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An Interview with Joel Schwartzberg: Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Joel Schwartzberg in September 2021. You can listen to the interview on the main page.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. 

Today, I have an interview with Joel Schwartzberg, the author of a book I really enjoyed called "The Language of Leadership." Joel is currently Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications for a major U.S. nonprofit, and teaches communication and presentation skills to clients including American Express, State Farm Insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Comedy Central, and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Mignon: Well, thank you for being here with me today, Joel.

Joel: Thank you, Mignon. It's my pleasure.

Mignon: Yeah, after doing the last interview about your previous book, I was so thrilled to see your new book, "The Language of Leadership," and you asked me to write a blurb for it, which I was happy to do, and I was thinking thinking this morning about, you know, what was the best takeaway I got from the book? Let's start with a really good stuff. And

Joel: Sure, why don't you say it instead of me, I love to hear it.

Mignon: The one thing that I have implemented most in my own life, my own communication skills, is writing better thank-yous. I realized after reading your book that I hadn't been doing it the best way I could, so why don't we help other people write better thank-yous to?

Joel: Sure. You know, the thing is, when someone says to you or writes to you or sends you an email with those two words, "thank you,"

Joel: or even one word, "thanks."

Joel: Think of the impact that has on you. Consider how long that lasted with you. Did it last even twenty-four hours? Did it last even one hour? Probably not. It lasted as long as probably the thought of the person who wrote it, thinking they were checking a box called "appreciation."

Joel: But here's the thing the thanks that do stick with us, that resonate with us, are thanks that explain why. A why are you thanking that person, not just what did they do and the details of that, but what impact did that action have on your goals, on your approach, on the campaign, moving forward, the future of the project? Now it takes a little bit of thought for the person offering the appreciation, but the impact is incredible when you go from "Thank you" to "Thank you for contributing that idea in our staff meeting. It will definitely enable us to be more effective and more efficient in the long run."

And the second important thing is to say that publicly, because when you say that publicly, two things happen. Everyone on the team wants to get in on that appreciation, but also as importantly, you're establishing a reputation for being someone who acknowledges who listens and who appreciates. And nobody loves a leader who does not appreciate and listen and acknowledge. They want leaders who pay attention. So you're doing wonders for your own reputation.

Mignon: Right, and one thing I was noticing as you were speaking, it's not even just saying thank you for this thing, but thank you for this thing and how that thing helped us achieve our goals or reinforce our ideals or something like that, right?

Joel: Right, where does it connect? I mean, the manager, whoever is giving the appreciation, should know the goal of the campaign or the project or the program, whatever it is. So do that sort of cognitive work and connect that moment to the advance or the accomplishment of those goals. And actually, there's an evolution to this. You know, the first level of the evolution is just having an adjective. "Thank you for doing a great job." Then it becomes a statement. "Thank you for doing a job, doing a great job at our meeting today. It really benefited us." Then there's an example. "Thank you for showing us what it's like or showing us that video or sharing that PowerPoint that made a difference in our process." And the ultimate is a story. "I want to tell you about how Anna contributed an idea that really moved us way forward in our plans and in our goals, and will save us a lot of time in the future."

Mignon: That's great, yeah, my very first job, I had a boss who once a week would write a thank-you note to someone, and he made sure we all knew that he was doing it. It was a client. But I carried that message with me that thank you is are so important, but I never got the message of the right way to do them. So I especially appreciate that part.

Joel: Good.

Mignon: And then another thing we often hear a lot about is how it's important to show empathy, but it seems like there's a lot of ways to get that wrong. So can you help us understand how to be better in our empathy,

Joel: Sure,

Mignon: In our writing

Joel: Let's start. Yeah, let's start with the definition, as we fans of you, Mignon, as we like to do or like to get from you, you know, empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy is about stepping into the shoes of the other person, not just saying, "I hear you, how's this? Here's how we can fix it." But really spending some time understanding and acknowledging the issue. And in terms of a leadership's responsibility through communication-- and I want to put some mustard on that. You know, we talk we can find any number of books that talk about what a leader should do. What "The Language of Leadership" does is it tells you or it gives you ideas on how to communicate that quality because that's how your people experience you through communication. Even more so than through action. But for me, empathy is characterized or is projected first by acknowledgement. "I recognize this as an anxious time for all of us." Then, through care, "I care about your sense of safety, your sense of stability." And finally action. And in a leadership context, I consider action an element of empathy. "We are going to introduce new policies to address these challenges and provide stability where we can." Now that's an approach. Let's talk about some phrases and words as we love to do. One of my favorite words to convey empathy is "rest assured."

