How Your Choice of Words Really Matters

The best words you use to express your recognition verbally or by text and writing will add greater meaning to your intended message.

David Hauser, an associate professor at Queen’s University, advises from his research on the semantic effect of word choice to “Simply be aware of the words that you use, because people will make inferences that might not match your intended meaning.”

He further highlights that, “It’s a matter of word choice. You might be better off finding the right word by looking at how most people speak rather than looking in a dictionary or thesaurus.”

I am not suggesting that you get all fancy with how you express recognition. But what is important is to realize that how you recognize people with your word choice can become even better than they are now.

How Choice of Words Affects People

Here’s a thought about stepping out of your comfort zone and also learning to remember personal details.

Lillian Lee, a professor at Cornell University, found in her research of natural language processing and social interaction that “on average, memorable quotes significantly contain more surprising combination of words.… When things are unusual, people remember them.” 

I recall sending an ecard for a particular employee’s career milestone recognition. Besides congratulating them, I also hoped that she would celebrate her day with her cute little dog. It was probably the only recognition message that said anything about her dog, who means the world to her. My ecard got an immediate acknowledgement, a chuckle I am sure, and a comment back about her dog. The choice of words generated an online conversation. 

No need to make your expressions or sentences long and complicated. Use a simple and natural spoken speech structure. Doing this makes your comments more memorable. When people can remember your recognition message because it is quotable, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Choose Your Pronouns Carefully 

I learned this aspect of being clear and specific with the right pronouns when I worked in rehab as a Speech-Language Pathologist. 

My feedback as a clinician to patients performing well was initially “You” pronoun statements like, “You did really well with solving that problem.” Then I did some research. I found that if a person’s self-esteem was low because of their injury, they didn’t believe in themselves. The negative self-talk they played in their heads washed away the “you” statements I said.

In contrast, they believed “I” statements with feedback given because patients trusted you as the professional. So, they valued “I think you did really well with solving that problem” more and these statements actually elevated future performance.

Sarah Moore, a professor in business and marketing at the University of Alberta, used text analysis to find ways for companies to deliver better customer service. She tested out the use of the pronouns “I,” “we,” and “you” in communication messages to customers.

She found that only 40 percent of customer service representatives use “I” when corresponding to a customer inquiry or complaint. However, when probed further, Moore found customers would be happier and more satisfied if customer service representatives used the “I” pronoun.

By using the “I” pronoun more often, the customer felt like the agent was acting on their behalf. The customer service representative is more likely to empathize with the customer and will take responsibility for solving the customer’s problem. 

All that from using the right pronoun.

Too often customer service representatives write and speak from the perspective of “we” as the company, or telling the customer using “you” what they can do to fix the problem. Not exactly the feelings you want to leave a customer with.

Work Hard To Use Positive Vocabulary 

One reason I find the study of words and recognition so interesting is because I was tired of hearing the words, “good job!” all the time. What does it really mean?

First off, what do people mean by job? We even use the same line with children, and they do not know what the adult means. Second, we say something is good. But isn’t good a given and expected, anyway?

Here’s some harsh reality numbers for you. Research shows that 50 percent of our working vocabulary is negative and only 30 percent is positive. Yes, and the remaining 20 percent is actually neutral.

On the connotative meaning spectrum, a word like “amazing” is considered being positive. That would make the word “awful” definitely a negative word. And rounding things off the use of the word “good” is a neutral word.

So, saying “good job” is a meaningless expression that has no real value of recognition and doesn’t even tell the person what they did right. 

Which leads to my last point on choosing your words carefully. 

Let’s Get Real Specific 

Work on making your recognition super clear and specific. Leave no doubt in the recognition recipient’s mind that you know exactly what it was they did and that what they did made a difference.

Those of you who have been with me for a while know I coined the term Two-Part Specificity Rule™. This rule is a simple set of principles for giving meaningful and effective recognition.

The first part of being specific is to choose words that communicate the positive action, behavior, or results achieved by the person. Describe or tell the person specifically the Action they did that stood out for you. Get rid of the “good job” statements which mean nothing. What was it that the individual did that got you excited?

The second part of being specific is to choose words that get right to the heart of the Impact their action has on others. What did they do that made a difference to someone else? Tell the person the change they made in things and why their positive action matters. Share the names of people their action affected. 

Put these two ideas together and you will have amazing expressions of recognition. Chose the right pronouns to use along with a smattering of positive words and your recognition becomes magical.

Speak like a regular person. Just speak from the heart and your recognition will select the right words for you. 

Recognition Reflection: Where could you improve your word choices to give better recognition expressions?

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