007 How to Use Words That Influence

Exactly when humans first voiced repetitive sounds that evolved into words is a controversial topic.

But one thing we can know for sure is that words and language developed side-by-side with hierarchical social structure.  Some individuals began to give orders, and others began to follow.

And with that, the concept of influence was born!

Today all of us still live within such a hierarchical social structure, and how we use words is a critical indicator of the position we hold within that structure.   As a result, our ability to effectively influence others with our thoughts, ideas, and will is a measure of the success we can expect to achieve in life!

In today’s blog post we’re going to explore the verbal skill of language that can help to identify you as a person of influence.

Scientists speculate that verbalizations recognizable as human speech began as early as 200,000 years ago (give or take a few millennia).  A single “proto-language” from which over 6,000 variations have evolved!

Certainly by the Neolithic era (8,000-2,000 BC) when plants and animals were being domesticated, social order was expanding beyond just the following of a family group or tribal leader.  Planning, making decisions, and giving commands to others necessitated a sophistication of social structure that still exists today!

We all know individuals who command more respect than others.  These we look to as leaders.  The most effective leaders have developed many abilities, not the least of which is language and communication skills.


The Story of Human Language


 The mastery of communication is within everyone’s reach if only we can understand the rules.


One way to begin is by examining the impact that our word choice, inflection, and voice (active vs. passive) have on others.  While these three characteristics are taught in every introductory English course, the powerful nuance of meanings conveyed is often overlooked in the interest of focusing on conventional grammar.

The following is an examination of some subtle nuances of these three language techniques vis-à-vis our ability to effectively influence others.


1.   What WORD CHOICE says about us…

Imagine any business or social setting (perhaps meeting a new client).  Then imagine beginning a conversation with derisive comments, foul language, or other forms of what would universally be regarded as inappropriate communication.  Chances are, any potential relationship with that person would be nonexistent, since all they want to do is leave!

While you have influenced that person, that influence was entirely negative!

Such extremes aside, everyone has heard the saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that counts!”

Our role as effective communicators is to cultivate the ability to immediately assess a variety of different people and different situations requiring verbal interaction. And then to choose words that will be most effective in that interaction.

Or, as Kipling put it, the immense value of being able to communicate equally with both common people and kings!

"If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, 
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch, 

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, 
And - which is more - you'll be a man, my son!" 

Rudyard Kipling from his famous poem… If  


Whether we realize it or not, the words we choose in any given situation are constantly broadcasting to others the quality of person we are.  Does it not make sense then to select those that promote us in the best light?

Words have nuances of meaning that often consciously go unconsidered.  Think of common examples from daily life where words are specifically chosen for their effects upon the public.

Airline attendants speak of a “flotation device” instead of a “life-vest” to lessen the negative connotation of crashing a plane at sea.  Animal shelters speak of “euthanizing” rather than annual “kill rates” since the public is shamed when thinking they might be held responsible for these animals being killed.

Notice also that “life”, “vest”, and “kill”, are all four-letter words.  And four-letter words in English often have negative or derogatory meanings.

Although such word choice may in some instances constitute purposeful manipulation, nonetheless, it does serve to convey a message in a more palatable – and thus influential – way.

Below are some proven words and phrases you might consider substituting in daily speech to enhance a more favorable influence on others.

word choice table

Again, remember,


2.   What INFLECTION says about meaning…

Not being a linguist, I cannot say much about inflection within other languages.   However, in English it’s possible to alter the meaning of the thoughts we communicate simply by modulating our voice!

Below is the same sentence written six times.  Notice that merely by using our voice to emphasize the word in Bold/Italics, we produce six completely different meanings!

Prove this to yourself by speaking these sentences aloud, emphasizing the Bold/Italicized word.

I didn’t know he stole the car.

I didn’t know he stole the car.

I didn’t know he stole the car.

I didn’t know he stole the car.

I didn’t know he stole the car.

I didn’t know he stole the car.

Inflection and tonal manipulation can be both a subtle and a powerful method of communicating.

Think also of how this technique can be used in sarcasm and witticisms.


3.   What VOICE says about self-confidence…

In the English language we have the choice of two common “voice” structures for our sentences.  These are termed Active and Passive. In short, the Active voice focuses attention on the person or “doer”, whereas the Passive voice focuses on whatever is “being done to.”

In addition, the two most commonly used sentence types in English are Declarative (statements) and Interrogative (questions).

English 101b
Most of us speak naturally in the Active voice using Declarative statements.  Declarative statements convey facts or information about which we feel certain.  Thus, it is often an unconscious measure of the speaker’s self-confidence. Conversely, an unsure person tends to use fewer Declarative statements.

Declarative statements are readily recognized as they begin on a higher tonal pitch and end on a lower tonal pitch.  All of us have come to subliminally accept this characteristic as speaking with authority.

In contrast, a rising tonal pitch at the end of a sentence is characteristic of Interrogative or questioning statements.  And Questions are used to seek information, not to give it. Consequently, any rising tonal pitch at the end of a sentence (whether done purposefully or not) will be subliminally received as the speaker being unsure… as in seeking further information.  If done often enough within the conversation, the image is portrayed of a speaker who lacks self-confidence!

Now, that’s not to say that Questions or Passive voice in conversations should be avoided.  These different formats when used judiciously add variety and interest to conversations. Questions also invite response from the listener(s).

And remember also that, in the interest of adding still further layers of nuance to our communication, Passive sentences can still be Declarative!  However, their authority is somewhat less than that of Active Declarative statements.


         We took the shipments to the warehouse and ensured their availability by placing them onto shelves.


         The shipments were taken to the warehouse where they were made available on shelves.


A Final Word…

Communication between any two individuals is a complex and tangled web comprised of multiple verbalizations and physical actions.

When two people talk, they speak back and forth, constantly using principles of word choice, inflection and voice to accomplish one singular goal – to influence each other to some belief or action.

Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal book, The Tipping Point writes, “They listen.  They interrupt.  They move their hands.  People also cross their legs, lean forward, squint their eyes, and have a thousand more subtle ways of communicating with each other through what can only be described as an elaborate and precise dance."

The skills we develop over our lifetime in this convoluted “dance” will determine how we are perceived by others, and thus how others will react to us.  Those reactions are the basis for decisions people make which can, and do, affect both our present and our future.

And remember that whatever we say and however we say it, we are always influencing others.

I encourage you to join with those of us here at NSR Development to learn and practice not only your verbal skills, but all the many forms of human communication.

You can begin by sharing in the Comment Section below the greatest challenge you face when communicating with others.  More likely than not, you are not alone in this!

I'll look forward to seeing you again.


PS101 power of words



 .....David Olsen – Words You Should Know

 .....John Maxwell – Becoming a Person of Influence

 .....Malcolm Gladwell – The Tipping Point

 .....John McWhorter – CNN Recent Op-Ed Article - Gender Neutral Pronouns


 Our images today are from 123rf.com


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