Power Talk. Warner Books


Using Language to Build Authority and Influence

W. A Time Warner Company

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Power Talk
Using Language to Build Authority and Influence

When readers ask writers, “Is this book about you?,” the answer
has to be “Yes!” While the exact relationship between the
written product and the author remains inscrutable—even to
the writer herself—everything in this book connects to what
I’ve seen and thought, done and imagined, heard and listened
for. Done properly, the naming of resources would be an impossible task.

Here, then, it must be done improperly. Acknowledging the
inevitable omissions, I thank for their immediate and direct
help my able, patient, and enthusiastic editor Rob McMahon,
as well as Ethan Kline, Rafe Sagalyn, Geoff Colvin, and Justin
Martin. The Expository Writing Program and the Teacher Education
Program at Harvard, as well as the staff at Lamont and
Baker libraries, have been important in this work. My research
assistant, Debra Grossman, kept me on track, and I received
invaluable research support from Pat Bellanca, Sarah N.

McGinty, John E. McGinty, Ann Holby, and Christopher Conroy.
Other important contributors were Charlotte Sibley, Patti
Hunt Dirlam, Karen Kemby, Sharon Kellogg, Herminia lbarra,
Robin Wagner, Amy Kautzman, Ross Wood, Steve Sayers, Judith
Heller, Judy Bidwell, Bill Crowley, Andy Walter, Melinda
McGinty, Karen Stevenson, Rhonda Davis Smith, Phil Driscoll,
Sig Heller, Curtis Hartman, Sam Chwat, Nancy Boardman,
Dan Hoffman, Caroline O’Neill, Mike and Claudia Thornburgh,
sales personnel at Creative Office Pavilion, Michael
Schu, Joe Fennewald, and the coxes and oarsmen of the Harvard
crew. The inspiration of fellow scholars, especially Virginia

Valian, cannot pass without mention.

A Note about Notes
Knowledge does not stand alone. All ideas and insights develop
within the context of the work of other researchers,
thinkers, and writers. This book is no exception, and while
it is not meant to be an academic textbook, it nonetheless
draws on and references the work of other scholars. I have
followed the convention of trade books and do not footnote
within the text; I direct you to the Notes at the end, where
my sources are cited. You will find a Bibliography there as
well, offering direction for follow-up reading where a topic
or idea interests you.

So how are things at work?
• Does your boss overlook your contributions? Does your
team ignore your ideas? Do your colleagues forget your suggestions?
• Do you struggle to create consensus in your department?
• Are you headed for a new company or a new location?
• Are the skills you need for the next position different from
those you mastered in entry-level work?
• Are you on the fast track with a plan or stalled on the
shoulder without a clue?

If your answer is yes to any (or many) of these questions,
this book was written for you. Work is about performance. But
performance—what you’ve done, where you’ve succeeded, and
who knows about it—depends on your ability to communicate.
How can I make the most of the time I have to talk? How can
I persuade others to follow my plan? How can I be sure my
ideas are remembered as mine? How can I create authority?
How can I inspire collaboration? Speech and language choices
figure into all these situations, and they are as important to the
solutions as good ideas or an impressive title. Yes, work is
about performance, but recognition and promotion require
good communication skills.

Good communication skills required. Every job posting lists
good communication skills as a necessary qualification. But
what are good communication skills? A loud voice? An extensive
vocabulary? The power to persuade? The stylistic flair of
a poet? We often assume communication skills aren’t much
more than the ability to write a clear memo or pull together an
efficient agenda. But spoken language, rather than writing, is
at the heart of most business communication. Talk is how we
prefer to do business. We feel inefficient and frustrated when
the workday is full of messaging options, voice mail, telephone
tag, and the black hole of holding. We want to talk to people
directly, explain ourselves, practice our own brand of chatter
and charm. While memos, e-mails, reports, and letters all convey
important information, the relationships we create and the
impressions we convey are built on what we say and how we say it.

Specialists find that presentation speakers have about thirty
seconds to capture the attention of an audience. Isn’t that true
every time we open our mouths? As the most constant way we
interact with each other, speech conveys our ideas, intelligence,
and values. But it also conveys our assurance, confidence, and
leadership. These factors, as well as the work we do, get us
hired, adopted as a protégé, or promoted. Appearance may be
the first thing people notice, but initial impressions are quickly
undercut (or overcome) by words. Speech choices create power and influence.

