Language of Success

The Language of Success

The other day, having just typed an email to a customer, my mouse cursor hovered over the send button. But something didn’t feel quite right. Re-reading the email, I stopped at the following sentence:

“I should be able to get this to you in the next 24 hours”.

This is a fairly standard sentence, but on this particular occasion the word “should” caught my attention. Was this the best word I could use? Did it even matter?

I knew why I had chosen this particular word; I wanted to convey that I expected to have the work done within 24 hours, but there was a possibility I wouldn’t. So there was a rational reason for my choice, but in that moment I also came to see that using the word “should” could have potentially negative and unintentional consequences.

Ted Rogers, the Canadian Communications mogul who recently passed away, once noted: “It’s funny, the difference between success and failure often is very little.” It seems to me that one of these “little things” is the language we use to communicate. Here’s why:

Committing Ourselves

When I typed the word “should”, I effectively gave myself an excuse for not completing the request within 24 hours. Yes, it makes sense to do this in some circumstances. However, by doing this it also meant I would be less likely to complete the request within 24 hours. After all, was I making any commitment? Saying I should have something finished within 24 hours means it could be done in 48, 72 or 1,000 hours and I still would have kept my word.

I would like to note here that it is extremely important not to break your promises, and therefore you should be careful not commit to something you can’t do. But I think it is also extremely important not to give yourself a free ride by never making firm commitments and/ or never setting deadlines to complete work.

Let’s consider an alternative to using the word “should” (note: this is what I actually sent):

“I will get this to you in 24 hours”

The important word here, of course, is “will”. By using this word, I committed myself to getting this request done by a particular deadline. And guess what? I did.

Now, you may not be too interested in whether or not I got something done for a customer . But consider for a moment your own goals. Do ever find yourself saying “I want to get fit”. Or, “I should go to the gym”. Such statements are usually wishful thinking. It is only when you fully commit to something – which starts by saying something like “I will…” or I must…” – that it becomes a priority and receives your focused attention.

Trust from Others

There is a good chance that to get where you want to go in life you will need the help of other people. I mention this because the language you use when communicating with other people influences how they perceive you, and therefore how they treat you.

The word “should” is a hedge because maybe you will get the work done, but maybe you won’t…. This does little to give your clients, co-workers, boss or whoever it is you are dealing with confidence in you.

Strong vs Weak Language

The following are some examples of words that are generally strong and weak:

Weak Strong
maybe will
trying can
possibly must
hoping plan
probably definitely
(I) think (I) know

Once again, there are times when it is appropriate to use the words I have listed above as weak. My suggestion is simply to be conscious of your choice of such words, and then consider using a stronger alternative. By using strong language, you commit yourself to taking action and gain a greater level of trust from people you deal with.

Final Thoughts

There is a common saying that actions speak louder than words. I agree. But I also believe, as Obama once responded to his critics, that words do matter. If you can get your actions and language in alignment then you will be all the more closer to success (whatever “success” means to you).

What do you think? Does the language we use really contribute to success or failure? And if so, do you have any examples of words and phrases to use or avoid?

Peter writes about how to change your life at The Change Blog. He is also the author of Starting a Blog and Audio Book Downloads.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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