Ten Cent Words

My grandfather was a pretty wise man and I was fortunate to spend a great deal of time with him. He owned a corner grocery store for four decades and for several years I would go with him to the produce market at 4:00am every Saturday morning. It was in those early hours of the day when I learned the most. 

 

Of the many things he taught me one still stands out above most others, perhaps it is because at the time I had no idea what he meant. He said that people who want to sound smart will use a ten cent word when a five cent word would be perfectly fine. He also said that people who actually are smart would never waste a ten cent word when a five cent word was enough. 

 

What I came to understand was that smart people don’t try to impress people with big words. They speak as plainly as they can. They also don’t use more words than are needed. 

 

For instance, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of history’s most famous and remembered speeches – the Gettysburg Address. It was 273 words. It took 2 minutes to deliver. The main address that day (the one Lincoln followed) was given by Edward Everett (known to be one of the greatest speakers of the time) and lasted 2 hours. His note to Lincoln after the event said…“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

 

Are you a Lincoln or an Everett?  Let me ask that another way; do you use 50 words when 25 would do? Are you using ten cent words when five cent words would convey the identical message?  

 

I once took a presentation class where I was assigned a topic to speak on. I was given 10 minutes for my presentation without much coaching. When I was done I was assigned to speak on the subject a second time. This time I was only allowed 8 minutes and instructed that I could not leave out any of the key points I made in the first presentation. 

 

When I finished the second presentation I was told to make the presentation yet again, with the same key points but to complete it in six minutes. This went on for a few more rounds until I was given just two minutes to make the same presentation with the same key points. 

 

The coaching at this point was rather intense but I managed to pull it off. The point of the exercise was very clear… most of the words I had used in my first presentation added nothing of consequence to the presentation. They may have made me sound smarter (well, maybe) but they did nothing to assist my listeners in understanding my message. In fact, the fewer words I used the easier it was for my audience to understand. 

 

So I ask again, are you a Lincoln or an Everett? It’s takes a lot of practice to make your point while using fewer words, I struggle with that often. (Just ask my wife, kids, dogs, or anyone around me a lot) 


The next time you’re preparing a presentation or even just engaged in a conversation with a friend, consider the simplicity of a five cent word. You can save the ten cent words for when you’re trying to impress yourself. 

Effective Communication Begins with You

I will occasionally have someone ask me about what to do with a person who won’t listen. My answer is always some variation of “I don’t know, I’ve never met someone who wouldn’t listen.” 

 

Their reaction is most often a combination of surprise, disappointment and frustration. They don’t believe I don’t know people who won’t listen. They are disappointed I can’t help and they are frustrated because they think I’m playing games with them.

 

But the truth is I have never met anyone who wouldn’t listen. I have however met some people who I couldn’t motivate to listen. Their failure to listen is on me, not them. I didn’t say anything worth listening to, at least from their point of view. 

 

You may not be willing to accept responsibility for the other person’s desire to listen and that’s fine…so long as you do not consider yourself to be a leader. But if you think of yourself as a leader then you must lead. That includes engaging people in conversation that they find meaningful. So meaningful that it motivates them to listen. 

 

To motivate others to listen you must first stop talking. Put yourself in their position and think about what is important to them. When you do talk make sure you talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Give them a reason to listen. Find a way to make your point while showing them that there is something for them in your point as well. 

 

Yes, that takes effort, and thought, but I’ll tell you without a doubt that talking without thinking is not real communication. It is certainty not effective communication. 

 

Look at the person you’re speaking with. Notice I didn’t say speaking to…I said speaking with. Great communicators don’t talk at or to people. They speak with them. Ditch your phone, notepad, tablet or whatever else may distract you from truly listening to them. That’s vital because the moment they sense a lack of listening on your part is about the same moment they no longer feel compelled to listen to you. 

 

On a side note, some of you will say taking notes is how you “listen.” There are times when taking notes is necessary but those are few and far between. Few people are exceptional at listening while taking notes. You miss what’s being said while you’re writing down what was said earlier. Make some quick notes after the conversation if need be but don’t kid yourself into believing you’re not missing something while you’re writing.

