Work Smarter: Speak Vaguely to Seem More Powerful


This Week’s Insight: “Synergy,” “detail-oriented,” and other clichés are easy office punch lines, but the people spouting these terms may be onto something: You may garner more respect if you gloss over the specifics and speak in broader, vaguer terms at work, according to research published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

The Explanation: Lead author Cheryl Wakslak and her colleagues asked participants to judge how (fake) politicians seemed, based only on the way they summarized current events. Some of the participants were shown quotes that stuck to the literal details of the scenario — take the Occupy Wall Street example: “During the Occupy Wall Street movement people from a variety of backgrounds have gone out to Zuccotti Park in NYC to demonstrate and protest, rallying around the slogan ‘We are the 99%.’ People have sat, slept, and ate in the park since September 17th.” Other participants were shown comments that captured the gist, but went beyond the specifics, like this one: “The Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrates the frustrations that Americans feel and the sense that America has been taken over by corporate interests. People are frustrated that corporations are receiving an unfair share of benefits. Corporatism is alive and well in this country and people are angry and upset.” Study participants tended to judge the latter politician as being more powerful.

Wakslak explained in an email that abstract language makes you seem like someone who’s willing to make judgment calls, which in turn makes you seem like you know what you’re talking about. “People see the abstract communicator as a more ‘big picture’ kind of person, and this leads them to seeming more powerful,” she said.

The Takeaway: Your workplace is (probably) not a lab, and you are (probably) not a politician. Still, Wakslak says it’s possible to apply these findings to your office. At work, it can seem like a good idea to focus on the specifics, the nitty-gritty details that keep the organization running. And it is — but maybe not when you’re in a meeting, trying to impress your colleagues. “Sometimes people who want to seem powerful feel the need to demonstrate their knowledge by going very concrete, spelling everything out (think of the wonky political candidate as one example),” Wakslak said. “Our findings suggest that if you want to seem powerful to onlookers, it is important to demonstrate abstraction — to use abstract language to communicate the gist of the situation, rather than concrete language that spells out the specific details.” In a way, this study might explain some of the magic of corporate-speak. Lotta moving parts here, but this week let’s all try to leverage some vague terms in order to establish some best practices for intraoffice comms. Can we take this offline?