August 29, 2012
Words mean things, very specific things, and we should choose them with forethought and care. Almost every word we use is loaded up with connotation — all that baggage we attach to words through their context and common usage. For example, would you rather be called “slender” or “scrawny”? Strictly speaking, they mean the same thing — below average weight. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a person who would prefer to be called “scrawny,” which carries connotations of weakness, unattractiveness, and an underdeveloped physique.
As the U.S. political season comes into full swing, the power of words becomes ever more obvious. Small fumbles in word choices can become national news, and a particularly clever or powerful turn of phrase can move crowds of thousands to cheers or tears. I analyze rhetoric all the time; I can’t seem to help it. So I pay attention to what candidates on both sides are saying out of pure fascination for the ways powerful people use rhetoric to move nations.
Back in 2008, we saw one of the more effective campaigns, rhetorically speaking, of recent decades. With the simplest of ideas and slogans — “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes we can” — the Obama campaign moved the political needle with strong appeals to pathos (emotions) that helped propel their man into the White House on a tide of positive feelings and goodwill. It occurs to me today, though, that despite its success, the “Yes we can” slogan suffered from a flaw that has emerged only in retrospect.
The word “can” should have been “will.”
It’s exactly the same as the evolution I went through in my understanding of the children’s story of The Little Engine That Could. As I got older, wiser, and more experienced, I decided that, instead of “I think I can,” the Little Engine should have been saying, “I can! I can! I can!” I realized that “I think I can” is very unsure and self-sabotaging at its core. If the purpose is to use the power of positive thinking to achieve goals, then take out the ambiguity of the “I think” part.
Continuing that line of thought, it dawned on me that even “I can!” is not strong enough to translate into success. Of course I can. But being able to do something and actually executing it are two very different things. I decided that the Little Engine likely would have had even greater and faster success if he had chanted, “I WILL!” That’s not just a warm, fuzzy feeling. That’s actual resolve. That’s a firm intention that is far more likely to lead to action and desired outcomes. Yes, the Little Engine made it over the mountain. I just have to wonder if it would have been nearly as stressful an ordeal if he had just done it with less talking and hand-wringing involved.
Consider the rhetorical difference between “Yes we can” and “Yes we will.” They’re very different in meaning, aren’t they? Just because we can do something doesn’t in any way mean we will do it; and if we stop with “We can,” we may never have the opportunity to say “We did.”
Would things today be different if the message had been “Yes we WILL”? Can a single word change the fate of nations and the world? I don’t know the answer to that with certainty, but I’m inclined to say that yes, it can. I certainly believe that word choice can change my own ability to achieve my personal and professional goals. I catch myself all the time — ALL the time — trying to psyche myself up for a challenge by telling myself, “I can do this!” And then I actively shift that thinking to “I WILL do this.” I find that it completely changes my mindset in a way that raises my chances for success exponentially.