“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”

As children in the playground we all learned the old “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” rhyme. But it didn’t take us long to learn that this was, in fact, a lie. The words you use have a huge impact on those who hear or read them, and their power should never be underestimated.  

Words have the power to hurt, and the power to heal. They can give hope or bring despair. They can inspire and move people, unite or divide people. Words can start a war – or end one. Throughout history, words have been used to revolutionize, to spark positive change, and also to incite some of the most terrible atrocities the world has ever seen.

“We Shall Fight on the Beaches”

Winston Churchill is considered to be one of the greatest orators and writers of the twentieth century. His inspirational wartime speeches lifted a nation during the darkest days of the Second World War:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Extracts of this famous 1940 “We shall never surrender” speech that was given to the House of Commons were later read on that evening’s BBC news broadcast. One listener perfectly encapsulated it’s power in the following comment:

“Even repeated by the announcer, it sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine. I think that one of the reasons why one is stirred by his Elizabethan phrases is that one feels the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress: they are never words for words sake.”

“I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a defining moment for the American Civil Rights Movement and is one of the most acclaimed in U.S. history. Named as one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century, it still resonates strongly today, with 68% of Americans in a 2008 survey saying they thought King’s speech was “relevant to people of their generation”.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

Skillfully eloquent and highly impassioned, King’s and Churchill’s speeches were able to inspire hope in their listeners and move entire nations through the power of their carefully crafted words. Such speeches still have the power to rouse great emotion today.

Hitler – The Master Manipulator

On the other hand, history is full of examples of political leaders who used their words for very different purposes – to incite hatred, start wars, and to encourage normally rational people to engage in unspeakable atrocities.

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!”

– American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hitler was a master of coercion. His charismatic speeches have been described as “hypnotic”, “mesmeric” and “spellbinding”. According to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ diary, Hitler would edit his speeches up to five times before delivering them. Such fastidious attention to detail enabled Hitler to successfully utilise the power of words to disastrous consequences. He knew well the ability of words to elicit strong emotion, once commenting “I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.” And he knew how to use that power to his advantage:

“By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.”

As vile and evil as he was, there is no doubt that Hitler was an extraordinary orator, highly skilled in the art of persuasion.

Present day propaganda

The Nazi’s are just one of many groups throughout history to have used the power of words to devastating effect. The widespread use of online propaganda by extremist groups like the so-called Islamic State is a prime example of the way words can be used to radicalise others and to encourage violence.

Controversial U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump (who incidentally, is said to have once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bed)  has faced strong criticism for his rhetoric and his proposals such as “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”,  which many view as inciting political violence. Terrorism experts have warned that anti-muslim sentiments such as this such as this  only serve as a recruitment tool for extremists by feeding their propaganda. Indeed, in January this year, footage of Trump was featured in a propaganda video released by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab. Showing a clip of Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the US, the video tells its viewers that “The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens” and urges them to convert to Islam and take part in holy war.

Seen in this context, it’s really not hard to realise the extent of language’s ability to influence and manipulate people’s thoughts and actions.

What does religion say about the power of language?

Well aware of the ability of words to create or destroy peace are the world’s religions. The Bible, the Quran, The Torah and Buddhism all teach about the power of words –  and according to the Bible, words are what created the universe itself:

“Words are not simply sounds caused by air passing through our larynx. Words have real power. God spoke the world into being by the power of His words.”  

The Bible also says. “Words have the potential to produce positive or negative consequences. They have the power to give life through encouragement and honesty or to crush and kill though lies and gossip.”

The Quran declares that “Kind words (spoken) and forgiving of faults are better than sadaqa (charity).” The Torah says, “The mighty power of words hurt, heal and fashion reality.” And Buddha said, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

Influencing people’s behaviour with the power words

There is a YouTube video  that demonstrates in a wonderful way how the right words can completely alter people’s perspective.

A blind man sits on a busy street with a sign that reads “I’m blind. Please help.” Most people pass him by without a second thought, until a girl stops and changes the words on his sign. It now reads, “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it”. The difference in people’s reactions is striking as many now give the homeless man their spare change. People’s perceptions and behaviour were completely altered, simply by the use of different words.

Words are rarely purely about conveying information. Most writing or speech is designed to to influence the reader or listener in some way by causing an emotional response – as demonstrated by the above example. And as we all know, it’s very difficult to ignore our emotions.

People who work in advertising and sales know only too well the power words have to trigger an emotional response. Their success depends on how well they take advantage of this in order to influence your behaviour and provoke a certain reaction from you. If you are in sales or marketing, the right words will make all the difference to your success, so it is a topic well worth reading up on.  

Mohammed Qahtani, winner of the Toastmasters 2015 World Championship of Public Speaking, perfectly sums up the power of words with the following:

“Words, when said and articulated in the right way, can change someone’s mind; they can alter someone’s belief… a simple choice of word can make a difference between someone accepting or denying your message. You can have a very beautiful thing to say, but say it in the wrong words and it’s gone.”

Watch Qahtani’s moving speech below: 

In this digital age of social networking and blogging, we are using words more than ever before to share with the world. But are we giving our words enough forethought?

The bottom line is:

Choose your words wisely. They are the strongest tools you have.