Speaking a new language into the corporate world

The language of business and government is largely the language of men. It’s language that’s been shaped by sports and warfare – masculine arenas.

Think about it for a moment – strategic planning, performance reviews, bite the bullet, fast track, jump the gun, keep your eye on the prize, rally the troops, ball park figures – they’ve all been influenced by sports or warfare. Even coaching, though it has developed softer edges, is still a word that comes out of sports, where performance is everything.

Language is not only shaped by the culture in which it is formed, it also helps shape the culture. When you enter a new workplace, you learn to speak in the local lingo. Before you know it, you’re not just talking in those terms, you’re thinking in them too.

Case in point: Not long ago, in my Writing for Public Relations course, we were talking about communications strategies, and I was telling the students how important it is to evaluate after the work is complete. “Even if you don’t have time for a full-fledged evaluation,” I said, “at least do a post mortem with your planning team.”

The students wanted to know what a post mortem was, and I explained that it’s a meeting held after work has been completed to discuss what went well and what needed to be improved next time. I was so used to using the word, I didn’t even think about what I was saying, until a student raised his hand and called me on it.

“Remember how you were saying that language in the world of business is too often based on sports and warfare?” asked the student who’d spent time in the army. “Well, ‘post mortem’ is an excellent example. Interestingly enough, the army no longer uses that term. They now refer to it as ‘after action review’.”

Needless to say, I was sufficiently humbled by my student who’d caught something I didn’t even recognize in my own language. That’s how language is – it becomes so embedded in our psyche, we don’t even recognize how it influences us anymore.

I’m on a personal mission not only to change my own language, but to influence the language of the corporate world. I think it’s time for more feminine language – the language of art and intuition added to the language of sports and warfare.

This morning I delivered a speech to a local business club. I spoke on “How to Lead with your Paint Clothes On.” I talked to them about how to think more like artists, how to incorporate creativity and pauses and white spaces and practice in their business planning. I encouraged them to allow for mistakes, open themselves to possibilities, and trust their intuition. I handed out markers and doodle pages and told them to doodle while I talked. I encouraged them to hold art parties with their staff.

I don’t think the business club (mostly men) knew exactly what to make of my talk. A few of them offered stories of how creativity had shaped what they did, but most of them simply thanked me politely and then left.

It’s a new language for many people – not one that’s particularly comfortable in a business world. Speaking a new language into an old culture can be intimidating and downright scary. But change doesn’t come without a bit of risk. If we want things to shift, sometimes we have to be willing to be the oddball in the room.

Here’s the handout I used this morning. On the back of the page it said “Go ahead and DOODLE!”

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