Executive Presence and Performance Strategies/Communications/Leadership
James Pennebaker of University of Texas, Austin has studied this type of language for the past two decades. In contrast to content language--the verbs, nouns and adjectives that consciously convey the meaning of a sentence--function words often go unnoticed. But Pennebaker’s work shows that small words like ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘we,’ ‘the,’ ‘there,’ ‘at,’ etc. can reveal much about who you are and how you interact with the world around you.
In the 1990s, Pennebaker and his team developed the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Program to apply modern technology to the analysis of these words. They were looking for patterns or trends and hypothesized that examining function words could reveal key information about relationships and even let you know whether or not someone is lying. Here are some of their key findings:
Heavy use of the pronoun ‘I’ often indicates self-consciousness and self-focus. In contrast to what many assume, using the first person singular does not convey confidence. On the contrary, it associates with a lower status in the conversation. Take a look at this email that Dr. Pennebaker sent to a well regarded professor in his field:
The reason I'm writing is that I'm helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come... I really hope you can make it.
Compare that to the email he received in response:
Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one ... and the conference idea will provide us with a semi-formal way of catching up with one another's current research.... Isn't there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?
Next time you are speaking to an employee or supervisor, pay attention to the pronouns used and see if this finding holds true for you.
Women tend to use the pronouns “I,” “me” and “mine” as well as third person pronouns more than men. According to Pennebaker’s research, women’s more frequent use of personal pronouns indicates that they are more self-aware, focused on, and better able to manage interpersonal relationships. In contrast, men tend to use concrete articles (‘a,’ ‘an,’ ‘the’) more often because they talk about objects more. In a workplace setting, this can translate to men and women seeing the same situation very differently, with men focusing on the ‘what’ and women more drawn to the ‘who’ and ‘why.’
Use of function words can indicate compatibility between people. Findings show that when two people have similar patterns in their use of function words, they are more likely to be personally and professionally compatible. Following a hypothesis, Pennebaker recorded and transcribed conversations between people on speed dates. He entered the conversations into his Program for analysis and cross referenced the results with information about how the daters themselves perceived their dates. The results: Pennebaker was able to predict matches more accurately than the people themselves simply by analyzing their use of function words. Even more powerfully: the same type of analysis accurately predicted which couples would continue dating for at least 3 months!
Pennebaker’s work asserts that changing your use of function words will not necessarily change your underlying personality. However, being aware of how they reflect internal beliefs or social status and noticing them in conversation can help you deliver stronger speeches, navigate complex relationships more effectively, and gain insight into the presence you bring into a conversation. For example, if you want to connect with someone, try to be conscious of and mirroring their use of function words they same way you might mirror their body language. These words may hide in the nooks and crannies of expression, but they can be invaluable tools in building rapport and executive presence!