Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

The words that matter

A few weeks ago I did a quick poll on facebook. I asked in a status update, "An experiment: what are the most powerful words in the English language? I'll explain my angle in a ex-post blog entry." This is that ex-post blog entry.

Here's a summary of what people said:

Them
Us
Love (x2)
You

Repudiate
Quintessence
Yes
No
Profound
Frat <-- This was a good joke, sort of indicates the power of humor, actually
Hello
Goodbye
Hate
Trust
Redemption
Rape
Fag
N-word
C*nt

It doesn't take outrageous vernacular to have power. In fact, many of the words on this list are surprisingly simple. They are words that create in-groups and out-groups. Words that elicit primary emotion and common understanding of the world we live in. They are words about the human condition, or reflections of the human condition (e.g., take "frat" for example...humor is part of our humanity).

There are also words that have jarring connotation and are by their nature incendiary. This is what SB pointed out when he posted his words on my wall. "I think the negative words tend to carry a lot more power than the positive ones," he said. I don't think these are truly the most powerful words (in an enduring sense, they certainly are at the point of use).

One of my former colleagues (really, he was my "bosses boss" haha), John Hagel, is making a presentation at this year's SxSW about moving from story to narrative. I happen to think we crave narrative because it helps us create our own meaning in our own lives. If we did a study of story communication versus narrative communication, I think we would find the language to be different. A story is much more needing of powerful, emotional, connotative words because you have to control the perspective of your audience.

On the other hand, I think narrative requires the sort of simple ideas and language that most folks listed above. These words help the shepherd of the narrative include other people, and give them the building blocks to create their own meaning in their own words.

Think about President Obama's first election campaign. His narrative device was simple, and conveyed an idea that others could build upon, create meaning with, and act upon - "Yes we can."

I don't think we need crazy powerful words to change the world, if we're after creating narratives that others can participate in. The most powerful words, I think, are the simplest ones that help ourselves and others get to the unfettered noble truth of the aspirational, virtuous idea we are trying to rally around.

That was kind of long, so here's the punch line. I think the most powerful words, truly powerful words, are the simplest ones that get to the essence of who we are as humans, because those words help everyone think clearly enough to create their own stories and beliefs. Not the words that project meaning onto others' beliefs.

I don't think we want the words of stories, I think we want more agency than to be the subject of a story that's told unto us. I think we want narratives, the language of their discourse, and the freedom they provide to make meaning in our own lives. Maybe humanity wasn't fully ready to embrace narrative (but maybe we were) before, but I think we certainly are ready now. And now, it's possible.

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Thanks for the fodder for discussion, all.