Undergraduates who have chosen to major in the liberal arts will inevitably be faced with the question, “What are you going to do with THAT?” I am sympathetic to them because when I was a non-STEM, non-business major, that same exact question was posed to me. In an age in which it seems that STEM is the only thing that matters, where do things like verbal and written communication fit? Are they on their way to being obsolete?
Hardly! No matter how many new microchips come out of Silicon Valley, none will be as powerful or impactful as language. Language has the power to motivate, to discourage, to compel, to coerce, and to connect. Language can be used to manipulate and to control, or it can be used to inspire and to create. I would argue that language is one of the strongest forces on the planet.
Politicians are masters at using language to get people to believe them and to buy into what their positions are. The entire field of law hinges on language and is constantly referring back to primary source documents. Contracts go through multiple reviews as all parties involved come to an agreement on the language.
If anything, language skills have become even more important in the Information Age. People are bombarded with competing messages at a rate previously unseen. Everyone is vying for their attention, and language is an effective way to get it. Think about the power of good headlines, or even the annoyingly compelling power of “click bait.”
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve been a part of countless meetings that discuss language, and the specific words that are being used. Surely you’ve been in meetings where questions like these have been debated: How are we going to position this? What is our message to the market? What is our value proposition? How do we articulate the benefits? I want to communicate X–what is the best way to do that?
Whether you are looking for a new role or building your brand, the language and words you use are critical. Through language, you’re able to not only craft a message, but also to create the reality you want. Your resume should use strong, action-oriented verbs. Your elevator pitch should convey your value clearly and succinctly. When you give a presentation, you should use clear, plain language that everyone can understand.
So if you’re studying the liberal arts, and you’re spending hours reading, researching, and writing, you might feel like what you’re learning is useless. It is not. Your studies are teaching you how to analyze text, how to conduct research, how to organize your information in a logical way, and how to communicate your findings or position cogently.
There is a scene from the first episode of Mad Men, which perfectly illustrates the power of language. The team is sitting in a conference room, worried about how they’re going to continue to advertise their client’s cigarettes in light of the new reports that smoking is a health hazard. The public is being bombarded with messages about the dangers of smoking. Don Draper tells everyone not to worry. Their cigarettes are poison. Ours are toasted.” That one word completely repositions a product from being deadly to being enjoyable. Words have enormous power. Those who can harness language can wield power.
The next time you think that STEM is the way to a career, think again. Words are wisdom. They evoke meaning, power, and action. Business is not just about “the numbers” or “the analysis.” It is also about messaging and delivery that drives action.