It doesn’t matter what words you use; it really matters that you know what you mean

Over the years I’ve seen organisation after organisation tie themselves up in knots over words. In absence of a genuine understanding of what they want to say, messages are subjected to endless wordsmithing, copy by consensus and all manner of other assaults on language and meaning.

From purpose statements, to core values and on through vision and mission statements. A trail of alternatively hyperbolic or limp language leaves waves of confused and uninspired people trying to stay afloat amid the absence of understanding.

The effects of this go far beyond the words, rippling out into confused and misaligned decisions and actions across the organisation – and a lack of caring about the organisation’s identity and resulting brand.

For example, in a recent workshop looking at how a client was using their purpose, the very first thing the group said was that they didn’t really understand what a key phrase in the purpose statement meant. And without that understanding there was no clear way for them to use it, resulting in it either being ignored or used inconsistently.

This is not a rare occurrence. It happens in nearly every company I’ve ever worked with. And it’s not the words being used that are the problem. Well okay, sometimes it is the words being used (see other blogs I’ve written about jargon). Mostly it’s a lack of deep work to understand of what is meant by those words.

That deep work is taking the time to figure out what the definition is for the organisation. For example, let’s say an organisation has landed on “make the world a better place” as their purpose statement. Who could argue with that? But agreeing with it is not the problem.

I can believe in the statement. The problem starts when my idea of how to make the world better, and even of what a better world would be, is miles away from other peoples. Because I can guarantee that some tangible aspect of it will be different.

Do they literally mean “make” as in build it, or something else? What part of the world? The whole planet or a more specific piece of it? And both of those are relatively easy compared to the quagmire that a word like “better” creates. In what way better? For who? When? How much better?

Because it’s not until they have a shared understanding of what “make the world a better place” means, that they can get down to the next round of deep work – looking at how they do or don’t, will or won’t, can or can’t do it.

The words you need to excavate will be different. Getting into the habit of doing it takes practice and discipline. But I know from experience that doing the work is transformational, with the ripples of shared meaning touching every aspect of the organisation.

Conversations pop up about what you care about and believe. What you’re doing and not doing. Why something is working or not working. How you can and should use what you mean in actions and decisions.

That’s a whole lot of benefit for a simple little question – what do we mean by x?

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


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Adam Gordon
Adam Gordon
5 years ago

Michele, excellent, you’re touching on a subject I get more and more passionate about as I get older.
But if I could touch on one thing, your headline – ”

It doesn’t matter what words you use; it really matters that you know what you mean”.
It reminds me of the young teenager saying “But I know what I mean”.
If you don’t know what you mean, you certainly can’t express it clearly. But the person to whom you’re communicating also needs to be able to understand what you are saying.

Rob Lockhart
Rob Lockhart
5 years ago

Totally agree with you Michelle. When I ask the question what is your purpose and values I don’t mind if people cannot tel me exactly what the wording is, I care that they have a consistent understanding of the purpose and values. If the people within and without the organisation have a consistent understanding it means they are truly living the organisations brand.