Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Importance & Power of Language

The Importance & Power of Language

I am currently writing a series of case studies for a new college textbook that will be used in coming years by budding entrepreneurs around the country. One of the entrepreneurs I interviewed for this project was my Uncle, Hyrum W. Smith—a co-founder of FranklinCovey Company. An extraordinary entrepreneur and salesman, Hyrum Smith has left an indelible mark on the fields of time management and personal development. As one of the finest public speakers in the World, Smith commands 5-figure speaker fees when he presents professionally. A lifelong entrepreneur, he was an ideal candidate for one of my case studies.

At the end of the interview, I asked him what advice he would give to young college students interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

I eagerly awaited his response, and felt sure he would have something clever to say about sales, hard work, ambition, or personal responsibility and character. To my great surprise, his reply had nothing to do with any of these things. In fact, his response had nothing to do with anything we would stereotypically associate with entrepreneurial success. This is what he told me:

"When I was just a boy, my father had me memorize a statement that said, You cannot think any deeper than your vocabulary will allow you to think. If you really examine anyone who has been authentically successful as an entrepreneur—or in any other field—you will discover they have a large vocabulary. As I reflect back over my career, I attribute much of my success to a love of the English language and my commitment to read deeply and widely, and to study speech and language. Anyone who wants to be successful in this world has got to read books, and lots of them. This requires a willingness to set aside electronic devices, social media, video games, and other distractions, and the discipline to stick at the task of reading—even when it seems boring. To learn independently of others and expand your vocabulary, books and the dictionary must become some of your best friends. There is no other way. The size of your vocabulary will, to a large extent, determine how much success you enjoy—or don’t enjoy—in your life."

I have visited Hyrum’s Ranch Home in Southwestern Utah. You should see the size of his library.

Language is potential power. When used properly, it becomes kinetic power enabling you to teach, negotiate, persuade, inspire, uplift, and do much good in the world. If you are interested in increasing your personal power and capacity to influence others as a self-action leader, you must make a commitment to becoming a better reader, writer, critical thinker, and presenter. I am not asking you to become a public speaker or professional writer. What I am inviting you to do is pay the price to work regularly on your communication skills—a skill set that Stephen R. Covey has called the most important skill we can be working on as adults. I would wager it is similarly important for young people to learn and master, and I’m sure Dr. Covey would agree.

Drawing Deeply From the Wells of Wisdom

As you read this book, you will notice I have gone to great lengths to include relevant excerpts from the timeless works of great writers, thinkers, philosophers, theologians, educators, scientists, leaders, politicians, and business figures. Another reason for this book’s length is my intentional decision to not merely garnish the text with such priceless additions, but to deluge and marinate it therein. These pervasive inclusions support and enrich the SAL theory & model. I hope they will inspire you in your life as they have in mine.

I express my gratitude to these enlightened and gifted men and women. They worked, struggled, and endured tremendous adversity to achieve extraordinary things in this world and produce timeless texts for us to study from today. I hope these selections will inspire you to study their lives and literature. I also hope it will help you to expand your own vocabulary. Without the teachings and literature of these great men and women, the Self-Action Leadership theory and model would not exist. Consider some slightly doctored words of the poet John Donne:

"No Literary Work is an Island, entire of itself; every text is a piece of a Collection, a part of the canon. If a sentence be washed away from a paragraph, the Chapter is the less, as well as if a Section were, or an anecdote of thy friends, or of thine own were. Every Author’s exclusion diminishes me, because I am involved in Authorkind. Never send therefore to know for whom the titles toll; They toll for thee." [1]

Learning the Lessons of Language

From associations with my Father—a high school English teacher—and other important figures in my life, I discovered the importance of language at an early age. My aunts and grandmothers would tirelessly correct my grammar. On road trips, my Dad and I would sometimes play vocabulary games, or study a “word-of-the-day.” In college, the most valuable notebook I kept was not for any of my classes, but contained an ongoing list of words and their definitions. As I would come across unknown words—and in college you are confronted with lots of them—I would write them down in my notebook along with their definitions and practice sentences. Not knowing a given word would fill my mind and heart with a positive frustration that would motivate me to look up the word—and keep looking up the word as needed until I owned it in my own vocabulary. It was a lot of hard work. It required patience, persistence, discipline, and focus; but all the effort has been immensely worth it.

Some people think you don’t need the dictionary much after completing your formal education. But even with a Ph.D., I still use the dictionary nearly every day. It is, without question, one of my best friends and greatest assets as a professional writer and speaker. “But,” you may say, “I am not a professional speaker or writer, nor do I ever intend to be.” While this may be the case, the fact is that in most fields, you are still expected to be a professional communicator, and the success (or lack thereof) of your communication skills could make or break your long-term success.

I know a man of science who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry. When he was in college, he didn’t think mastering writing was very important aside from passing his general education English courses. He was, after all, studying Chemistry and pursuing a career in Chemistry. Over time, however, he found himself rising through the ranks of his industry. As a man in his fifties, he confessed to me: “Jordan, I am now in upper-level management and about all I do is write.”

