Making the Most of Power Words in Your Vocabulary

Are you looking for a proven way to influence your audience and get ahead of the game? Let me take you behind the scenes and give you an insider’s view into some extraordinary secrets. It will be an uncensored, riveting, even mind-blowing journey into the world of power words…

If my first paragraph grabbed you by the lapels and dragged you into this article, thirsting for the magic elixir I promised, then I apologise for unreasonably raising your hopes. There will be no extraordinary secrets and unfortunately I will probably not live up to my promise to deliver the kind of uncensored, riveting, mind blowing prose in the manner of an estate agent’s description of a fairly standard kitchen overlooking a fairly ordinary garden (a uniquely designed upgraded family hub complete with custom cabinets and an innovative marble island overlooking a deceptively large landscaped paradise ideal for entertaining…)  However, read the paragraph again and see which words jump out at you. The ones that do are examples of ‘power words’ and the aim of this article is to get you thinking about how to better use your vocabulary.

How many words do you know? It’s estimated that the number of working words in the English language stands at just over 171,000 (compared to around 93,000 for Spanish).  English is the most populated language in the world, partly by virtue of being so willing to assimilate new words from different languages (sofa, cigar, entrepreneur – Arabic, Spanish and French respectively).That said, very few of us use even a fraction of that word count, with estimates generally placing the number of words English speaking adults know at between 30,000 and 42,000.

So with all that vocabulary swirling around the system, it is perhaps no surprise that time has been spent researching the words that rise above all others when it comes to influencing those around us. There is nothing particularly unique about power words apart from the fact that they stand out from thousands of their vocabulary peers due to their ability to increase impact. The simplest way of defining these power words is to say that they have the ability to stir an emotion and elicit a response that other words do not.

Power words are commonly used by politicians and other public figures who seek to inspire an audience and carry them along on a journey. They are the sort of words that can rouse others to rise to an occasion – Churchill was a master of this and President Zelensky in Ukraine is also proving himself very adept at this art (while Boris Johnson’s attempts to tap into the Churchillian vein lack the same kind of authenticity).

The British may have an expansive vocabulary but, due to the nuances of how we use our language, we can often suffer from a lack of directness. We are stereotyped for our (perceived) national politeness and this often manifests in a certain amount of self-deprecation creeping into our conversation. While the obvious example is our love of the word ‘sorry’ we are also very good at pretending as if we don’t want to be too much of a bother.

How many times do you use the words ‘just’ or ‘hope’ for example? These are classic anti-power words – default vocabulary settings the Brits especially use far too often. Common examples are ‘I am just writing’ or ‘I hope to hear from you’ which can often undermine one’s position in a conversation before it has even begun. Another common pitfall is to express our intentions as an opinion (“I think”) when bold action calls for a statement of intent (“I believe”). Those who demonstrate confidence are confident in the words they choose to use – and never underestimate the contribution of a conscious effort to use these words. One of the most famous sentences of the Twentieth Century, which began with “I have a dream…” would have not etched itself into the history books if it had begun with “I just hope that one day…”

It is always beneficial to conduct a periodic ‘self-audit’ to make sure we avoid getting set in our ways.  Vocabulary usage is one area which is well worth such a review. The words we use are often the result of habit. Do the words and phrases you commonly use reflect where you are at this moment in time in terms of confidence, achievement and status within a company or your field of expertise? Are there power words better suited to the conversations that you are having?

There are lists of power words out there to browse. Nevertheless, as my first paragraph illustrates, less is definitely more. Indiscriminately reeling off a power list of power words in a power conversation, will have the same impact as any shouty advertising which loses impact due to its sheer volume.  The key is to find the right power words and to use them wisely and with subtlety of context.