Mignon: Hmm.

Joel: I know this works because when I hear it, it works for me, I like when leaders say, "rest assured," basically have confidence that we will get through this. And even if there are no specific plans attached to that, just those words coming from a leader can create some sense of comfort, some sense of calm. They also encourage resilience, and they demonstrate a commitment to getting past whatever that challenge is.

Other advice is to definitely use simple language. You know, we know that audiences...well, Let's say humans... Respond better to simple languages. Sometimes you call them weekend words, than they can to complicated soaring phrases with sat words that may impress our audience, our teams and our employees. Well, leader's job is not to impress. The employees leader's job is to communicate effectively. So that means using very simple language and keeping those empathic messages in a hopeful and progressive perspective, which means more "do" than "don't." And more "we will" than "we won't," because that's what people are looking for.

Mignon: Yeah, and it's important, I mean, it's important for leaders to use simple language, but it's actually important for everyone...

Joel: Sure.

Mignon: To use simple language. And people often use big words when they aren't necessary. And, you know, that's another thing I tell people too is to keep it simple. Now I noticed you used a very specific word in your last answer. You use the word "hope" and you have some fascinating thoughts about the word "hope" and how to use it. I'd love to share those with the listeners.

Joel: Sure. A metaphor someone shared with me that I found useful was imagine yourself on a ship that's quickly taking on water. Do you want the captain of that ship to talk about the rising water, to talk about how many buckets there are to get the water out, or how many pumps there are? Or the dire situation wherein? 

No, you want the captain to give you a sense of hope. To say this is how we're going to get to dry land. That's number one. And it's often a leader's job to articulate that hope. Sometimes when we talk about describing the problem, that may be the job of a subject matter expert, but people are looking to the leader to say, "How are we going to get around this?" And some of the technique-y ways leaders can do that through communication. One is to focus on vision versus tactics. What's my vision for where we're going to be an hour from now? Once we figure out how to get on dry land, not so much the specific. All right, we're going to get out three paddles now. This paddle gives you, this paddle goes you, this paddle close to you. You know, we can get to that, and it's assumed that there's going to be a how. But what we're looking for the leader is what we're going to do, where we're going to go, and why that's going to make us safer. Something you and I already discussed already was focusing on solutions versus problems. Often we have leaders say "our goal is to fight cancer." Well, what teams and employees and even audiences are looking for is not so much the fight, but the overcome. How are we going to overcome this problem of cancer, or mitigate the impacts of cancer, or just make life, the quality of life, easier for people with cancers? What's a solution or a mitigation to this problem versus just articulating or diving into the problem itself?

What I like to say in terms of hope is try to use realistic optimism. So be optimistic. Yes, but not in a rose colored glasses kind of way. And then the final thing, Mignon, if you allow me to say one more thing that people find interesting, I was thinking about this very word "hope" and how it can be used in different ways. And one of the things, as I was writing this out for myself, and I'm a speechwriter, whether it's in my day life or in my extracurricular life counseling other leaders, I found that it's a leader's job, and inspiration is best effected, when we're using "hope" as a noun and not a verb. Because as a verb, you're saying, "Well, I hope the rain ends soon. I hope we get to this destination. I hope we are profitable in the fourth quarter." I hope. You hope. I hope. We'll see what happens.

But if you use it as a noun, look what happens. "We have hope that we're going to be profitable in the fourth quarter. This data gives me immense hope that we're going to overcome this crisis and help people help themselves and help the world."

Mignon: When so when you use "hope" as a noun, there's sort of an implication that there's an underlying reason that you have hope, not just that you're loosely hoping that something happens.

Joel: Right, right, a "hope" is a verb as a guess, "hope" as a noun has some grounding, like you say behind it, there is reason for hope. That's why I can use it as a noun and not just hope for the best.

Mignon: Fabulous. That reminds me of another section of your book where you talk about paying attention to what your team needs to hear and not what you need to say, and I thought that was insightful and important to.

