Poorly chosen words can nullify your efforts to influence others. To be sure, hen we influence, we are leading; and, as leaders, we invite more scrutiny than we do as followers. Sometimes, the glare of the spotlight may be so intense that we try to remove ourselves from it by using “weasel” words. These not only smack of dishonesty, but they usually evoke scorn.

By studying the writing styles of those leaders who wield tremendous influence via public declarations, we can learn what works and what doesn’t.

Examples of Non-Influential Statements

To paraphrase the inimitable Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot just by studying. Contained within the speaking/ writing styles of the great communicators are innumerable tips that, properly analyzed, will afford tremendous insight into successful styles. And, conversely, by studying the mistakes made by less-than-great communicators we can also learn what works and what does not.

Here are examples of the latter: non-influential statements, uttered by “leaders” in one sense of the word only. Don’t do what they’ve done.

Asked about the Holocaust, Dan Quayle replied, “It was an obscene period in our nation’s history.” A reporter intervened, asking if Quayle meant something other than “our nation’s.” Mr. Quayle grasped the opening, explaining that he had meant to say “in this century’s history.”

He then elucidated further: “We all lived in this century–I didn’t live in this century, in this century’s history. We did not have, as a matter of fact, we fought, Hitlerism. The Holocaust is a critical point in history that we should as a nation understand.”

Of course, when understanding of your essential point eludes your listening or reading audience, it is virtually impossible to influence them towards a course of action you’ve deemed worth pursuing. Other examples follow to show how incomprehension can negate leadership.

Secretary of State Alexander Haig was (correctly) quoted in his definition of diplomacy:

“The conduct of international affairs is essentially dialectic and you have a sine curve of attitudes. We felt there had to be some clearing of the air.”

“Things happen more frequently in the future,” Washington governor Booth Gardner declared, “than they do in the past.”

A Wall Street Journal article (Lee Berton, “The Simple Truth of It Is That He Was Channeling Immanuel Kant,” March 22, 1989, page 1) provides another illustration of the importance attached to using language that enlightens rather than language that leaves us in the dark.

Candido Mendes, a Brazilian political scientist, offered his views on global environmental problems, “The fiat of sustainability of [the report] asserts the necessary engineerings of totality built this first basic intertwining between development and environment in an at-random set of the inner dynamisms of those ecosystems, with no assessment of their self-closing, or disruption, or dependable reading of their effective interplay.” (Reprinted by permission of Wall Street Journal © 1989, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide)

In his defense, it is only fair to note that his remarks were not intended for a lay audience. So, when asked to “translate” for the non-scientific mind, Mendes gave this explanation, “It asks whether sustainability should be considered from an a priori or ad hoc approach.”

Inadvertent insensitivity also negates whatever good intentions you may have had. What’s worse, the more visible your position, the more likely you are to be publicly criticized for remarks that, on the surface at least, appear callous.

Gil Lewis, Speaker of the House for the Texas legislature, addressed a wheelchair-bound audience on Disability Day. He foolishly asked, “And now, will y’all stand and be recognized?”

Actress Joan Collins gave an interview that was not only politically incorrect but historically incorrect as well: “It’s like the Roman Empire. Wasn’t everybody running around just covered with syphilis? And then it was destroyed by the volcano?”

Francophiles, similarly, may easily take offense to the remarks of Prince Charles: “Life is not worth living unless you have a choice of all the gloriously unhygienic things which mankind–especially the French portion of it–has lovingly created.”

Of course, “weaseling” one’s way out of difficulty not only doesn’t work, it makes one’s sins seem even more egregious.

When former New York City mayor David Dinkins was asked by reporters about his failure to pay taxes, he unsuccessfully attempted to create his own definition: “I haven’t committed a crime. What I did was fail to comply with the law.”

John Hogan, the Commonwealth Edison employee responsible for “news information,” had to deal with charges by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that two operators at a nuclear plant were found sleeping on the job. His reply: “It depends on your definition of ‘asleep.’ They were stretched out. They had their eyes closed. They were seated at their desks with their heads in a nodding position.”

Our final category of non-exemplars centers on the danger of making too declarative a statement:

Admiral W. Leahy, in 1945, assured President Truman that “the atomic bomb will not go off. And I speak as an expert in explosives.”

President Grover Cleveland assured the nation in 1905 that “sensible women will never want to vote.”

Producer Irving Thalberg felt strongly that Clark Gable had no career in the movies: “You can’t put this man in a picture. Look at his ears–like a bat!”

Forty years ago, the head of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, declared, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

A Few Do’s To Counter The Don’t’s

Know what you are talking about. Some elementary school teacher, for example, should explain to our president the British geography.

Be clear. Long sentences lose readers and listeners.

Use simple vocabulary. As Winston Churchill advise, “Big [wo]men use little words.”

Save the tech-speak for technocrats. Gauge the comprehension level of your audience and avoid speaking about their knowledge-level.

Use non-offensive language. We live in a politically correct era. To fail to recognize the danger words is to fail.

Admit your error. Weasel words tend to compound the original error.

Be cautious when making predictions. At the very least, use a qualifying statement such as, “Of course, I could be wrong.”

A Maxwellian Reminder

Author John Maxwell maintains that leadership is influence. “That’s it,” he asserts. “Nothing more. Nothing less.” Even if you are not leading, you are influencing. And there are many ways to make your influence more powerfully felt.