The value of meaningful words

2009

The task set for the five contenders in the semi-final of the most recent UK series of The Apprentice, was to take part in one to one interviews with four highly experienced and successful business leaders.

This opportunity to elaborate on the achievements highlighted in their CVs should have sent the contestants away feeling confident and delighted. Instead - surprisingly - each one was clearly discomforted by this challenge and each, without exception, when asked to expand on information they themselves had chosen to set down on paper was seen to flinch, gasp for breath and frequently be at a loss for words.

A defensive attitude was noticeable in all the interview clips but watching the only man left in the contest persist in defending his statement that the best asset he had to bring to the table was "ignorance," left viewers and his interlocutor completely nonplussed.

Had this been a statement by a sixteen year old applying for an apprenticeship, it might have been reasonable to assume that he meant that the best asset he had was his willingness to learn and for his interviewer to have suggested a better word to define that meaning.

But the person in front of us was a thirty one year old man pitching to win an extremely competitive management position. His use of the word "ignorance" in that context, made no sense at all. The fact that he would also not accept that the use of scatological language on a CV was totally unacceptable only compounded his problems.

Lewd words may pack a useful punch in quick fire conversation, but when set down on a page they inevitably become cancerous, pervading the host sentence so vigorously that they blot out meaning.

Even though, nowadays, the technological wonder of E-mails and texts means that delivering directives to employees or conciliatory messages to customers happens in an instant - finding the words that will best effect those ideas and sell those products still requires the same amount of time and thoughtful effort as when scribes battled with inkblots and inscriptions were delivered on horse back.

All healthy organisations have an ongoing narrative that is crucial to their prosperity. Any novitiate who chooses words likely to sully the style and disrupt the plot is unlikely to be retained for long.

English is at once the most explicit and the most extemporary of all languages. Its glory is that there is always a word that holds the exact meaning required. The ablest entrepreneurs and finest political leaders know this and spend vast amounts of time and effort and oceans of money searching for those right words. As I write, many less-than-able politicians in the UK are being made as painfully aware as was the last male candidate to be fired by Alan Sugar, how damaging to a career the wrong choice of words can be.

Where, oh where are we going to find managers and politicians who understand the value of saying what they mean and who are prepared to find the thread of meaningful words that will lead us out of the maze of lax-language that currently has us all hedged in?

Come to think of it, a search for the best candidates to accomplish that task would make for really great Reality TV! Any takers?

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.