Joel: Yeah. When people ask me what's the biggest mistake leaders make in their leadership communications, the one I lead with is asking, "What can I say today? What do I need to say? What do I feel like saying? What do I want to say?" And what's funny about this, and the reason it's the wrong question is because you could say this to a wall. You could say this to your pets. This is just about words coming out of your mouth. What do you want to say? Word comes from brain to mouth. It gets out there.

But at the end of the day, what are you trying to do? You're trying to impact your audience? And what does that mean? We're trying to have the audience think anew or to take an action as a result of what we communicate. That means it's not about what can I say, it's about what does the audience receive? So if the wrong question is, "What do I want to say?" the right question is "What does my audience, my team, my employees want and need to know?" And those are two separate things, because what they want to know is something they're probably already aware of, and you need to be aware of. What they need to know may not be something they're aware of, but it's still something you've identified. So once you've identified the want and a need, you work backwards. "What can and should I say to match that want and that need?" And that is the best way to make sure you're making a connection to them and not saying something that won't be relevant to them that they will ultimately tune out.

Mignon: Great. Well, we're going to take a quick break for our sponsors, but when we come back, we're going to talk more about some specific wording advice in Joel's book "The Language of Leadership."

OK, we're back, so we were talking about, you know, what you want to say versus what your people need to hear, and that reminded me that you said there are times when you should use the pronoun "I" and times when you absolutely should not use the pronoun "I" when you're trying to communicate effectively as a leader. So can you expand on that a little?

Joel: Right, there's been a lot of things written about "I" versus "we," and as I've written communications, as I've witnessed them, as I've learned about them and my 15 plus years of studying this. The big lesson is this the big takeaway is this leaders want to position themselves among the staff, not above the staff, and the best way to position yourself among the staff through leadership communication, is generally by using "we" and "us" because it's instantly inclusive, it's inviting and it implies a commonality of a mission, of a challenge, of a purpose. We are all in this together. That's very comforting, and it's inspiring and engaging. We are going to overcome this challenge. Now on the other hand, I and me speak to individual effort and individual thoughts, sometimes conceit. But when your communication is mostly about you, what you want, what you think, what you expect, you're building separation, not engagement. And that sounds like this. "I am confident that we will overcome this challenge," or "Increasing revenue is very important to me." What is the leader saying there? The leader saying the primary goal is to satisfy themselves. I want my confidence proved correct. Increasing revenue is important to me. I don't care if it's important to you.

So try to transform, for the most part, those "I" statements into "we" statements, and it's usually pretty easy. "I believe we should" becomes "we should." "This is something I care about," becomes "This is something we should all care about." Now, as you said, there are times "I" can be used effectively and should be used effectively. And I'll say there are two circumstances where it can be because I like to deal in specifics.

One is about establishing authenticity. You're telling a personal story, saying something like "I was in a similar situation earlier in my career," or "I've done a lot of thinking about this earlier and where I believe this connects to our mission is this," where you're saying something that's very personal, you're telling a personal story, and you're forming a personal dedication. 

The other scenario where you can and may want to use "I" is in a personal commitment: "I commit to making sure that our processes are transparent. I commit to reforming the way we do business to make sure we are protecting the planet." A leader is responsible for everything. In the end, the buck stops there. So they can use that mindset to make a personal commitment that way. But generally, if you find yourself at a crossroads, I would always err on the side of "we" and "us" because the benefits are very clear and there are many of them.

Mignon: That sounds great. There were some other pronouns you addressed too that I thought were really good. So "it," this," and "that."

Joel: Right.

Mignon: You know, I use I use those sometimes, and I think that you have advice for how we can, even if we use them, we can use them better.

Joel: Right, you know, when I use Grammarly, this is what it hits me up most often. They call it an "unclear antecedent," but I think they're sometimes called "unclear pronouns," and this is basically when we insert a pronoun because it is our presumption or our comfort with the material that I know what I'm talking about because I've just written it. But the audience, this is the first time they're experiencing it. So you should be clear when you're using "it," "this," or "that" as to what you're talking about. For example, let's take a line like 

This will take us to the next level." Even if it's two lines from where you're describing the approach--what "this" is--it's best to substitute that "this" with what you're talking about because it is reinforcing that key point. If they only remember, "This will take us to the next level." They will not remember what "this" is. So better, let's evolve: "This idea will take us to the next level." Let's evolve even further. "Adopting this innovative approach will take us to the next level." So you go from "it," let's say, to "product," let's say it's "a cloud based filing system." The more specific you are...What are you doing? You're reinforcing the takeaway that you want your audience to take with them ultimately, once the communication has ended.

