Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His column appears on Wednesdays.

RALEIGH – In my 20 years of leadership, I have made about 20,000 mistakes, most of them based on poor communication. Early in my career, I didn’t understand the impact that my word choice could have on business outcomes, but if there is one job that can teach you quickly to care about language, it’s sales.

Let’s be brutally honest here. Communicating as a leader is no easy task. You’re human and so you are bound to make mistakes, but a potential misstep can cost you big. This September, as you start to build momentum toward a strong and successful 2021, focusing on the words you chose can help build a foundation for success.

Improve the way you talk to people and you will see immediate results. On my journey to the C-suite, here’s what I’ve learned: The words you use reflect your character and who you want to be. 

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Thoughtful word choice shows that you are a thoughtful person, and the opposite is true as well. I’m a die-hard optimist so I always try to see the best in people, but careless or insensitive language always makes me pause and wonder what you value. That means it’s making other people pause too.

As you work toward your personal and professional goals for 2021, remember these three language principles to expand your audience, refine your message and inspire your team.




For leadership communication to be truly effective, it needs to include every person in the room. Inclusive language is the daily practice of unbiased, intentional word choice that acknowledges diversity and respects all people. And it’s your single greatest asset for 2021. 

Inclusion relies on the central premise that anyone who is good enough to get hired at your business also deserves to be treated like your best employee. By avoiding unintended slights and microaggressions, inclusive language gives everyone a place at the table. It requires us to examine our unconscious biases, consider how they might be present in our language and work to move past them.

Employee engagement, innovation and problem-solving hinge on a sense of acceptance and belonging. No one can do their best work in a place where they feel like they don’t belong. As a leader, you set the tone and example for your team so it’s important to admit what you don’t know, set an expectation for personal growth and learn as much as you can about inclusive language. One way to start is by joining us next week for an inclusive language webinar




In this fast-paced, digital business era, where so much of our communication is driven by the casual language of social media, a carefully crafted and starchy professional message runs the risk of seeming cold, duplicitous or just plain disconnected. Instead, use ordinary language that shows your own humanity. 

Contractions are ok. Three-syllable words are usually not. Instead, use common words and phrases that anyone could understand. Personality, warmth and transparency are modern-day leadership imperatives, especially if you want to build a culture of trust. 

Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. When you make a mistake, own it, fix it and move on. You won’t get everything right every time, so it’s important that you know how to apologize, correct behavior or reevaluate a perspective and keep going. 




Optimism doesn’t mean eternal positivity. It means that even when things are bad, you know how to focus on the things that are good, and you trust that things are going to get better. Some people might be naturally optimistic, but the fact of the matter is that optimism is a skill, and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get. Optimism inspires trust and confidence by helping your team to see the bigger picture. 

Don’t mix positive and negative feedback. Despite what we all learned in middle school about introducing criticism with a compliment, people don’t actually receive constructive feedback that way. Avoid negative constructions, passive voice and words like try, probably, just, sort of and maybe, which make you sound uncertain and insecure. Instead say we will, I want to or we are going to. Those words reinforce your confidence and positivity. 

What do you do if you’re not good with words? 

Yes, words are important, but it’s also true that language goes hand in hand with your behavior. Transparency and humility are key here. It’s ok to tell your team that you are working to learn more about inclusive, authentic and optimistic language!

In the meantime, be visible, be accessible and be curious. Be the best example of what you want to see in your business so that you can set clear expectations for language at work. You will find that people are usually pretty forgiving if they know you are working toward personal growth. 

About the Author

Donald Thompson is a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a technology-enabled diversity and inclusion firm focused on business outcomes. Their latest white paper, Say This, Not That, is now available for free download. Join The Diversity Movement for an inclusive language webinar on Tuesday, September 22 at 12:00 noon.

Donald is also CEO of Walk West, a digital marketing agency. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. He is a mentor, teacher, public speaker, author, podcaster and angel investor. Reach out to him on LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com.

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