The Language You Use DOES Matter

I sat there stammering, "No, now, that's not true," while everyone in the room stared at me. Color welled up in my face and I wanted to yell "What does it even matter?!"

This was last night, at a dinner party hosted by a well-known investment company and I'd been singled out. In explaining a point about the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, the speaker had turned, gestured toward me, and said "But you're too young to remember this."

Really.

As someone who is well-studied in the art of communication (in the classical sense, not media), and can reference plenty of passages from The Art of Rhetoric on ethos, logos, and pathos, I can tell you what most often gets overlooked is the most fundamentally important:

What you say matters.

When discussing enrolling in a retirement plan, it's incredibly important to speak in terms that will resonate with everyone in the room. Without universal appeal, you risk being a roadblock to someone's retirement. 

Even using the word "Retirement" will have consequences. Why? Because retirement is for OLD PEOPLE. Age 20-somethings don't identify with that word the same way 50-somethings do. What you name the "situation of generating your own paycheck for later" matters and the words you use will influence the outcome of how many employees take action to enroll.

Another surefire way to lose your audience is to use words (jargon) they simply don't understand. Listen to military folks discussing work and you'll be lost in no time in a sea of acronyms that have no meaning to you. Turns out the same is true when talking about the yield curve to an unsuspecting group of, say, homebuilders. It's exclusive language in the same way an inside joke leaves outsiders bewildered, and one more reason not to enroll in their plan. No one wants to feel stupid or left out, and confused people don't say yes to enrolling.

Words and phrases take on different meaning over time. Remember when Global Warming became Climate Change? In our industry "Guarantees" have loopholes. "World-Class" is meaningless. Tell a Gen-Xer "What's it going to take for you to walk out of here with a new [whatever they're selling] today?" Ugh. Gross. Red flag for high pressure sales. "Trust me," means they're not willing to share information to earn my trust. "Are you concerned about the safety of your family?" means you're trying to scare me into buying something. We're in enlightened times -- that language doesn't work. Back to enrollment meetings, The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics outlines how employees don't resonate with "dream retirement" anymore. "Comfortable retirement" works because it's actually plausible. Turns out employees appreciate realism.

The best presenters of enrollment meetings are the ones who use plain-speak, convey the information in a positive, inclusive way, start with the basics of bringing meaning to the industry-specific words they use, make it relevant, and have considered AND TESTED how their words impact as many different subsets of people as they can dream up. In short, they're outcome focused: Will the audience connect and take action?

Back to the Berlin Wall. I watched it live on TV in 1989. It's an indelible event in my memory from the 80s along with Mary Lou Retton. But, it didn't matter. I was defended by the only other woman in the room, age 50ish, who grinned and wryly said, "SHE may be old enough to remember but I'M certainly not!" Grins aside, the speaker's comment did nothing to illustrate his point, and the older crowd didn't appreciate being inferred as old anymore than I liked being dismissed as too young. Not a good move when hoping we'd take action and buy what he was selling.

So why was it said? Bad speaker? We'll never know, but considering the source...

My last point is that words have a way of influencing culture, and it's not to be overlooked or underestimated in the workplace. If you're trying to convey what it's like to be part of a community or brand, your words should resonate with employees as true, and at the very least, inclusive. Take the financial services industry with its propagation of certain words and attitudes, as demonstrated by its lack of diversity and average age of financial advisors near 50. Hierarchy-blind millennials leave empty chairs behind and Gen Y aren't applying. What gives? Maybe financial services should look no further than the words and language embedded in their workplace culture and the impact it's having on a different generation of their audience. 

In sum, let this be a lesson to any business. What you say -- the language used -- within the walls of your company culture is just as representative of your organization as your logo.  We could stand to think harder about the impact of our language in our workplaces and our enrollment meetings.