Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes about management issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays. 

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Learning the most respectful terms for other people’s identities and backgrounds can sometimes have an unintended effect. It can make you feel defensive, embarrassed or guilty for things you didn’t know before. What’s key is to not let yourself get stuck in those feelings, and instead, embrace the opportunity to model humility and a growth mindset. 

In short, use your personal development journey as a chance to lead by example. Acknowledge your own imperfections; admit and apologize for past mistakes; and continue your individual commitment to continued growth and competitive learning

Adaptability and authenticity are core competencies for future-focused leaders — and so is inclusive language use. Although those negative feelings that come along with learning might sting in the moment, understanding how to manage them is key to moving forward because when we know better, we do better, right? 

If you know me, you know I have a high tolerance for failure. I’m not afraid to admit what I don’t know and fail forward, sometimes repeatedly, while I learn a new skill or ability. Making mistakes is human after all, but not learning from them is often the problem. In that vein, this week’s column offers an updated republication from fall 2020 with my best tips for intentional word choice.

Communicating as a leader

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, so you are bound to make mistakes, but a potential misstep can cost you big. The opposite is true as well. 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. 

Thoughtful word choice communicates 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, 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 diverse identities and respects all people. And it might be your single biggest asset as a modern business leader. 

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 seat 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 and set an expectation for personal growth.


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, starchy, professional message runs the risk of seeming cold, duplicitous or just plain disconnected. Instead, use ordinary language that shows your own humanity and imperfection. 

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

Also, 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 your 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. The more you practice it, the better you’ll get. Optimism inspires trust and confidence by helping your team to see the bigger picture. 

To infuse your language with intentional optimism, don’t mix positive and negative feedback. Despite what many of us were taught as young professionals about introducing criticism with a “compliment sandwich,” 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. That means it’s ok to share where you are on your personal development journey and to tell your team that you are learning more about inclusive, authentic, 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 serial entrepreneur, angel investor, author, podcaster, public speaker and member of numerous corporate and not-for-profit boards, including The Raleigh Chamber, Vidant Medical and TowneBank Raleigh. He is also an executive coach, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. His autobiography, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Journey to Success, will be available in 2022. In the meantime, download The Diversity Movement’s guide to inclusive language at work, Say This, Not That: Activating Workplace Diversity Through Inclusive Language Practice.