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Business Creativity & Innovation

The Power of Language in Innovation

Innovation language

We are all aware that innovation has its own language conventions rich in buzz words. At first glance this may seem like a harmless dialect that simply reflects the nature of the work we are undertaking.

Innovators, after all, are trying to communicate the promise of something that may not exist yet, and sometimes that requires some (over) optimistic decoration. Innovation is about extrapolation not interpolation and so we do have to rely on ambiguous statements.

The metaphors and other language used could signal something more important. Maybe the language is used because of a lack of hard data, or the fact an idea isn’t yet properly formed.  If we recognised this fact then perhaps we could use these communication tools only when they’re effective (or, more importantly, not when they are ineffective). A more effective use of language might allow us to gain get buy-in on important projects.

Research has shown that where people lack hard data/information, they tend to use three types of language to describe innovation concepts.

  • Metaphor is the substitution of figurative language for literal language.
  • Hyperbole is exaggerated language used for emphasis or effect.
  • Revisionist rhetoric is the simplistic, inaccurate, or self-serving characterisation of events to create or support an argument.

You can see in the wordle above some of the most common words or phrases that are used. Are you using these in your own communications? Below are some suggestions to anyone interested in communicating the potential of an idea:

Recognize how you are using metaphor. Metaphor can help focus attention or highlight key aspects of an idea in a universal way. Be careful though, a metaphor can also signal to others that you haven’t thought through your idea. Some people do find that businesses that consistently use descriptive approaches report a degree of frustration and lack of buy-in for their ideas. Metaphor should be used to supplement, not a substitute, for hard facts.

When you have a potentially good idea but lack evidence, begin with experimentation or prototyping. People are often likely to begin their pitches by putting their energy into speculative communications (using descriptive language rather than hard data), and fail to gain the personal or organisational support that they need to take their idea forwards. It is more likely that people gain support by investing in models or prototypes to demonstrate their ideas and then follow it up with descriptive communications.

Learn when to use metaphor effectively.  In many large organisations, people tend to bounce ideas off one another and gain feedback from colleagues. Where there is a lack of data, it is possible for ideas to travel far and wide as metaphor or stories.

Put hyperbole and revisionist rhetoric in their place. When communicating why an idea has potential, it might seem obvious why you should avoid hyperbole or rhetoric. Surprisingly, there are important situations where such language can be constructive. These are informal meetings or briefings where people understand that language is not intended to be taken literally. These are mostly high trust environments where language and ideas are used as springboards for creative thinking.

Language is an important of the management of innovation, but it must be used wisely.

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