 

Don’t interrupt someone if you want them to listen to you. Interrupting someone mid-sentence is a sure sign that you’re not really listening. Most people, and yes I mean most, most people listen in order to respond and not to understand what is being said. If you’re interrupting people you’re likely in that “most” group. 

 

Linger on the words of the person speaking until you‘re sure what was said and meant. Only then should you begin speaking again.

 

Have you noticed yet that this post on being a better communicator has a strong focus on listening. Don’t make the incredibly common mistake of thinking communicating is only about talking. If you’re not listening intently to what the other person is saying then you may be in a two-sided monologue but you’re not in a conversation. 

 

The best communicators I know listen far more than they talk. You really get the feeling that when they do talk you had better be paying attention because you don’t want to miss it. 

 

I personally feel comfortable telling someone I’m a good speaker. I can’t honestly always rate myself that well when I take out the word speaker and replace it with communicator. But the fact that I know the difference between speaking and communicating at least gives me a chance to improve. 


As always I remain a work in progress. How about you?

Can a Leader Over Communicate?

A few weeks back the local newspaper in Minneapolis published a story on the best companies to work for in Minnesota. There were big companies, medium size and very small companies listed. 

 

They were from a variety of industries with many of the companies having a very diverse workforce, even the smaller ones. Some had leaders who had been at the helm a long time while others had newer leadership. There were many differences in the various organizations. 

 

But there was one thing that all, that’s all, as in every, organization seemed to have in common. When employees of organizations on the list were interviewed they all spoke of the importance of communication. 

 

A good work environment is dependent upon many factors. None are more important than open, consistent, and honest communication. 

 

“Work” is a vital part of most people’s lives. They spend, or hopefully, invest, a large percentage of their waking hours there. People have this space within them that holds the information they deem vital for their lives. Since work is vital they must have as much information as possible about where they work. They need to know how the organization is doing, if it’s stable, if it’s growing and what the future holds. If that information isn’t supplied for them then they fill the gap themselves, often with rumor.

 

Information is the enemy of rumor. If you don’t like rumors running around your organization then the fastest way to smother them is with accurate information.

 

I’ve known many people in leadership positions who believed and still believe that information is power. They believe that knowing something that their people don’t makes them more important. Some believe it makes them smarter and more indispensable. Others believe that “secrets” must be kept because it’s “best” to keep employees guessing. I knew a senior leader years ago who literally told me a key part of his job was to keep his people guessing about what he wanted from them. That’s crazy!

 

There is little information that must be kept secret. Yes, there are some legalities involved, especially for publicly held companies. But overall there is a lot more information withheld from an organization’s people than needs to be. 

 

Leaders should never withhold information from their people only for the sake of withholding it. Most leaders are very good about not being careless with information that must be protected. Most leaders are also very very careless about sharing information that their people need to know. They mindlessly forget how important the organization is to their people. Sometimes they simply lack the empathy needed to understand the importance of communication.

 

There have never been more avenues of communication available for leaders of organizations than there are today. Depending on the size of your organization you can email a brief weekly newsletter to your team or post a weekly blog on your company intranet. You can develop your own social media site for your organization. You can create a podcast for senior leaders to update people on what’s happening with the business. 

 

The key is consistent, regular and frequent, very frequent, communication. The younger your employees the more they crave that communication. Once a year or even once a quarter does not get it done anymore. 

 

There is no excuse for not communicating with your people. Unless of course you’re simply too busy. If that’s the case and you’re too busy to connect with your people then you need to realize that your also too busy to lead.


The answer to the question that makes up the title of this post NO, a leader cannot, absolutely cannot, over communicate.

How to Win an Argument

Dale Carnegie said that the only way to get the best of an argument was to avoid it. He was a very smart man. I suppose the title of this post is a little misleading because the fact is you really can’t win an argument. 

 

You may be able to use your words to beat someone into submission, you may be able to force someone to comply with your wishes and you may be able to make someone feel stupid and defeated. But you didn’t actually “win” anything. 

