Are you using Fat or Lean Words?

Words are powerful. Words are dangerous. Sticks and stones may break bones and window panes but words can break relationships, communities and international relations.

So what words are you using? Are they “fat” words or “lean” words? What do they signify to the receiver? Are they the kinds of words that dent or cement relationships?

Fat words – words typically used by politicians – are subjective. What they mean to you won’t be the same as what they mean to me. Words like “Freedom”, “National identity” “rich” and even “we” can be fat words. Fat words speak to a vast audience whilst not saying the same things to each individual. For some people being rich means being able to eat out on a weekly basis and not raid their child’s piggy bank for change… For others, and I quote a (regrettably distant) family member, “I won’t think I am rich until I have 5 million”. Rich is a fat word.

Many of the words being brandished around before the EU referendum vote were hugely fat. No one had hammered out the details of what they meant. They wielded enormous influence, with those fat words, and future generations in Britain will be living with their consequences for many years to come.

Does this mean that fat words are influential words? If only it were so simple. Fat words may be highly influential on larger audiences whose collective styles match the speakers influencing style; that is people who are moved by seemingly shared visions and values, as opposed to concrete facts and clear-cut analysis. “Brexit means Brexit” – used by Prime Minister Theresa May, is a great example of fat words, not least because no one truly knowns what Brexit actually means.

“Lean” words are the opposite. They speak to audiences who know exactly what the presenter is referring to. A banana is a simple lean word – the range of pictures the words evoked are at least similar, usually yellow or green, of various sizes/consistency, mostly edible.

Lean words are influential – so long they are carefully chosen and with the right audience, you can show your understanding of their world through using lean words. Lean words are words that can be reasonably interpreted by those hearing them in a similar way – so long you are clear about the audience they are targeting. “There will be no a-la-carte menu for Britain,” for example, is a lean metaphor and particularly apt for the intended audience(s).

Few words are truly lean, in much the same way that few statistics are unbiased. The selection of words, the type; their order and their historical context will impact your ability to influence others. Politicians heading the negotiations with Europe would do well to take great care with their words. Now.