“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.” –George Bernard Shaw
What’s in a Word
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one definition of ‘word’ is “a sound or combination of sounds that has meaning and is spoken by a human being.”
From the latter part of the definition, I can see where the written word is simply an extended form of what is spoken, so no cause for alarm. It is the first part of the definition that has me worried. Is it true that a word must have meaning; otherwise, it is not a word? I think of the 16,000 words that Dr. Matthias Mehl, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona, claims the average person speaks in a day, and wonder how many of the words I use each day actually have meaning, given the context of the conversation; likely, not many.
Example: When asked how it’s going, I’ll say, ‘good’. What does ‘good’ mean? Does it mean ‘favorable’, or does it mean ‘I do not wish to continue this conversation any longer’?
A Word on Business
Think of a typical business day. Most of what gets done each day involves the exchange of words, whether vocally or in written form—meetings, emails, presentations, report writing, and conference calls. It is fair to say that most of what we do is exchange words.
Different areas of expertise within an organization use words to form a language that relates to their world. Accounting professionals speak a language comprised of financial words; engineering professionals use a language of technical words. If you go to one of those areas of language, which in business is referred to as a function, you’ll discover there is a specialty language that lives inside that function and is unique to that function.
It can be said that functions are simply a system of words that enable the flow of information and knowledge. In that sense, the meaning of words is exponentially important. If words have no meaning, information might flow, yet to no effect. Expand that thought to an organizational level and it would appear that top-performing companies use a lot of words that have meaning.
You Have My Word
When you look at your organization as a system of words, or a network of conversations, that surround a mutually desired outcome, what possibilities do you see? I see several: 1) an organization that commits to reducing the number of words in meetings, emails, presentations, report writing, and conference calls that have no meaning; 2) an organization that develops a universal language, utilized across functions, from words that forward action rather than limit action; 3) an organization that embraces words as a currency for the exchange of knowledge; 4) an organization that establishes words as the foundation of relationships, and relationships as the foundation of accomplishment; and, 5) an organization that, through words, creates new possibilities.
Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher and linguist, offers: “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.” In that sense, words are priceless.