How to Get Ahead by Speaking Vaguely

The scientifically proven power of abstract speaking
Photo illustration by 731; Photograph by Mark Lamoyne/Alamy

Contractors intimidate me because they make things and I cannot. Whenever I speak to one, I wind up asking lots of questions that make me seem powerless, such as “Where exactly is my attic?” And so last week, when a contractor came by to offer advice on renovating the bathrooms, I panicked.

Fortunately, a study called “Using Abstract Language Signals Power,” published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that projecting power is incredibly simple. Just communicate in abstractions. Details convey weakness. In one of the seven experiments, participants read quotes from a politician who described an earthquake as killing 120 and injuring 400; later, when he simply said it was a national tragedy, subjects thought he was a better leader.

Based on this information, I told my contractor I wanted to “maintain the integrity of the house’s original architecture.” He seemed to respect that. I have no idea if that means he won’t overcharge me or if he now thinks I’m a superpowerful dude with tons of cash.

There’s an easy way to try this at work—deemphasize verbs. When I dialed Cheryl Wakslak, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, lead author on the study, her first piece of advice was not to use words such as “dialed.” Instead of focusing on active words, she suggests end-related statements. “You could say, ‘I dialed her number.’ Or you could say, ‘I did research for a story.’ ” I didn’t just do research, though. I did a deep-delve into one of the central human power dynamics of our time.

Wakslak also cautions against meaningless business jargon, words such as “ideaate” and “deliverables” that some workers resort to when trying to seem impressive. “Being completely vague will just make you sound stupid,” she explains. “Bulls––– is best when it has a kernel of truth in it.”

Being abstract isn’t about saying nothing. It may even force you to say something more meaningful, if less informed. This way of speaking is effective because it implies you have a grand thought on a specific theme. It also delivers a judgment. It’s basically every TED talk, minus that one minute in the middle with actual information.

Wakslak started researching this idea by asking people how they expected the powerful to communicate, and most suggested big-picture perspectives. “It seems obvious, but so often people aren’t doing that,” she says.

Especially when they make speeches. Think of every State of the Union this century. People assume a wonkish, Clintonian mastery of details shows power. In actuality, a Reaganesque overall direction makes you seem more in control. Similarly, if you’re running a meeting, don’t try to impress people with how much information you’ve amassed. Instead, transform all that data into a straightforward story.

Abstraction may even work on your boss. I first found out about this study when my editor sent an e-mail asking if I’d write 600 words on it. I said I’d think about it for a day, so I’d have time to read the results and learn the techniques. When we finally talked, I thought, I’d try them out on her.

For our call, I crafted an adjective-heavy, big-picture speech. “This sounds superinteresting,” I began. “Because it speaks to how people are making more snap judgments in an information-filled, noisy social media world. More information can actually be less information.” She liked that idea. I could not believe how well this was working, so I said I’d need more space for the article. At the end of the conversation, we upped my word count to 800. The final article is more like 630, though, because I didn’t account for something: She’d cut out all the bulls–––.

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