Do You Need a Word Diet, or Are Team’s Ideas Too Skinny?

Posted by Kristin Arnold on September 12, 2008

Is your team using skinny words when they’re hungry for fat ones?  Or fat words when they want to be skinny?  Dr. David Palmer, a Silicon Valley negotiations expert, describes various “levels of abstraction.”  Unless you match your message to the expectations of your team, or talk at the same level at which they are listening, you won’t connect as well as you would like to, he says.

Patricia Fripp, national speaker and executive speech coach, describes the fat/skinny phenomenon this way:  “Suppose you write the word ‘automobile’ on a pad.  A simple concept.  Going up to the next level of abstraction, you could write above it that the car is a ‘wheeled passenger vehicle,’ then ‘major force in the world’s economy.'”

“This is making the word ‘automobile’ fatter and fatter, larger and larger.  These big ideas and abstractions are ‘fat’ words.  They are great for conveying the big picture, inspiring ideas, motivating.”

“Now, let’s make the word skinnier.  Underneath the word ‘automobile,’ you might write ‘sedan,’ ‘Ford sedan,’ ‘red four-door Ford sedan.'”

“Eventually, you would be talking about a specific car.  These are ‘skinny’ words.  They are essential for conveying instructions and solving technical problems.  No one holding a screwdriver, camera, or having a blank screen on their computer wants ‘fat’ words.  You’ll just frustrate them.”

Are your words too fat?  Too skinny?  Let’s say your team successfully briefed the team sponsor on its recommendations — using “fat” words.  Your team presents these same recommendations to middle management — using “skinnier” words and phrases.  To implement your approved recommendations, the words need to get “skinny” by outlining who, how, where and what they need to do.

Many of my clients hire me to coach their teams, especially around communication issues.  After giving them the automobile illustration, they learn to be more effective by evaluating each other by saying, “your words are too fat” or “those words aren’t skinny enough.”  For example, during brainstorming most ideas start out being fat.  Implementation requires very skinny words.

Question:  What words do you use with your team?

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