I've known Victoria Gless since first grade. We were in school together, and on the swim team together, and worked in communications together at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I asked her to pen this guest post because I like the way she thinks about words, and I think you will, too.
Sawzall, iPad, Immersible Blender, and...Words?
Words are even more fun to play with than…well, pick your weakness: tools, toys, kitchen gadgets? And there are so many words! Inexpensive. No shipping charges either. Change your thinking, and you change your words, but the flip side is equally powerful. Change your words, and change your thinking. [More tips on word choice]
One of the best ways to get people to change their perspectives, if only for a little while, is to get them to play with words. I see this effect constantly and sometimes dramatically with coaching and consulting clients. Often we’re engaging questions of identity and trying to answer BIG questions like, “What am I? What’s my purpose?” These clients have typically been thinking hard and reading a lot about the subject for years. They’ve been hard at work.
They need to do more thinking, but in new ways. So, we set about answering the “What am I?” question a little differently, with word play. As a first step, I ask them to stay away from phrases (like reality show host or trapeze artist) and answer the question with adjectives. Give it a try. From your perspective, what are you?
Examples might include things like: patient, hungry, energetic, creative, squirmy, compassionate, effervescent, introverted, playful, caring, tough, intelligent or fiendish. (Someone actually submitted that one once!)
A couple of people close to me say I’m like a Yorkshire terrier. That sounds effervescent to me, so let’s go with it. I am effervescent.
Then, for another snapshot look at what you are, complete the following sentence by filling in blank #1 with a verb that’s your favorite thing to do and blank #2 with a noun that’s a favorite thing:
I ( __#1__ ) with ( __#2__ ).
The first time I did it, the sentence read, “I dance with words.” We’re getting somewhere now. I am effervescent, and I dance with words.
If we build on the words we used to fill in blanks #1 and #2, we can find out even more about ourselves. Don’t be too restrictive. Free association will get to the synonyms and subsets you want. List words loosely related to your blank #1 verb.
Thinking about “dance” in the context of my work and life yielded: frolic, move, play, tango, manipulate, empathize, figure, style and puzzle.
Do the same for your blank #2 noun. My list of loose affiliates for “words” included: reports, stories, looks, meanings, signs, symbols, sounds, feelings and style.
Play around with them by merging them randomly into our original sentence, keeping the verbs in blank #1 and the nouns in blank #2. I chose “frolic” and “style”. Do I frolic with style? Why not? I wouldn’t have thought of it that way before. It is, however, a new kind of accurate, and that’s just what we’re after.
One thing we learn for sure from this exercise is that the ways we describe what we do and who we are matter to how we think about those things. As we’re looking for clarification, we often try to limit language when opening up our access to it is the most effective way to get to what we need. At the very least, there are many ways to describe what we do no matter how routine it all seems to us.
For even more fun, try converting your earlier adjective list to adverbs that modify your sentence. “I dance with words + effervescently,” for instance. Converting that to an identity statement by putting “I am” in front of it leads me to, “I am an effervescent word dancer”. It’s nothing if not unique. Try them all out. Who knows what insights you’ll have.
Another mind-opening and altering thing to do with words is play with sound. Take any old phrase that makes you cringe and see what you can do to fix it. Stream of consciousness is the method here. For example, walking around in the world today, I saw lots of faces that made me think of, “quiet desperation” (thank you, Mr. Thoreau). That simply had to be erased from my consciousness. Here’s how I did, and what you can do in similar circumstances:
Write down the main words in separate columns, one for each word.
Then make a vertical list of antonym-ish words for each one to get at alternatives. I did “quiet” first. Afterward, I jotted a list under “desperation”. The columns ended up side by side and read like a small composition. Try reading them out loud. These are my two lists:
raucous - aspiration
resonant - inspiration
flagrant - perspiration
rowdy - signification
noisy - manifestation
honorable - prestidigitation
undeterred - regeneration
audible - calm
You end up with something akin to a poem, and you’ve eradicated “quiet desperation” from your brain. My grandmother collected malapropisms and had a friend who’d praise a thing for changing her, “whole altitude.” Such is the playful power of words, and not bad for five minutes!
As fun as they are, how can words be so forceful? We’ll be talking about that forever. At the same time, we’ll keep using them with wild abandon and make up a few new ones. Change your words, change your thinking, and change your world. And just for the heck of it, pay a little more attention to the fun you can have along the way.
Victoria Gless has more than 25 years experience in C-level communications and leadership coaching. She runs her own coaching firm serving a wide range of individual and organizational clients. Victoria thrives on helping individuals in transition–from students to executives– clarify their values and plan accordingly. She has also been working with Restoration Hardware recently on re-branding, values and communications strategies surrounding its vastly successful initial public offering. Victoria believes that whether it’s through talk, text, fashion, song, dance or any other language, we create our shared world through communication. It is that powerful and should command unreserved respect. What we put into communication, we will get out of it. She hastens to add that, if you’ve stopped having fun, you’re missing the point. Contact Victoria at email@example.com.
Our swim team photo: