What you say and how you say it matters

Words matter. What we say and how we say it—verbally or in writing—influences people and their actions (or inactions).  This has always been especially important in business and politics, but in this smaller, faster, ‘searchable’ world, the words of the TD and the CEO travel faster, go further and last longer.

After Brexit, governments and their agencies are on the charm offensive, eager to woo and entice international business. Every representative’s words are being scrutinised, every minister’s utterances parsed—and this brings us to a recent parliamentary reply by the Irish Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan.

In a Parliamentary Question (PQ) to the Minister, Opposition TD Jack Chambers asked about the process required for an international bank to acquire an operational licence in Ireland.

In his written reply, Minister Noonan said it may take

“many months of engagement, discussion and back and forth on key issues before the application is considered.” Continuing,  he said “so measuring on this basis we can expect a time horizon of probably at least a year.”

Within days, print media headlines stating ‘Brexit-fleeing banks’ will have to wait ‘at least a year’ for a licence appeared. Media houses taking an editorial position on Brexit followed up within days with reports attributed to respected source Reuters that banks were being ‘discouraged’ from coming to Dublin and that they would have a ‘tough time’ getting licencing approval. The Minister’s concluding remark

'when it comes to applications for licences in Ireland, the Central Bank assures me that it stands ready to meet the challenges that may arise’

did not get the same attention. 

I know from my own time in Government that writing and reviewing PQs is tedious. Hundreds of them are asked and answered each week. Most are innocuous, but within the mound, a hand grenade is often hidden away, waiting to go off. Whether or not the pin is pulled depends on the words of the reply and the attentiveness and foresight of the representative. 

If a policy decision has indeed been taken by the Government that a banking licence should take at least a year, then so be it—the PQ response is articulating this position factually. But if this is not the case, the words, and the perception they have created, are clumsy. International decision-makers will be taking note. Either way, it was always likely to get attention in these sensitive times.

The most successful and enduring leaders understand the power of words. They take the time to seriously consider the language they use and its ramifications. They seek out second opinions. They road test in advance with people they trust, who can see the wood from the trees. They realise that words used in something as basic as an everyday email matter just as much as an annual results statement or a State of the Union address. They move quickly to clarify and rebut when their words have been wrong or misinterpreted.

In your own decision-making, avert crisis and confusion—and the lengthy clean-up costs of dealing with both—by taking the time and counsel to get your words right the first time round.