Vocabulary Can Rocket or Crash Communications

Vocabulary Can Rocket or Crash Communications

We know the “60:30:10 Communication Rule” – 60% of communication success is body language, 30% is tone of voice, and 10% is made up of the words you use. But that 10% can make a difference between a rapt and attentive audience, and a drowsy, bored, yawning, texting audience. And that 10% is more than just how important your story or message is. Vocabulary counts. Working with a variety of communicators, with diverse types and levels of knowledge, ages young and old, across a world of accents, and with high, low, loud or nasally voices, we discovered that no matter the speaker, variety and thoughtfulness in vocabulary choices enrich communications. A lush vocabulary increases a speaker’s chances of achieving Authenticity, Brevity and Clarity.

A lazy vocabulary, on the other hand, can make a presenter appear inauthentic. One of the most popular words currently in emails, hello’s, good-bye’s and answers to questions is GREAT. “Have a great day.” “Great to hear from you.” “Hope you have a great week.” Great also appears as the word of choice when responding to answers to questions. For example, we observed an institutional client service professional ask a prospect, “What are your biggest challenges in overseeing your retirement plan assets?” The plan sponsor was brief in his answer: “Our long-term liabilities.” Her response? “Great.” What? Did she really just say that? She then jumped right into what she wanted to say next. Great fails miserably at conveying concern and empathy, and is a weak descriptor.

  • “We have a great team.”
  • “We have great conviction in high-positioned managers.”
  • “We have a great partnership structure, and, uh, it’s really just a good group focused on generating returns.”

Replace with, “Our partnership structure motivates and rewards us to have the strongest talent and experience possible focused on our clients’ successes.”

Shun adjectives that are too general (great, good, fine).

  • What makes the team great?
  • What makes the structure great?
  • What makes the group good?
  • What makes your conviction great?

Tape yourself giving a presentation or answering questions sometime. Count how many times you use great, good, or fine. When you are ready to break your “great” habit, substitute words are:

  • Productive
  • Fruitful
  • Positive
  • Mutually beneficial
  • Exciting (or excited)
  • Invigorating
  • Stimulating
  • Motivating
  • Original
  • Insightful
  • Grand
  • Excellent
  • Helpful
  • Impressive
  • Notable
  • Intense
  • Pertinent
  • Advantageous
  • Effective
  • Important
  • Significant
  • Memorable
  • Valuable
  • Crucial
  • Serious
  • Relevant
  • Appreciated
  • Constructive
  • Creative
  • Worthwhile

More on achieving authenticity. Passion is good, but too much of a good thing can be bad. Here’s how a portfolio manager recently described his process: “We have a tremendous team of absolutely brilliant people, and we all love to work together on the portfolio. It’s amazing.” Superlatives can overwhelm a listener. Superlatives can feel like hyperbole and also fail to tell you all that much. Here is an example of a research analyst sharing his analysis of a stock: “I don’t like the management at the industry leader, but we love how the competitors are doing. And another company I hate is…” Do clients care if you like, dislike hate or love a stock? Overusing superlatives or emotional words undermines authenticity.

A misguided vocabulary can also cloud a message. Phrasing what you say in the negative fails to convey what you do do. “We don’t market time.” “We don’t usescreens.” “You won’t see us investing in those types of companies.” “I don’t wantyou to think that I…” Politicians use negative framing all the time. “We can’t solve any of these problems by relying on the politicians who created the problems themselves. We’ll never be able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who have rigged it in the first place.” These statements convolute the message. How will the problems be solved? Phrase your points in the positive.

Vocabulary can elevate or diminish credibility of younger professionals. A common mistake that shouts youth and inexperience is the use of too casual language. Words and phrases such as: Yeah, You guys, Stuff, Kind of, or No problem should be trashed.

  • Yeah, she knows her stuff inside and out.”
  • You guys would be an important client for us.”
  • “The global stuff is kind of an advantage.”

Another vocabulary “no, no?” Tentative language is a turn-off. My business partner and I were flying into O’Hare when our plane started to experience bumpy weather. As our plane was tossing and turning on its descent, we saw rain and lightning outside the window. The pilot came on the loudspeaker and said, “We’re going to attempt an instrument landing.” Instill confidence? No, he did not.

  • “We will try to service your account well.”
  • “I think we do a fairly good job of managing portfolios.”
  • “We kind of understand what management’s strategy is.”

Replace tentative language with active verbs. Be direct. Be confident. Demonstrate your conviction.

Remember, words may be just 10% when communicating, but words can make your message mighty. Learn to cherish and build your vocabulary. The return in your lifetime will be tenfold.

“Loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday.” – John McWhorter


Charnley & Røstvold, Inc., a preeminent marketing consulting firm to asset management firms ranging in size from start-up firms to some of the world’s largest investment firms with over $1 trillion under management. Charnley & Røstvold helps clients with competitive positioning, marketing strategies, key messages, presentation refinements, communications and sales training, consultant relations and client service programs.

Jackie Charnley, co-founder of Charnley & Røstvold, Inc., is a popular industry speaker and author. Jackie serves on the ICMA-RC Board, a not-for-profit company serving the financial needs of over one million public employees. She was also a founding board member of PAICR (Professional Association for Investment Communications Resources).

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