In the mockumentary Best in Show, Sherri Ann Cabot (played by the incomparable Jennifer Coolidge), sitting beside her addled, wizened husband, 40 years her senior, relates what they have in common: soup, snow peas … and also, she coos after pausing, “talking and not talking.” In fact, she adds, they could “not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.”
This could be us too. We love communicating, and we use words every day, all day, in so many media and contexts. For you, the C-suite executive, co-founder, team builder and manager, that should mean talking and not talking thoughtfully, and of course, to do so expertly, you should be reading a few new insightful books.
For his book Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way, Wharton Professor Jonah Berger parsed thousands of movie scripts, academic papers and online reviews to identify how language powers influence and creates impact. Readers will appreciate Berger’s actionable “six magic word” framework for (i) activating agency, (ii) conveying confidence, (iii) questioning carefully, (iv) leveraging concreteness, (v) employing emotion, and (vi) framing similarity and difference. This is great stuff. Berger seamlessly covers the intricacies of can’ts vs. don’ts, hedging words that detract, and how to use emotion to connect to people you don’t really know. Among his essential advice: Be an active reader, ditch the “ums” and “uhs,” and for their own sake, stop telling your kids they’re smart.
However, before you employ your enhanced word skills, know that leaders who talk less achieve more. So says Dan Lyons, bestselling author and writer for the hit show Silicon Valley, in his fun and entertaining new book: STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut In An Endlessly Noisy World. We’re all overtalkers, Lyons explains, and in our eagerness to share everything, in real time, all the time, we fail in negotiations, meetings and, often, in relationships, both business and personal. Lyons argues that we need to work much harder and even more intentionally at deep and active listening, and he shows how it can be done in a variety of situations, simple and complex, at home and at work. If we can become more like Tim Cook, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Albert Einstein and master the art of shutting up, we’ll be better off in body, mind and spirit.
Journalist and MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan would agree with this, and in his useful new guidebook, Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking, he advises leaders to start with quiet, deep and thorough preparation. Armed with demonstrable facts, you can then listen critically, absorbing and processing, and also listen empathetically, connecting with the speaker and trying to see the world through their eyes. Hasan is a great storyteller and he uses compelling examples from historical debates to emphasize these techniques. I loved his chapter on “Gish Gallopers,” those all-too-familiar commentators, politicians and debaters who try to bury adversaries, including lazy reporters, in a torrent of incorrect, irrelevant and idiotic arguments, so much so that time and media debate formats don’t allow for adequate responses. Arguments large and small are a part of everyday life. As Hasan would explain with his Rule of Three, using them to inspire, inform and persuade takes practice, learning and time.
Just starting an argument can mean saving lives. Saket Soni, labor organizer and activist, gave an urgent speech in Hindi to an assembled group of migrant workers trapped in a squalid “man camp.” The crowd was silent and grumbling. To make his point, he had to start all over again, this time in English. His huddled, desperate audience, men from Tamil Nadu and Kerala who barely knew Hindi or English, had scraped together $20,000 each for the chance to live in the US and work on hurricane-damaged oil rigs in Mississippi in 2006.
Soni’s new book, The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America, is a riveting page-turner and one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. Soni’s rhetoric and perseverance and the worker’s endurance and determination reveal an unforgettable and infuriating story of forced labor in modern America. Well-chosen words, especially from courageous people at just the right time, can have powerful consequences.
In the end, we use around 16,000 words a day, according to estimates cited in Magic Words. As leaders, parents and friends, when we choose and position them carefully, we can make more of them count. And that’s certainly something you should talk or not talk about after reading these incredibly worthwhile books.
Read in the Boston Business Journal
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.