Leading with language

Jul 18, 2021

While weak language can dilute your message, assertive language fosters attentiveness, boosts credibility, and increases authority.

Recently, I attended a virtual proposal review meeting run by a marketer I had mentored the year before. She facilitated the meeting competently, and the proposal was impressive. It was clear that her management and expertise had added value to the process. Yet, when it came time to review the action-item list, I noticed a palpable change in her voice, language, and confidence level.

Three technical narratives assigned to a single author were missing. The proposal was due in a week, and two deadlines had come and gone unanswered. At this point, the team risked compliance and client focus.

“Sorry, but I don’t have these narratives yet,” she said, her cursor hovering and her voice wavering.

The responsible author chimed in, “Yeah, I’ve been swamped. I haven’t gotten to them yet.”

“No problem, I understand,” she replied before casually continuing down the list.

Assertiveness can be a challenge for AEC marketing professionals for several reasons. At many firms, marketers are still viewed as administrative personnel with little authority. The value of marketing might be unclear or questioned by industry veterans who remember a time when winning business looked very different. Even at firms where marketing skills are prized, marketing staff are likely up against gender, experience, and/or age biases. After all, it can be difficult for a young woman with a handful of years in the industry to firmly request an assignment from an older man who has been with the firm for two decades and holds the daunting title of principal. Then, there’s the precarious relationship between the proposal manager and the technical lead of the proposal. Oftentimes, these roles are not clearly defined, and proposal development becomes a dance between colleagues trying not to step on each other’s toes. Not to mention, the prioritization of live projects and billable work can relegate proposals to the end of the to-do list, something you get to when you can get to it.

Sure enough, a follow-up email went out that afternoon. The missing narratives were listed in the revised action-item list but without a new deadline. In a separate email, the marketer wrote to the responsible author: “Sorry, just reaching out to check on these narratives again. When did you say you could have them to me?”

This example is not exceptional. In fact, it is representative of a trend.

All too often, we apologize for doing our job. We are overly polite. We dance around deadlines because we want to be easy to work with. We hesitate to offer our expertise, and when we do, we are quick to let others, who know less about marketing, steamroll our counsel. We refrain from accountability. We justify our recommendations with babbling explanations and then add on a feeble question like “Don’t you think?” or “You see what I’m saying?” Our favorite words seem to be “just,” “feel,” “sort of,” and “might.”

What’s the result of this weak language? Is it that big of a deal? Yes.

Weak language dilutes our message. It makes others doubt our credibility. It gives the impression that we are indecisive or unqualified.

Conversely, assertive language affords marketing professionals respect from their colleagues. It can foster attentiveness, boost credibility, and increase authority. It can help to differentiate roles and increase efficiency. Most importantly, assertive language can be used respectfully in a way that affirms your and your colleagues’ areas of expertise. After all, they are the experts when it comes to doing the work. You are the expert at getting the work.

So, where can we start? How can we add value to our firms with stronger language?

First, identify where you are using weak language, being overly polite, or apologizing unnecessarily. Is it during meetings? Emails? Over the phone? When deadlines are approaching? When deadlines are missed?

Then, begin replacing the weak language.

  • Instead of, “I’m sorry, but,” try, “I disagree. Consider...”
  • Instead of, “I was thinking maybe,” go with, “I recommend…”
  • Instead of, “I thought we might try,” use, “My experience suggests...”
  • Instead of, “I’m no expert, but,” try, “I am confident that...”
  • Instead of, “I’m just checking in,” say, “I’m following up on the status of...”
  • Instead of, “No worries,” implement, “You’re welcome.”
  • Instead of, “I apologize for the delay,” go with, “Thank you for your patience.”

Other examples of assertive language include:

  • “Who will be responsible for this action item?”
  • “Can you take point on this and update me tomorrow?”
  • “To meet the requirements of the schedule, I’ll need this item by…”
  • “At this point you’ve missed the agreed upon deadline. When is the earliest you can have this item to me?”
  • “I believe this is the best approach.”
  • “Any content or revisions that come in after pens-down are not guaranteed to make it in the final document.”

Language is important and words matter. Many professionals assume that not being passive entails being aggressive, but in fact, assertive language is about being clear, direct, and respectful. How you communicate impacts working relationships and company culture.

Mercedez Thompson, CP APMP, SHIPLEY BDC is a proposal manager at Michael Baker International. She has more than nine years of experience in writing and marketing for diverse industries including AEC, education, and law. Additionally, she taught English courses at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and University of Nevada, Reno. Contact her at 440.328.6471 or mercedez.thompson@mbakerintl.com, or subscribe to her blog at simplywritingblog.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.