14 November, 2013, by Kelly Cookson

Linguistic Profiling for Business Leaders

Speakers: Dr. Louise Mullany, Professor in Sociolinguistics, The University of Nottingham and Di Tunney, Owner at The Best Organisation, Director at Liveinsights, CEO at CEO4sight.

Leadership Communication: a look at where communication fails and improvements to avoid it

The aim of this seminar was to give the Ingenuity audience an idea on how they can reflect on their own speech styles and how they communicate with others with a view to improving those communications.

Louise Mullany was the first to take to the floor and began by explaining her research into linguistics and how she has looked at the various methods of communicating within the workplace including:

  • One-to-one
  • With teams
  • Presentations to groups
  • Meetings: Chairing styles
  • Email
  • Skype and Adobe Connect
  • Video conferencing
  • Social media

With all of these communication methods in mind, Louise explained that there are four components that make up the notion of face or public self-image and gave us a run through of what each means:

1. Social identity

This includes the aspects that make us different as individuals e.g. gender, ethnicity and personality traits.

2. Personal competence and abilities

We aim to be positively evaluated by those we are working and interacting with.

3. Sociality rights

This refers to the idea of a cost benefit continuum e.g. if you are a leader and you want your group to perform a particular task, they will only do this if they can see that there is some benefit to them. Every individual has a social entitlement and right to be treated fairly. If one person thinks they are being asked to complete a task that they think doesn’t fall under their remit, you may run into difficulties.

4. Workplace/community values

This is the idea that we all have shared values and ambitions. We all want the same thing within an organisation. Strong and clear community values will help get you the results that you want from the team.

After considering the idea of public face, the audience were invited to think about how they want to be perceived. Are there any particular aspects of the above that you want to change? Are there any that you think you do well?

Wide verbal repertoire

Louise says that the most effective communicators have a very wide verbal repertoire. You can move across the scale outlined below depending on the set of circumstances that you happen to find yourself in.

On one side of the scale are the stereotypically masculine styles of communicating:

  • Direct, unmitigated
  • Competitive
  • Autonomous
  • Task-oriented

On the other, stereotypically feminine speech styles:

  • Indirect, mitigated
  • Facilitative
  • Collaborative
  • Person-oriented

With the scale of the verbal repertoire in mind, Louise then outlined some linguistic toolkits that make up the linguistic profiling package that has been developed for business leaders:

  • Narrative/stories
  • Humour
  • Relational talk
  • Decision making
  • Miscommunication
  • Conflict management
  • Speech acts
  • Directives

A particularly interesting toolkit is speech acts and Louise proceeded to go over this in more detail:

Direct speech acts

A few common examples of direct speech acts:

“Give it to Peter”

“Go right through this”

“Get a printout”

“Get him to make changes”

Indirect speech acts

On the opposite side to direct speech acts we have indirect. Looking at this method, being indirect can take a lot longer than being direct. See the example below of Steve using a lot of hedging in his speech.

Steve wants his department to run an induction day 

Steve:   Do you feel that (-) we need to do perhaps something like (-) the Product Department did?

Mike:    Set a date to sort it out

Steve:   Cos as Sue quite rightly pointed out (.) all it’s all been done for us and the things etc why don’t we take advantage of that? (.) Sue’s offered her support with perhaps John? (-) er you know perhaps to run that (.) why don’t we just set a date now?

Matt:     Yeah

Steve:   And say right okay “let’s do it”

Sue:       Just get everybody in

Matt:     Yeah

Using humour

A vital toolkit to use when communicating with others, humour can be used in many ways. Humour’s main function at work is to establish or enhance collegiality. You can also use it to criticise your team members while still protecting their Face. You can use it to assert rivalry, allocate tasks, and even subvert power. Louise pointed out some other ways to use humour:

  • Jocular abuse
  • Sarcasm
  • Aggression diffuser
  • Wordplay
  • Tension releaser
  • Jokes
  • Roleplay
  • Teasing
  • Amusing stories
  • Self-denigrating

Louise played a clip from The Office which provides a perfect (and entertaining!) example of using humour unsuccessfully at work. Watch the clip here.

Customer communication with Di Tunney

Moving on from Louise’s academic perspective, Di Tunney went into specific detail around communicating with customers. Di asked us to consider, are we speaking the customer’s language? We need to understand where the customer is coming from to enable us to do this.

According to Di: “Poor communication is today’s number one problem at work, at home and in the world at large.” So what can we do to improve this?

We all have our unique view of the world

Di shared the idea that customers behave and respond differently depending on the context they find themselves in and if the words they hear mean something to them.

The process of events results in different behavioural effects from the customer:

  1. If it makes perfect sense it will go in straight away – effortlessly
  2. If it makes partial sense they may distort it so that it make sense to them
  3. If it doesn’t make any sense it just won’t go in

The specific language we use can influence the behaviour of others and if the language is not understandable or positively effective then there should be a change in communication. Di assures us there are language patterns that are common to us all and by understanding these patterns we can use language more skilfully and predict and positively influence the behaviour of others. Di calls this the ‘Language of Influence’.

There are 7 language patterns:

  1. Toward/ Away From
  2. See/ Hear/ Feel/ Do
  3. People/ Thing
  4. Sameness/ Difference
  5. Big Picture/ Detail
  6. Options/ Procedures
  7. Internal/ External

Three KEY resources

Customers have values, and they are the Primary Drivers of Behaviour which decide what they are going to spend their resources on.

  1. Time
  2. Money
  3. Effort

Customers can be just as motivated to move away from a problem as they can be motivated to move towards a benefit.

Di shared a couple of case studies where small businesses had identified a range of different values their business should be moving towards and which they should be moving away from to attract customer resources.

A high street retailer looked at what was important to their customers when it came to their products and found the factors were given in this order of importance:

  1. Choice
  2. Quality
  3. Colour
  4. Feel
  5. Price

The second case study looked at what was important to people when choosing a pub to visit:

  1. Atmosphere
  2. Good Service
  3. Choice
  4. Prices

These examples were enlightening as many would presume that price would be higher up the list. This taught us that when it comes to the customer, don’t presume anything!


The audience said: 

“Keeping us thinking.  Made me think about the way we use Social Media”

“Found the communicating with customers section very useful”

“Great talks and good to meet the presenters afterwards”

Posted in Ingenuity Knowledge ExchangeLinguistics