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The Language Used by All Successful Consulting Firms

You can enhance your consulting firm’s performance and results by reexamining the language you use to understand and communicate your clients’ challenges.

A cursory internet search surfaces a plethora of fascinating articles describing how language affects perception.

Perhaps the most compelling and commonly cited example is attributed to Jules Davidoff. It suggests that Westerners, who have a word for blue can easily pick out the different colored square in the image on the left, below. In contrast, members of the Himba tribe, who have no word for blue but many words for green, more easily pick out the different colored square in the image on the right.

Very cool!

Unfortunately, deeper research reveals that example is misleading and untrue.

Dang.

Your vocabulary doesn’t change your ability to perceive or think about the world.

However, your language absolutely focuses your attention and thoughts.

If you don’t possess terms to describe something, you’re much less likely to pay attention to it. That’s true for objects, situations, feelings, conditions and more.

Similarly, if your language is imprecise, it’s harder to call out distinctions and convey their implications.

Imagine if you had no words for any colors and you were trying to instruct your assistant to buy cookies decorated with the flags of Luxembourg and Lithuania for your consulting firm’s “L Countries” celebration. How would you avoid cookies with the flags from Hungary, the Netherlands and Sierra Leone?

Your consulting firm is in a similar bind. So are your clients. They don’t notice subtleties that, with better language and practice, stand out like a blue square among the green. They’re ignoring the obvious.

For you to spot what others overlook, your consulting firm needs to learn (or develop) the language of your expertise.

You’ll benefit from a framework of distinctions that is nuanced, enabling your consulting firm to describe differences, measure them, label them and, therefore, notice them.

Of course, the differences highlighted by your consulting firm’s nomenclature must have meaning. There must be some value for your clients from distinguishing between blue and green.

For example, everyone has a contact list. However, if your consulting firm regularly talks about your contact list in terms such as “A1,” “C3,” and “Network Core” you’re more likely to take actions that boost your connections with high-potential buyers of your services.

The seven steps below will help your consulting firm develop powerful language that improves your performance.

7 Steps to Develop Your Consulting Firm’s Language

Identify

Catalog the nuances you pick up on that others overlook. Note the important differences your consulting firm’s clients ignore.

Condense

Reduce the number of distinctions or differences to a manageable number. Two distinctions (e.g., dark vs. light chocolate) are easiest to internalize.

However, your consulting firm can utilize multiple distinctions (e.g., newborn, infant, toddler, adolescent, uppity graduate, codger), particularly if you offer an easy-to-remember mnemonic.

Label

Assign clear-cut, easy-to-remember terms to each distinction. We sometimes refer to these as “handles” because the best labels are easy to (mentally) grab hold of and hang onto.

Define

Establish a metric that enables people to easily recognize your consulting firm’s distinctions.

You’re looking for a simple rule that immediately associates a particular condition with one of your labels. For instance, “If it looks like the sky at midday, it’s blue. (Except in Seattle during January. That’s gray.)”

Explain

Illustrate why your consulting firm’s taxonomy is meaningful and why it’s helpful to notice and act on the nuances you’re pointing out.

Ideally, designate specific actions to specific labels. “When the traffic light is red, stop.”

Operationalize

Offer tools, rituals and reminders that help instill the habit of employing your consulting firm’s vocabulary.

For your consulting firm’s lexicon to become valuable, it must enter the common vernacular for your clients (or, at the least, at your firm). Therefore, create aids and enablers that encourage ongoing usage of your terms.

Activate

Start practicing your language and direct your clients to use the nomenclature you’ve developed.

How do you use language to help your clients and enhance your consulting firm’s results?


6 Comments
  1. Janene Jonas
    February 2, 2022 at 8:18 am Reply

    Really love this topic, David. I am regularly inspired by those who always have the right thing to say with such ease and clarity…the ‘economy of words’. I find it energizing to discover those cross-sections of conveying excellently and easily.

    In spending time on this very subject, I recently implemented the term “change your shoes” across our project team. It is to remind us all that while we’re relieved when we finish that document / deck / etc, that’s only Round 1. We then need to take a walk through our findings wearing the shoes of our client, their partners, their competitors, and (certainly not least) their customers.

    A: I’ve finished drafting all the questions for our expert interviews.
    J: Great! Change your shoes and give it another go.
    A: You got it!

    It’s actually pretty fun to do!

    • David A. Fields
      February 2, 2022 at 8:48 am Reply

      A wonderful metaphor and use of language, Janene! You’re conveying a vital concept that your team might otherwise fail to notice or consider, and telling them in a way that is fun and memorable. Outstanding!

      By the way, the “shoes” metaphor is one we share. In some of my presentations on Right-Side Up Thinking, I harken back to my formative days working in a shoe store to deliver the most important lesson: it’s not about your shoes, it’s about their feet! (i.e, consulting isn’t about you and your firm, it’s about your prospects and clients.)

      Thank you for contributing your inspiring example of putting language to use in a consulting firm, Janene.

  2. Ellen Julian
    February 2, 2022 at 1:32 pm Reply

    Remember Meg in A Wrinkle in Time (L’Engle) with her special gift for naming, and distinguishing the real from the imposter? By explicitly defining what we mean by a name, we create a basis for distinguishing that from not-that, allowing dialog and progress that can only be achieved by luck when both parties are guessing what the other means when they say a name.
    This article led me to think differently about areas of common misunderstanding in my consulting business. Thank you.

    • David A. Fields
      February 2, 2022 at 2:08 pm Reply

      Bonus points for the literary reference and double gold stars for the meta-level “that vs. not-that” distinction. You’re absolutely right that shared vocabulary leads to conversations that are less guessing. I’d love to hear about any of the common misunderstandings that you pinpointed in your consulting practice.

      I appreciate your contribution to the discussion, Ellen!

  3. Herald
    February 27, 2022 at 8:48 pm Reply

    I stumbled upon this blog while conducting a research log for a university class. As an undergraduate interested in working in the consulting industry, this was a nice find and I appreciate the examples given by the illustrations. I look forward to the future articles, cheers!

    • David A. Fields
      February 28, 2022 at 7:13 am Reply

      Good luck with your studies, Herald, and welcome to the consulting community. There are plenty of people who will be happy to give you a start when you’re ready, and I’m glad you stumbled onto one of my articles.

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