Good communication skill, as defined in this book, is an understanding
of how situation shapes speech and how speech
shapes situation. It has nothing to do with proper grammar, accents,
vocabulary lessons, or the gerund. Rather, the agenda
here is subversive: a look behind the scenes, a chance to exam-ine
the speech conventions of our world—the sociology of language—as a
means to understanding, competence, and control.
Such a behind-the-scenes view complicates understanding, but
it also creates intentional (and thus more effective) speech
choices. Think of the photocopying machine in the back office.
You know how to make copies. But if you know something
more—how it works, how to change the toner, how to clear a
jam—you have real control of the tool. A higher level of understanding
puts you ahead of the guy who only knows how to
hit the print button. Understanding speech styles and the forces
that affect those styles is an advantage in the workplace far beyond
what you get from fixing a back office machine. It can
give you thirty seconds more airtime in a meeting, help you
stave off the assaults others make on your speech moments,
build your authority, and enhance your credibility and impact.
Speech awareness even supports the transition to a new position
or to a new employer. You can sound like a divisional
head, a VP, a manager, or a supervisor while you’re learning to
be one; language allows you to borrow authority from words
while expertise and experience accumulate. Student teachers,
for example, begin September with a few stock phrases and
spend the rest of the year learning to teach. They manage with
“All right, people, let’s settle down” and “This is due tomorrow”
as they develop skills, strategies, and a personal style of
teaching. Emily was a particular favorite. Her background was
in improvisational theater. She had a special advantage because
she knew, at least to begin with, it was going to be a bit of an
act, a matter of sounding right until she learned the job!
“Hold on!” you say. “I’ve been talking all my life. I don’t
need anyone to show me how to do this. At the age of two, I
set off with a firm command of ‘Da-da’ and the rest is history!”
Actually, that’s part of the problem. Since we all began talking
without formal instruction, very little of our education focused
on speech and language study. There was some sentence
diagramming in seventh grade and vocabulary drilling in
eleventh. When you joined your firm, you learned industry
buzzwords like ebitda, wacc, or double nickels.

You uncon-sciously adopted the shorthand language for the product line
and the client roster. But the sociology of language—how social
forces and speech patterns interact—wasn’t part of either
your school curriculum or your corporate training program.
Several other forces make it easy to overlook this discipline
and the ways that social and situational forces affect conversation
and communication. One is the fact that language learning
is largely unconscious. It hardly seems necessary to offer
instruction. As George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle declares
in estimating the price of lessons from speech specialist Henry
Higgins: “You wouldn’t have the face to ask me the same for
teaching me my own language as you would for French; so I
won’t give more than a shilling.” Our own facility with language,
the competence we achieved before we even went to
school, makes speech instruction seem no more necessary than
breathing lessons.

And precisely because you have been talking all your life,
you probably don’t know what you really sound like or how
you choose the words you use. My student Adam, a life-long
resident of Long Island, confessed to me that he was in high
school before he realized that many people pronounced the
nearby airport, La Guardia, with an “r” sound in the middle.

For fifteen years, he had never consciously heard anyone say
anything but “Lagwadia” and he assumed that somehow this
word had a silent r in the middle of it. In college, he was surprised
that his friends teased him about his pronunciation: “I
felt like this was my airport—I lived ten minutes from the runways—
and they were telling me how to pronounce it?!” What
we do know about speech, and especially about our own
speech, was learned unsystematically. Our own daily familiarity
with our speech choices inhibits analysis. We often hear
ourselves clearly only through the ears of someone else . . . and
we can be surprised by what they hear.

To complicate matters, language and identity are strongly
connected. The sound of our speech is part of how we know
who we are. A sub, a hero, or a grinder? A bucket or a pail?
A faucet or a spigot? Catty-corner, caddy-corner, or caddy-wumpus?
Whatever you’ve grown up saying seems “right.”
The transplanted speaker who suppresses her “Lagwadia” or
“y’all” or “thee-ay-ter” finds it all comes back on the phone to
Dad or at Grandma’s dinner table. Words tell us when we’re home.