Mignon: Right, you don't have to worry so much about being repetitive. I mean, you wouldn't want to say the same thing five times,

Joel: Right.

Mignon: But twice is fine.

Joel: Yeah, yeah.

Mignon: Yeah.

Joel: And I make this mistake, you know, what I like about this work is I find myself making a mistake often too, you know, even the simple passive writing to active writing. You know, I use a lot of tools. It's not all on my head. I use tools on Microsoft Word. I use Grammarly. I use a lot of other systems. I use your book. All I really support people using resources available to them to remind them of good habits that do the thing they need to do, which is not to write an amazing email or give an amazing speech, but to deliver a point that has impact, to write an email that activates the person who receives the email.

Mignon: Right, right. None of us have brilliant first drafts, I have

Joel: Right.

Joel: That's for sure.

Mignon: Running running document I keep it's called "examples of errors," and it has sentences from my first drafts that I realized later are terrible and make some mistake, and I keep them to save for examples for future podcasts.

Joel: Yeah, and we should all be aware of our bugaboos if I'm using that correctly. You know, there are things that I trip up on that you don't, Mignon, that people in your audience may not. So keep a running list of the...let's not even call the mistakes. Let's call them opportunities...of the opportunities you have to elevate your point in all of your communications.

Mignon: To improve. Now, I noticed right after I said it earlier that I had used a word that you don't like, which is called "share."

Joel: Right.

Mignon: I said I was going to ask you to share something, so tell me why I shouldn't have asked you to share something.

Joel: Well, I don't mean to throw a lot of mud on the word "share." Sharing is caring, and children should learn how to share. So there's a lot of good in share. But here's the problem: When I see a leader using the word "share," when they mean to make a point, to convince, to persuade, to prove, to support. But they say, "Share." And what are we doing when we share an idea? I'm going to share an approach. I'm going to share an idea or a proposal. Share means I'm going to throw it out there. Let's talk about it. Let's tear it apart. You know, fingers crossed, good things will happen. And this does. I'm just talking. You know, sometimes this is like saying "I want to talk about..." this is how a lot of speakers open meetings. "I thought we would talk about this." We're just talking. I mean, I'm going to, you know, maybe you'll have ideas. I'll have ideas. You'll share, I'll share. And then hopefully, magically something will come out. And here's the interesting part about when I say this. You know, I always like to give the example and the recommendation. Not just to say, "Don't do this." That's like saying, "Don't sneeze," or "Don't smoke." What is the Nicorette? The thing you can do instead? So what happens when you remove the word "share" there, you find yourself forced to use a much more specific word. "I urge you to take this up. I recommend. I support. I suggest. I want to convince. I want to explain." Really powerful words that actually communicate more accurately what you intend to do. You didn't intend to just share it. You intended to convince people, to get them on your side, to move them. So let's use that language so your audience knows what your true intention is.

Mignon: So instead of asking people, say you're in a meeting, instead of asking people to share their ideas about how to increase revenue, how could you say that instead?

Joel: You know, I would use it in the sense of what you are saying, I think it's fine to say because you want to lower the bar for participation often. So I would be OK with saying, "Can someone share their ideas but be specific about how we can improve this process? I'd like to get some feedback on these titles for this new campaign," where I'm most concerned is when the leader represents that idea, puts that idea out. So I often say when a leader is leading a meeting, the agenda is only the topics. A leader should bring points to the meeting. And if you just rely on the agenda, you're probably going to say, "All right, let's share some ideas around last week's town hall meeting." But if you bring a point, and you prepare point in advance, that's when you don't use the word "share." And you can say "I saw there was some negative feedback about last week's town hall meeting that it wasn't efficient. I want to suggest ways or find ways we can make our town hall more efficient, and something I want to propose is that we move it from four hours to two hours." And those things invite discussion, they invite voices, and they create inspiration and engagement. And ultimately, that's what leaders want to do. You know, the the full title of my book is "The Language of Leadership. How to Engage and Inspire Your Team," and I didn't pick those two words randomly. I believe the most important things leaders can do is engage and inspire, and they're not going to do that as well with a word like "share."