 

Arguing with someone to prove your point simply proves you lacked the communication skills to help someone else see things your way…willingly.

 

There will always be disagreements in relationships, whether business or personal, because when more one than one person is involved you’ll at least occasionally have two opinions. Most disagreements are easily resolved. But occasionally relationships can be “fixed” only through serious and conscientious effort to find some kind of agreement.

     

These kinds of discussions are more likely to be successful if conducted in a non-adversarial environment. It’s more productive to think of the disagreements as a difference that can be balanced or accommodated. It should never be seen as a battle you have to win. 

 

A mindset of “must win” does nothing but ensure that someone most likely loses. If you care about the other person even a little then you should realize that when they lose, you lose too. 


Even people with differing viewpoints should be able to find solutions that work for everyone…providing that you truly want to try.

 

Here’s a few ideas for lessening the chance that a disagreement turns argumentative:

       

Listen carefully to what the other person is saying. When I say listen I mean really really listen. If the first word out of your mouth when the other person stops talking is “but” then I just just about guarantee that you were listening to respond instead of listening to understand. If you don’t understand what they said or meant then ask… nicely. “What the hell is that supposed to mean” is an escalation phrase and I’m hoping escalation isn’t your goal.

 

Explain your views clearly, you don’t like guessing what the other person is thinking so don’t make them guess either. Finding common ground isn’t a race so slow down, choose your words carefully, once said they can be forgiven but it’s really really hard for someone to forget them.

 

Stay on topic. Don’t introduce new differences and most certainly don’t try to rehash old ones. When you’re tempted to fight fire with fire it would serve you well to remember that firefighters most often don’t use fire to put out another fire.

 

Cheap shots are just that, cheap. If you value the relationship then perhaps you should not use something cheap when trying to save something valuable from permanent damage.

 

Don’t embarrass yourself by suggesting that the other person is unable to see the big picture or incapable of thinking through the situation. If you think you’re talking to an idiot then perhaps you should just stop talking because the other person may feel the same way and if the discussion gets too far off track it’s possible you could both be right.

 

If your differences just seem impossible to reconcile (I’m nearly certain they are not) consider seeking help from an impartial person. A coach, mentor, valued friend, Pastor or a trusted family member are the most likely possibilities.

 

When a discussion escalates into an argument then everybody loses something. Don’t lose by arguing and never fool yourself into thinking that you’ve won. 


The next time you’re tempted to argue consider giving the other person a piece of your heart instead of a piece of your mind. You will both be better off in the end, that much I can assure you.

Communicate for Success

Words are the basis for all successful communication. There are certainly nonverbal factors that come into play but your choice of words has a huge impact on how your message is heard.

 

How effectively a person communicates is a key determinant in their level of success. 

 

Poor speaking or writing skills can distort your image as a capable, knowledgeable professional. When you hem and haw, trying to find the right word you can give the impression that you lack confidence….or worse.

 

There is a temptation to over compensate by using a 25 cent word when a 5 cent word will do. I could use an obfuscated, byzantine and problematical word here but instead I’ll just say it’s best to use descriptive, simple words in short sentences when communicating. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking or writing, clear and concise is always better. 

 

If someone needs to look up a word to figure out what you’re saying then you have likely missed the mark. 

 

You’ll seldom impress someone with your communication skills by using big words they don’t understand, you’ll impress them by being understood. 

 

Another killer of successful communication is waffle words. 

 

Certain expressions, phrases and word choices can rob people of their opportunity to communicate effectively. These words and phrases can turn an otherwise crisp, powerful message into soggy ineffective mush.

 

“I guess”, “I hope”, “I think”, “Maybe”, “Sort of”, “Kind of” and “Probably” are just a few examples of commonly heard waffle words. The more they sneak into your presentation or document the weaker your message becomes.

 

Waffle words easily become habit forming. We start using them without thinking of the impact, or lack of impact on the message we’re trying to convey. Instead of saying things out of habit, try to be more aware of what you say and create new, more effective habits when you speak or write.

 

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” 


Make sure your habits are good ones!