Speaking As a Tool For Getting Things Done
We are builders, and we build the world together. We can build coffee tables, houses, palaces, and waterparks with really fun slides.
To build, we need hammers, nails, saws, and concrete mixers. But we also need another tool: language. Calls. Texts. Emails. Tweets. Shouting. Cursing (not too much cursing).
We usually think of language as passive, describing things. “The house is blue.” “The hammer is heavy.” “The water slide gave me a wedgie.” But language also does things. Think of a construction site.
“You’re hired”—declares that someone a job.
“Paint that wall red, please”—requests someone do something.
“If you drop another brick on my foot I will spit in your soda”—creates a promise, a contract about future events.
These are “speech acts.” We can think of them as tools that build shared understanding as surely as tools make houses. And they can either assist or hinder us in getting things done, depending on whether they’re done clearly, effectively and properly. That way if you’re building a house, the roof ends up on top and the basement on the bottom and we end up with a house, not a missile silo.
Language, not unlike building, is much easier to learn than to master – and the most critical skill any of us can continue to build through our lifetimes. I’ve worn many hats in my life – from taking dotcom-era startups public, to carrying multi-million dollar quotas, to negotiating billions in IT spend for Fortune 1000 buyers. At each of these steps, language has been the most critical toolset for success, and one I’ve honed with the help of dozens of mentors and resources (I’d love to attribute and thank each one but there have been too many to avoid inadvertent omissions). Today, I’m passing on that knowledge to young impact-focused CEOs while helping them assemble the same supportive relationships that took me decades to build on my own. And once again, language is at the core of our coaching and mentoring sessions. And proper speech turns into revenue and revenue builds value.
There are six basic types of speech acts. Understanding these six basic tools will help us understand how our words shape reality, and how we can shape our tongues, texts, and emails into powerful hammers and spikes that would make John Henry proud.
SPEECH ACT ONE: THE TOOL OF
“Please stop pouring concrete on me.”
We cannot live the life we want and run the businesses we want to run, without the assistance of others. We must request things. Requesting secures this cooperation.
Often, we do not request the help we crave, worried about ridicule or rejection. We’re afraid to ask for more nails because we’re embarrassed by how many nails we nailed in crookedly and wasted.
Or perhaps we do request what we need, but we are vague and sloppy in our manner of requesting, making all sorts of unwarranted assumptions, and we do not get what we want.
To work, requests must be:
- Clear. If you want to say, “Hand me some nails, please,” but instead you speak indirectly, like, “Do we have more nails?” or “these nails are going fast,” you invite confusion and slow down the nailing.
- Effective. The foreman on the front lawn yelling “please pour the concrete here!” is asking for a patio where you wanted a garden.
- Proper. You must be legitimate in asking, and the asker must be legitimate in accepting our request, declining it, or negotiating something else. Asking the accountant for nails is not proper, nor is asking the carpenter to do the taxes.
SPEECH ACT TWO: THE TOOL OF
“You’re covered in cement. Would you like me to show you how to properly work a cement mixer?”
Offering is the other side of requesting. It’s offering aid before being asked. If you notice your fellow carpenter wasting a lot of nails, you could offer to hand them more nails. Or you could offer to show them cleaner technique.
Being seen as someone who offers help means being seen as a possibility for others—being able to do things which are important to them and which they cannot do. Not to offer to do things for others indicates selfishness. Folks won’t want to work with you if you never offer.
To properly work, speech acts of offering should always be:
- Clear. Saying, “let me help you spackle” is not as effective as something clear and specific. For example: “I can help you spackle for two hours” or “I have five minutes to show you how I spread spackle.”
- Effective. You need to be competent at what you’re offering.
- Proper. If the drywaller is struggling to finish in time, and you’re the foreman, you can offer them overtime. Don’t offer to drive to their house and walk their dog for them. Unless you really like dogs.
At its best, skilled business development is about always finding a path to offer more than you request.
SPEECH ACT THREE: THE TOOL OF
“I can help you work the cement mixer from 4 to 5 p.m.”
Promises are commitments. They are the tools of offering, but in the future. Contracts on future acts. Keeping promises is at the heart of organisational performance and productivity.
When someone asks you to do something for them, and you say you will, you commit yourself to a course of action to fulfill their request. At stake with each promise is our identity. Are we who we say we are? Do we do what we say every time?
Like requesting and offering, promises should always be Clear, Effective, and Proper.
In our promises to each other we always have at stake our mutual trust, which is the glue holding relationships together, and relationships are the glue that holds together any business. Knowing when not to make promises is as key as knowing when to make promises. False promises are like walls without studs—the house won’t hold up in the long run
SPEECH ACT FOUR: THE TOOL OF
“I used 100 bags of concrete for the basement, costing me $1,000.”
Asserting is being clear about facts. Facts are the basis of business, bricks that help us build our idea of what is real and is not real, so we can make decisions about what to do.
The most pertinent facts for organizations are about income and costs. You assert how long a job took you, what your expenses are, and how much revenue you brought in. We take the existence and establishment of facts for granted, and in doing so miss that a crucial aspect of language is the technology for creating reality.
SPEECH ACT FIVE: THE TOOL OF
“You used 100 bags of concrete? I only used 50 bags of concrete in the last house’s basement, and it was the same size.”
Facts are not established by an individual asserting things, but by agreement between people. Assessing is working together to figure out why two assertions conflict with each other. By assessing, we express how things are for us, including our experience and opinions.
“I don’t think the basement should’ve needed that much concrete.” Then use third-party information to assess the differences. Did the concrete guy pour the foundation deeper? Is it a different type of concrete? Or is he lying? A receipt, for example, is an agreement between the seller and the buyer that 100 bags of concrete were sold.
We can misuse this tool of assessing in many ways. By harshly judging others. By confusing our own opinions with facts. These snap judgements close us off to new information and the possibility of creating new productive relationships.
The more trust we build up between people, the more we can trust the accuracy and dependability of another person’s assertions, and the more frictionless the business becomes.
SPEECH ACT SIX: THE TOOL OF
“It’s too rainy to work this afternoon.”
The tool of declaring creates conditions. The city inspector can declare the house is up to code. A parent gets to declare when your kid has eaten enough dinner to get desert. A judge can declare that the concrete guy was lying about how many bags of concrete he used, and committed fraud. The more authority a person has, the more they can declare.
On a rainy day on the construction site, there can be a lot of opinions about whether it’s too rainy to work. But only the boss can declare that it’s too wet and close down the site.
The basis of successful declarations are a sense of justice. What was offered or requested in in the past? What was promised? Aim to be a fair judge—and strive to have your declarations be reasonable and well supported. If you make your workers trudge through hail and lightning until their toes are wrinkled, the declining morale can be disastrous.
It can be scary at first to use these six speech acts. If you request or offer you might get rejected. If you assert or assess you might face opposition. If you promise you might let someone down. If you declare you might make people angry.
But we all use these tools everyday, whether we know it or not. Even elephants request and offer help. Apes assert and assess. Yet too many of us apes stumble through our work, blind to how good we could actually be at these common, universal things.
We need to practice until these tools become second nature in everyday settings. Like most techniques and practices, we do not master speech tools overnight. The more you use these tools, even for nerve-wracking things like requesting or promising, you may be surprised to find how many people on the other side of the conversation are eager to answer you. As we improve, we develop abilities not previously available to us, and discover the ability to get things done in ways we never could before. We discover that just six tools—requesting, offering, promising, asserting, assessing, and declaring—can build houses, lives, relationships, communities, communes, civilizations on Mars, and waterparks with really fun slides.
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