Words that convey a lot and less

It was the sudden slower ball that fooled the batsman for the fourth time in the cricket match. Harsha Bogle asked his co-commentator, “Michael, during your era, was change-of-pace as a bowling tactic employed at all?”. Michael Holding, the great West Indian ex pace bowler was nicknamed “Whispering Death” for his quiet approach to the bowling crease – only to rattle the batsmen with sheer speed. Michael clearly was not amused, “Harsha, we used it all the time. But, our way of change was to bowl even faster than the usual pace!”.

I have always felt “change” is an incomplete word. A lazy attempt to communicate, which ends up conveying nothing meaningful. You see, there is always a direction to any change: Things either improve or get worse. Or evolve. Change Management is another term I hate. “Colleagues, please expect some changes”, usually means someone is getting axed or a re-organization is looming.

What is a word after all ? A tool to ensure that the listener gets the same idea, feels a similar emotion and derives the right meaning that you had when you uttered it. A picture is worth a thousand words. Sure, but a right word used at the right time can convey something unique but universal – and is also cheaper than to paint a picture. Probably the reason why books are still in vogue even as we indulge in visual entertainment.

Every minute we are bombarded by words, terms and images that enrich us less and confuse more. Take the case of “growth” or specifically, “rate of growth”. Of economy, population, anything. Raise your hand if you have been – like me – bamboozled by a headline like this: “Why is our wage growth slowing down ?” Err…are they talking about wage getting reduced ? Nope, they don’t want us to understand it so easily. We all learnt about speed and acceleration in high school; the editors, if not the economists, could have come up with something simple yet precise. Recently, a controversy erupted with a headline which reads like this “Majority (religion) population’s rate of growth slows down more sharply during the last decade, than the rest”, while in fact there was no decline in any section of the population – or at the cost of each other. Historically, words have been used with a sinister intention to divide society, in an attempt to identify, label and classify people.

How about the words we use in our daily life ? The BBC article The hidden ways your language betrays your character, explains how we often share a clue about our personalities as we use certain words. While writing emails, I have used an inappropriate or inaccurate word on several occasions. I would write “I have a question” – only to be corrected later on that it’s better to use query instead; I didn’t want to appear to question anything that was said. A polite word is often lost in translation. Another example was when I used issue to describe a project situation while I was only voicing my concern – which is not definitive and there is a chance given to the other party to react.

Certain words are so frequently used that their impact have come down. Innovation, for example. As a young engineer, that word fascinated me the most. I had known discoveries and inventions at school. But no one talked about innovation back then. It was resolved when I listened to the CEO of my company explaining the difference in simple words, “Invention is when you take someone’s money and create something new. Innovation is about taking someone’s idea to create money”.

I rarely attend leadership talk series organized in my company. But when I learnt that a social entrepreneur originating from my home town was delivering a speech on innovation, I couldn’t resist. Arunachalam Muruganantham is the inventor (with his own money!) of low-cost sanitary pads that has revolutionised health and hygiene in rural India. (Watch this TED talk).  The hundreds of curious minds in the audience felt entertained and inspired by his story, which is now being made as a biopic. He explained a core principle of his research methodology as “T&E”, which none of us had heard about. Towards the end of the presentation, he revealed the details of the that technique to much amuse: “Trial and Error. If I had said that, you would not have taken me seriously”.

Simple words are powerful when they convey a big idea.

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