We are, in part, then, what we say. We draw identity from
our speech habits. The power of the Québécois in Canada, the
controversy over the recognition of Black Vernacular English
in Oakland, California, the resistance of the Académie to
Americanisms in French, prove that language and identity are
intertwined in profound and complicated ways. Our speech
habits may only occasionally be the object of direct study or
awareness, but when they are held up to the light, tempers
flare, dictionaries are hauled out, and most of us vow that our
beloved pronunciation is the only one, our favorite phrase the
most apt, our name for a thing the name God intended. Thus,
because we are first unconscious of our own ways of saying
things—remember the first time you heard your voice played
back on a tape recorder?—and next because we tend to cling
to and defend our words and ways, the effort to acquire more
objective ears is difficult. But an understanding of the forces
that shape speech choices and the impact of those choices is an
essential communication skill. This understanding makes the
unconscious conscious, the accidental intentional. It offers
flexibility and control. And it underlies power and influence.

The good news is that this isn’t going to be like learning statistics
or passing the CFA or mastering Dutch. Remember the
“Da-da” days. You were a first-rate talker at four. And since
then, you’ve nimbly adapted to the expanded vocabulary of
school and work, the constant changes of language convention.
Are you saying “Whazzup?” or “So there you go” or “It’s
all about . . . ”? Have you noticed that “Do me a favor” now
precedes a reprimand rather than a request? Do you have some
“concerns” about all this? (We’re delivering our criticisms as
“concerns” these days.) Are we “on the same page”? We need
to be. And by the way, watch out for that word “need.” It’s
started to mean “should.”
You: “What’s the deadline for the Zimmerman report?”
Your boss: “You need to get that to me by Friday.”

It looks like a late night for you on Thursday. But you don’t
need to get some annoying report done by Friday. Your boss
just made her need into yours! It’s amazing how easily and how
unconsciously we adapt to language’s change and vitality.
So read on with confidence. Power Talk is the advanced
course for speakers looking for more control of their words
and their impact. Language’s sneaky habit of constant change
is already a part of your life; what lies before you has nothing
to do with diagramming sentences. In fact, the organized study
of the intersections of speech and social convention is more like
psychology or sociology than high school grammar. When we
dabble in sociolinguistics, when we raise to the level of consciousness
important judgments and strategies in our speech
exchanges, we sort out the influence of situation on speech.

And we observe how language contributes to that situation.
Knowing which words sound like power, both the direct power
of authority and the indirect power of influence, is more useful
than spelling skills or PowerPoint. Such knowledge lets you
showcase your ideas and take your performance public.
Of course, language doesn’t create reality. Excellent work—top
sales figures, long hours, innovative programs, new accounts—comes first.
But excellent work is uncovered in
conversations, broadcast in phone calls, hyped in meetings,
and shared through spoken communication. All day long, we
create power and credibility with our performance, with work
and words. Understanding how language shapes situation gives
you greater control of the situation. It provides a workbox of
useful tools and a way to think about language choices that can
change minds and increase options. An informed and thorough
knowledge of language, free from subjectivity and false ideas
about correctness or difference, can help you speak with wiser
intention, listen with greater insight, and judge others with
more equity. If you will cross-examine your own speech style,
the world you work in, and the situations you struggle with,
you can strengthen your own position and make good use of
your successes (and failures). Some of these successes and failures
will hinge on components of communication and some
won’t. But study of the sociology of speech will multiply your
communication options and give you access to power and influence
that might otherwise elude you. This knowledge is true power.

Herewith, then, a user’s guide to language. Predicated on the
belief that language is power and that knowledge of language
is a political tool, this book will take a skill you already have—speech—and
show you how to make the most of it. With an
understanding of the relationship between power and language,
you can accurately analyze speech situations, gain control
over the impression you create, convey the right message,
and accomplish your goals. This book will show you how to
use your knowledge of language to create power and influence.


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Product details
 File Size
 1,402 KB
 224 p
 File Type
 PDF format
 2001 by Sarah Myers McGinty, Ph.D

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