Words as Hints

To communicate better, train your mind to thinking by creating definitions of the words you use.

Mike Tyson has said,

“everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

No one could put it better, but let’s extend the thought:

“everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face… at which point their thinking is paralyzed by non-strategic fight-or-flight responses. These can only be overcome by a response that is equally deep-seated and instinctive”.

In other words, you need more than the panic plan baked into your genes. You need a strategic plan that you learn through practice, training, preparation, etc. Some call this muscle memories. Though for our purposes, we’re talking about muscle memories that mostly happen above the neck.

In consulting, you most need these instincts when you negotiate a contract. Because it’s when money is on the line that you get (metaphorically speaking) punched in the face.

This is why some sales training programs have participants workshop the negotiation and sales process over and over again. Wax on, wax off, except while communicating complex ideas. Hundreds of scenarios and responses are practiced.

Another approach to creating intellectual muscle memories is to define in published writing the terms you use during such conservations.

That way, when someone asks you, “well, what do you mean by ______?”, you already have an answer to fall back on. An answer based in a definition that has been exposed already to the public. Maybe you’ll use it, or part of it, or maybe you won’t. But you have a baseline definition, that you wrote, to fall back on should your off-the-cuff analogy or explanation fail to hit the mark.

This is the way we do ______ at this business. This is the way we define _____ at this business.

And this serves you not just in initial communications, but through the lifetime of a consulting engagement or anywhere else you might be conversing.

What if you took it a step further, though, and presented your meanings as definitive definitions? In other words, as dictionary definitions. 

After all, what is a definition but a helpful, contextual hint at the meaning of a word. As the linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky has said,

“What we call definitions are not definitions … they’re just hints that a person who already knows the concept can use to understand what’s really going on”

So when you tell someone what Human Resources really means in 2021, or what DevOps actually means now in the cloud-era, or what digital NFT art is, you’re not necessarily redefining those terms. You’re simply adding a layer of meaning – a  hint – as to what they mean.

Your conversation partners will admire and take comfort in your certainty – and sometimes they need a new hint to understand what you’re talking about.

Very best
Rowan