Consider another example: President Barack Obama. Regardless of your political views on President Obama, one thing nearly everyone can agree on is that he is a gifted communicator. As the youngest President in U.S. History who had never served in either the military (JFK) or as Governor of a State (Clinton), Barack Obama had the thinnest leadership resume in Presidential history, yet look at what the power of speech did to his rise up the career ladder! I believe we can all learn a lesson from President Obama about the power that effective speech can have in one’s personal and professional success. If you study our present Commander-in-Chief’s early life, you will learn that he paid the price over long periods of time to become the polished communicator he is today. This price included early mornings as a boy that began before 5:00 a.m. when his mother would require that he spend extra time studying English and other subjects she deemed vital to his future success. Like any other teenager, he didn’t particularly like these ultra-early morning language study sessions, but the results in his life made history—literally. President and Mrs. Obama are also well known for placing a high priority on the education of their two daughters—Malia and Sasha—and enforcing a highly disciplined schedule that allows ample time for homework and studying. Such is a non-partisan practice that any reasonable person can admire and applaud.

In lauding the incredible merits and power of speech, I do not wish to overstate the point. The ability to communicate effectively is NOT everything. Just as paper currency must be backed up by the tangible strength of gold, governments, and healthy economies, speech must be backed up by character, courage, and competence if it is to create positive results that last. Moreover, we must never forget the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Words—so innocent and powerless they are as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Only a basic understanding of the history of World War II is required to comprehend how prominently this truth was revealed in the epic polarity separating Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill—both masters of their respective language. Indeed, as history has amply evinced, the currency of language will only bring you short-term results unless it is backed by the gold standard of courage, conscience and competence. It is no surprise then, that the vast majority of the world’s noblest figures possessed bottomless capacities for both communication and conscience.

Like my Uncle Hyrum, I also attribute much of my success personally and professionally to my ability to communicate effectively. I am where I am today in large part because I was willing to pay the price in time and effort to learn how to effectively speak, write, and converse. Few things make a better first impression on a person or audience than intelligent speech. Similarly, few things make a worse first impression on a person or audience than ignorant speech. It is therefore in the interest of everyone to study language, speech, and vocabulary in a concerted effort to become better communicators, because regardless of your field, everyone is required to communicate. The extent to which you do so effectively will tremendously impact your overall effectiveness in working with people and achieving personal and professional success. It may even make the difference in whether you get hired, fired, promoted, demoted, or given a raise. And the good news is that language and communication is something everyone can work on and improve. It requires hard work, discipline, and focus, but the results can be profoundly impactful to your life in the most positive of ways.

In conjunction with striving to master your own, native language, it is also vital to study the English Language. This is because English is widely considered the international language of business. Most highly successful people in today’s Global marketplace speak English proficiently—regardless of their native language. An example of this is Jack Ma, the Chinese entrepreneur. Ma’s company, Alibaba, recently recorded the highest Initial Public Offering (IPO) in the history of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Ma got his entrepreneurial start as a boy riding his bike 45-mintes away from his home to a large, international hotel so he could learn English by conversing with foreigners to whom he gave free sight-seeing tours. Today, he is one of the richest businessmen in the world.

To further empower your language skills, I encourage you to gain access to a good computer or smart phone dictionary app. Looking words up electronically is more efficient than doing it the old fashioned way. I also challenge you to start keeping your own dictionary notebook and begin studying your own “word-of-the-day.” You can also sign up to receive a free “word-of-the-day” in your e-mail inbox by visiting www.wordsmith.org/awad. There are few better ways to start your day than to build your word power.

For those undertaking a serious study of this book, it is my sincere hope that you will come out on the other side not just motivated to better lead yourself, but to become more philosophically, historically, and culturally literate. Likewise, I hope you will obtain a greater understanding, appreciation, and command of your native language, as well as the English language.

I challenge you to develop your capacity for clear, concise, and cogent communication. Doing so will empower you with the authority and influence that follows all those who have superior command of the language in which they communicate.

Eighty years ago, two of the world’s preeminent authorities on speech—Charles H. Woolbert and Joseph F. Smith—wrote eloquently of the importance of speech. Their words are as important today as they were in the 1930s. I have taken the liberty to reproduce their quote here with slight variations that make it applicable to all mediums of expression.

"The one ability which grants to man preeminent superiority over all other animal creation is his ability to talk and write. … Communication is desperately fundamental to our civilization. So integral a part of civilization is it, that it has too largely been taken for granted by the people at large. We are strange that way. Things close to us we often neglect. The spoken and written word is so vital a thing that when it fails to convey its message the loss is great enough to cause distress. Consequently, in the presence of the mumbler, the droner, and the mouther of words, men are disappointed and pained. Bankruptcy in speech or script is a solemn affliction because language is the crowning achievement of the human mind and the very cementing principle of civilization. Our value as members of society is judged in large measure according as our language meets with the approval or condemnation of those who hear or read it." [2]

Language is both sacred and powerful. It is never too late to learn, improve upon, or simply brush up on a science and art that is absolutely indispensable to your short and long-term success—no matter what your life station or profession.

[1] Donne’s actual quote reads: “No Man is an Island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away from the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends, or of thine own were; Any Mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” Booty, J. (1990). John Donne: Selections From Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions, and Prayers. New York, NY: Paulist Press. Page 58.

[2] Woolbert, C.H., & Smith, J.F. (1934). The Fundamentals of Speech: A Textbook of Delivery. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers. Pages 3-6. Andrew T. Weaver, former Head of the Speech Department at the University of Wisconsin wrote: “Joseph F. Smith … [is] one of the outstanding leaders of our profession. He is an inspiring lecturer and a powerful interpreter of literature. W. Norwood Brigance, former Head of Speech at Wabash College said of Smith: “Joseph F. Smith is one of the half dozen top-flight readers in all America. A few may equal him, but none surpass him.” In the highest and finest sense of the term, he is an artist.”

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