to the words we use and how we use them.
I’m not talking about big speeches here. I’m talking about day-to-day word choice. I’m talking about what you say when you open a meeting and close an email. I’m talking about which words you use in the executive summary to a new report or the intro to your annual report. I’m talking about talking to donors, customers and anyone else you come into contact with in a given day.
The average adult uses around 15,000 words per day. That means that, on any given day, you have 15,000 chances to make the world—your world, our world—a better place.
You’re a word expert–own it
Whenever someone says, “I’m not good with words,” I cringe. What they’re really saying is, “I never learned what a gerund was in English class and am therefore not ‘good with words’.”
Being good with words isn’t about syntax and grammar. It’s about finding words that give voice to your vision.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell established the 10,000 Hour Rule—basically, that you can become expert in anything after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
This infographic shows how long it would take, in years, to become an expert if you did deliberate practice for a certain number of hours per day. The average is 9.6 years, assuming you practice 20 hours per week.
Here’s how this relates to you being a word expert: Let’s be generous and say you started talking, really talking (meaning stringing together cohesive sentences) when you went into Kindergarten. Even if you zoned out for big chunks of time in school, you were still probably eking out 2 hours of “deliberate practice” per day, five days a week.
That means that, on average, it took you 20 years to become a word expert. Roughly by your mid-20s when, coincidentally, your frontal lobes—the part of your brain in charge of concepts and abstract thinking—becomes fully developed.
In sum: by around the age of 25 you had practiced enough and had the brain development to be a full-fledged word expert.
If you are over the age of 25, the “I’m not good with words” excuse simply doesn’t hold up. So best to stop using it, accept your status as a word expert and start using that expertise to your advantage.
Words are like Winkies
In the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West calls on her Winkies to destroy Dorothy and her crew. Winkies are not brave; they are dutiful. They have to do whatever their master says.
When the Winkies’ master was the evil Wicked Witch of the West, they did bad stuff (usually related to killing things). After Dorothy successfully kills the Witch (by accidentally dumping water on her, oops), they do good things because Dorothy is nothing if not nice.
Words are like Winkies—they will do what you ask them to do. They are dutiful. They will serve you well if you use them well. The can help you be a more effective leader and make the world a better place.
1,000 chances to make the world a better place
A key piece to being an expert at something is the intentionality you bring to it, whatever ‘it’ is you are out to master. If your ‘it’ is more effectively using words to give voice to your vision, this means deciding how many of the 15,000ish words you use in a day you are going to use intentionally.
Can you be intentional with 1,000 of your words today? (As a point of reference, this post is about 700.)
This could be in a meeting with staff, or lunch with a donor, or in an email you write to a colleague at a partner organization. Heck, it might be a chat with your accountant or teenager.
Remember: Those words are like 1,000 Winkies waiting for you to give them orders. They are your 1,000 chances to make the world a better place today.