Mignon: All right. Let's talk about some other words, too. You talked about

Joel: Sure.

Mignon: Using powerful words, so, you know, "enable" versus "allow," for example.

Joel: Right. You know, it started with that. I read a lot of speeches, and I heard a lot of speeches, and I noticed people were saying "allow" when they meant "enable." "Our hard work is going to allow more people to find housing." Well, chances are your hard work didn't just move yourself out of the way and allow something to happen or remove an obstacle and allow something to happen or just grease the wheels. Chances are you did, or at least you want to convey that you did, enable that. You took an active step. So that's why I want people to check themselves when they say "allow," and maybe they need "enable."

And then that opened up a whole Pandora's box of weaker words, what I call strategic word swaps. And I wrote about this for Harvard Business Review and just some examples we say "avoid" when we mean "prevent." We often say "address" when we mean "act." What does it mean to address an issue to address a challenge? Hello, challenge. All right, I addressed it, but we're going to act upon it or we're going to overcome it.

A big one is "react" versus "respond." "React" as an emotional response. It doesn't include what you're going to do next. I reacted. That's terrible. I had all these emotional reactions to it, but responses, here's what I'm going to do about it. "This is how we responded to the crisis. We made pet food free." "This is how we reacted to the crisis. We were upset." So there are a number of examples of that. But the rule that I want people to follow that I recommend is check all those words, particularly the verbs, and make sure you're using the most powerful and strategic word choice.

Mignon: Great, and there are a bunch more in the book, which is just wonderful. To finish up, I want to talk about why it's important to talk about the effect you're going to have on people and not on things. I thought that was also insightful.

Joel: Right, well, I've done a lot of work in teaching people what a point is, how to sharpen it, how to champion it, and a lot of that is in my first book, "Get to the Point." And like a lot of my ideas, this was a discovery. As I move people to what I call the highest outcome of their point, if we do this right, we're not just going to increase traffic to our website. We're going to save lives. We're not just going to build more facilities. We're going to make it easier for people to people to access health care. You know, if we're selling Coca-Cola, we don't want to build more Coca-Cola machines. We want to sell more Coca-Cola. And what I found to your question is that when those points ended with things, they were not as powerful as when they ended with people or living things. For example, I do a lot of work in animal welfare, and a lot of the points that I come across are about "We will build more veterinary centers or more money will come in to support shelters." But these were not as impactful when I asked audiences as "This will save more lives. This will rehabilitate more dogs and cats. This will elevate compassion throughout our society." There's something about ending with an impact on living things: people, animals, society that just has more resonance and more impact than saying "This will affect something that is not alive. That doesn't care, honestly, if we succeed or not."

Mignon: Fabulous. Well, the book we've been talking about is called "The Language of Leadership" by Joel Schwartzberg, who's here with us today. I wrote a blurb for that book, which I don't do very often, but I did it because I think it is a great book that can actually help you write better. So and I'm happy to have Joel on here today to talk about it. Joel, where do you want people to go to find you?

Joel: So the IT people love when I say this, I consider my work open code, which means that I like to share all these ideas. No one should keep them to themselves. I want everyone to be strong point makers, so the place where they should go is www.joelschwartzberg.net. And there you can find all the articles I've written. Like I said I have written for "Fast Company," "Harvard Business Review," all the podcasts like this one, a lot of tips and ideas, More information about both books. "The Language of Leadership" and "Get to the Point," and the way to contact me. And I welcome people to reach out to me and even ask specific questions. You can also follow me on Twitter because I', (I almost said "sharing") I'm offering a lot of these tips and making a lot of these points on Twitter, and I love sharing it that way. So if you follow me, you can go to The Joel Truth on Twitter.

Mignon: Like "the whole truth" but "the Joel truth."

Joel: You got it. I'm glad somebody did.

Mignon: I love a good joke. Well, thanks again, Joel. Thanks for being here today, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.

Joel: Thank you so much, Mignon. This was a pleasure.

Mignon: Thanks to my audio engineer, Nathan Semes, and my editor, Adam Cecil. Our operations and editorial manager is Michelle Margulis, and our assistant manager is Emily Miller. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin. 

I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl.

Please follow Grammar Girl on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. It really helps, and that’s all. Thanks for listening.