A Way with Words – Nature or Nurture?

August 27, 2015

As I was preparing a keynote on “Persuasive Speaking” to a group of ambitious and enthusiastic sales people, I pondered about a common remark that people say to me, “You have a way with words!”

On the face of it, it’s a compliment that I appreciate greatly, but as I was preparing to teach this, I was wondering if it can indeed be taught?

It made me think of the age-old Nature vs Nurture question.  Can “good with words” be taught?

Personality type theory would usually say that we are born with such a gift.  As a practitioner of personality type tools like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram, I have trained, consulted and coached many individuals, and have found this idea to be partially correct.  For example, it is often said that the Intuiting Types (N) are more gifted at words than the Sensing Types (S) on the MBTI scale.  While the S types are better at picking up senses (what you can see, feel, touch), the N types delve in the world of ideas, connections and possibilities, and these require language to express.  As an Enneagram Type 4, I am also more in tuned with my inner world of feelings and emotions, and we think in words, so my faculty with language is highly honed.

Personally, I do have the gift of picking up languages very easily.  Besides speaking English and my mother tongue Mandarin, I also learnt French in school, and received an award for French Language Studies when I was in University.

However, a case can also be made for such skills to be nurtured.

According to Scott Berkun, “Good public speaking is based on good private thinking”.  I subscribe to this because the process of giving a speech is not just in giving the speech itself, the process of thinking, researching, compiling, sequencing, organizing and rehearsing sharpens our thought processes.  Such a process, honed over time, will definitely improve our ability with words.  There are several opportunities to hone such skills, the Toastmasters, for one is a great place to get started on learning public speaking and communication skills in a safe, supportive environment.  The Toastmasters also has 2 segments that help in with honing our way with words.  The evaluation segment trains toastmasters to listen attentively to speeches of fellow toastmasters and to provide feedback to them.  Listening hones sensitivity to words, and giving feedback trains the verbal dexterity to couch comments in encouraging and positive manner.  The second segment is the grammarian segment, where in each meeting, a designated grammarian will introduce a “word of the day” to help us improve our vocabulary, and also give feedback on the correct and incorrect uses of language.

Beyond that, we can further hone our proficiency with words by many ways.  One way is to watch powerful speeches of great orators on youtube.  You might even want to close your eyes and focus on their choices of words, dictate them down if you’re a kinaesthetic learner and need to move your hands as you learn, and attempt to model their use of language tools – we call it rhetorical devices.  Another way is to attend professional development courses.  One such program I have attended that has had a profound impact on me is Neuro-Linguistic Program (NLP).  NLP describes the fundamental dynamics between the mind (neuro) and language (linguistic) and how their interplay affects our body and behavior (programming).  Through the program, I have learnt powerful language patterns and how they mirror people’s thoughts and emotions.  I have also learnt the structure of the way we think, and how we process information in chunks, with that, I have significantly improved my ability to communicate the right content, in the right sequence and at the right timing for maximum impact.

Recently, I was discussing some of these tools with a friend over coffee, and he said “I don’t need these tools dude, I only have a tool called ‘sincerity'”.  While I agree that sincerity, authenticity and purity of intention must be the core value of our communications, we can take on new tools to improve our communications even better.  Tools are just tools, for example, a hammer can be used to bludgeon someone on the head, but that’s not what it was really invented for is it?  The onus is on the practitioner to use it wisely and with compassion, as Spiderman would say:

In the local parlance in Singapore, we have a common colloquial term “smoking our way through”, which means to say that we confound and confuse our audience under an avalanche of intelligent sounding words to portray ourselves in the best light.  I personally think this comment does not do justice to the amount of effort and work it takes to practice, improve and sharpen our linguistic abilities.

In fact, I would take it one step further to say that it is possible to practice our communication skills and the use of words to a high level of competence that it becomes unconscious competence.  We will then be able to choose the right words habitually and instinctively such that they are spontaneous, succinct and sincere.  In our lives, we are filled with thoughts and feelings at every given moment, and if language is the expression of those thoughts and feelings, then I wouldn’t just stop at saying,

“You are good with words!”

I would say,

“You are good at capturing and expressing thoughts and emotions with words.”

And yes, you can develop this skill.



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