My 10-year-old daughter loves telling stories, and she really liked embellish them with emotionally laden words that packed a punch.
For example, her teacher didn’t speak firmly or shout – she’d “scream”. A kid at school didn’t push another – he’d “viciously smash” into him. The bus driver didn’t call out – he “roared”. A scrape didn’t hurt – it “burned like a thousand knives of liquid fire”. A bug wasn’t just a bug. It was “terrifying”.
You’d think I’d be proud of the way she amplified the emotional effects of her storytelling. You’d think I’d be smug that my daughter had a near-instinctive ability to choose words that conjured up vivid mental imagery.
But I wasn’t.
I had a problem with that kind of language.
Words have power – more than you might realize. They can influence your behavior or your emotional state. Certain words can create a positive, healthy, glass-half-full mindset… or they can become the fodder of crippling limiting beliefs and debilitating fears.
Here’s a favorite quote of mine that sums it up nicely:
“Trying to do something just sounds like you’re not really making that much effort – and the result is almost inevitable… so I swap the word ‘try’ for a better version: endeavour.” – Bear Grylls
When my daughter talked about her screaming teacher, her roaring bus driver or the bugs, she was giving words too much power without realizing it. My daughter isn’t actually scared of bugs, or any of the school staff; she just likes to embellish dramatic impact. So if something buzzes past her head, calling it a terrifying bug that nearly attacked her is far more fun than describing it as some small little creature that sort of just happened to bumble by on the breeze.
Here’s where I began to worry: what we think, we eventually come to believe.
I noticed that my daughter started using the word terrifying in everyday language. It was becoming a “habit” word, her go-to adjective of choice. A barking dog that startled her was terrifying. A kid chasing her at school for a game of tag was terrifying. A loud noise on the bus was terrifying.
If my daughter kept this up, she’d unconsciously train her brain to believe that benign situations actually were terrifying. Those innocent bugs would become truly frightening monstrosities, and we’d eventually end up in a therapist’s office to get help with the self-created phobia.
Don’t believe this can happen? Here’s a good example of how the words we use influence our beliefs: Imagine you’re giving your first on-stage presentation. You’ve never done this before. It’s all happening tomorrow morning – you’re scheduled to go on first, at 9am. Would you spend the day telling yourself you’re excited or nervous?
You could go either way. The butterflies, your beating heart, that little squeeze in your stomach each time you think about the presentation… Could be nerves. Could be excitement. Both share the same physical symptoms. It’s the word you choose to describe the feeling that creates the belief.
If you think they’re nerves, you’ll start to fear the presentation. If you think it’s excitement, you’ll feel anticipation for your big moment. This means that the word you choose makes all the difference in whether you have a positive or negative experience.
Your words influence perception – in more ways than one.
I didn’t want my daughter creating fears for herself. (After all, we live in a forest. Bugs are inevitable.) I wanted her to be consciously aware of the power of words so that she could choose them more carefully. (I also wanted to be able to distinguish when she was truly terrified without having to guess. “Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, how terrified are you right now?)
So I banned the word “terrifying” from our household. I challenged my daughter to think about better alternatives… and what happened next surprised me.
Like you’d expect, my daughter’s vocabulary expanded rapidly to compensate for the loss. She’d pause mid-sentence and rifle through her mental thesaurus to find the best word for what she wanted to describe. Her bugs weren’t terrifying anymore: They became surprising, startling, unpleasant, or interesting. Her teacher didn’t scream anymore: She spoke strictly, firmly, or securely.
But that’s not what surprised me.
What surprised me most was that as my daughter became selective about choosing more appropriate words, I found myself engaging more with her stories. I listened more. I enjoyed them more. The nature of the stories hadn’t changed – but they weren’t dramatic, over-the-top tales anymore. They were… more mellow. More thought out. More realistic.
How credible are the words you choose?
Most writers don’t think about every word they choose. Most writers don’t even think about any of the words they chose. It’s easy to rely on current vocabulary, so they use their go-to favorites or fall back on longtime word-choice habits. There isn’t any conscious decision involved in selecting the words they add to their content.
They just pour them all out, period.
A few writers use a thesaurus. Not many, but some do. They try to expand their vocabulary or want to spice things up. But they don’t put much actual thought into the words they select; they’re looking for alternatives, not accuracy. “Oh, that’s a neat word; I’ll use that.”
Swapping one word for another isn’t the same as curating the best word for the moment.
Start asking yourself whether you’re using the right words for what you want to say. Use that thesaurus, and ask which word is best for right now. Get selective, and be smart. Find realistic, accurate words. Research the true meanings of the words you do use – you just might discover that there’s a better word than the one you originally chose.
In fact, it’s often better when it isn’t. Believable content means credible content – and that’s what you want to create.