Be a good student of language

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein

Our very intelligence is described, defined, and even limited by language. The well-spoken individual is often perceived as being more intelligent, and various studies over the years have shown that poor language skills are often coincident with poor and criminal behavior. That having been said, we ought to consider why this is so. An inability to communicate well limits not only our ability to make our intentions, desires and plans known and understood, but it can usually also result in a lessened ability to interpret and understand other people, places, things, and events around us. If we lack understanding, it is inevitable that a shortcoming in understanding will affect our judgment. Not surprisingly, people with poor language and communication skills also often have poor judgment. Thus, both for our ability to communicate well, and for the continuing improvement of our judgment, it is imperative that we become better students of language.

To some, this usually means having a good vocabulary, but if we are serious in our pursuit of success in business and in everyday life, we must not only have a good vocabulary, but we must also acquire the right vocabulary, and be masterful in its use. Indeed, I am convinced that to some degree it is even necessary to have more than one vocabulary.

In every occupation, there is a vocabulary particular to the industry, even beyond technical jargon. Whatever your profession may be, it is important not only to study the way people in your industry speak and write, but study the top leaders in your industry closely. Then take it a step further and study great communicators throughout history. Study both childhood and adult learning methodology, even if you don’t work in a training capacity, because a better understanding of how people learn will help you to find better ways to go from mere explanation to communication which illuminates and inspires.

Part of what you will derive from such a study is how to increase the clarity of your communication. Speaking is actually one of the least effective means to communicate, since individuals can easily misunderstand what you’re saying, so being as clear as possible is vital. Mark Twain once commented that a good writer will use the right word and not its second cousin. I’ve known a lot of otherwise good communicators who got stuck on the idea of using words they thought sounded ‘smarter’ because they were big words. The danger of doing so, of course, is that your audience may not know the ‘fancy’ word, resulting in confusion. It also includes the very likely possibility of using words which might be included as synonyms in a thesaurus, but which actually have slightly different meanings, or that your audience will see through our attempt to seem clever and think us to be arrogant, insecure, or just plain silly. None of those perceptions is helpful to you, or to your audience or prospects.

This being said, another great way to improve your language skills is to study great writers. While reading works within your industry is necessary, all of this reading need not be academic. One result of reading extensively will be that you will probably read a bit faster than most people, so this habit will also make your pursuit of better language skills less time-consuming as well. A good way to develop a strong reading habit is to set aside 15-20 minutes a day to simply read. This may not seem like much, but in time you can easily read two books per month. In ten years, this amounts to 240 books. If you’re a fast reader, this number can double or triple.

For your writing, whether you write novels, or just the occasional email or letter, one of the best purchases you can make is to pick up a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of StyleThere are many similar works on the market, but over the last twenty years or so, I’ve found this one the most useful, but read as many as you want. You don’t need to be the next Tolstoy, but over the years I’ve encountered many people who missed out on great opportunities simply because of poor written communication.

Another great way to improve your communication skills is to practice the art of watchful silence. One of the biggest causes of professional failures and missteps is our human tendency to listen only closely enough to figure out what we want to say next. This is a dreadful habit which will tell on you quickly if you’re among discerning individuals. If you’re around senior leadership of a well-run organization, it will definitely expose you as being self-absorbed and inconsiderate, even if that isn’t really your character or intention. Don’t just learn to actively listen; make a habit of observing details around you. I came upon this habit in my efforts as an artist and writer, so I’ll share a simple exercise with you.

I’d pick a public place, like a local shopping mall, and pick a seat near one of the larger stores. I’d sit there with my sketchbook and just watch people. I’d note their appearance, mannerisms, how many of them walked past me, and listen to the sounds they made as they went by. In time, it became easier to notice more detail with less effort. A lot of times my quick sketches were litte more than stick figures which captured their general pose or movement, but as time went by, this led to my artwork getting better. However, something else happened, as well. I started to notice subtle changes in facial expressions, posture and body language, and mood.

As you study language, whether written, spoken, or physical, will become a better reader of people, and you will be better equipped to provide the solutions that are needed, because you understand the needs and can address them more clearly. In short, you go from looking for an chance to persuade someone to your objectives to becoming an opportunity.