Why Definitions Matter

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We had just arrived at the park, I was accompanied by only one of my kids and we were equally excited to play. Before we even got to the softball diamond he was asking if he could go on the monkey bars. The tricky part was that he would be by himself and is not my oldest. I went to what I knew my wife would appreciate and overexplained where the playground was and where I would be playing.


“OK, this is the field I’m playing on. I’ll be here the whole time. All you have to do is follow the gravel path to the playground. If you stay on the gravel path it’ll take you right there. When you’re done or want a drink, all you have to do is walk back on the gravel path and you’ll come right back to me. Any questions?”


My son hesitated then asked a question that changed the whole conversation.

“Yeah, what’s gravel?”


I responded with, “I’m so glad you asked! These little rocks that we’re standing on, that’s gravel.”

I had done my best impression of a good Dad and it totally backfired in a simple but profound way. So, what’s the lesson? Definitions matter. Especially with things we think everyone knows.


Why Definitions Matter

I’ve worked for a managed service provider for almost 9 years now. One thing I’ve learned: IT people LOVE acronyms. At first, I was hesitant to ask what everyone was talking about, now I just jump in when I’m confused. Which is often.


Regardless of your industry, your people want to know what you’re talking about. Donald Miller has two phrases that I quote often, “no one will follow you into a fog” and “if you confuse, you’ll lose.”

It’s so true!


Anyone who has been responsible for direct reports for more than 23 minutes knows, just because you understand doesn’t mean they do. And if you’re not getting the results you want, there’s a good chance you as the leader didn’t break it down enough.  The following are several areas where I’ve fallen short many times.


  • Subject: “Customer Visit then OOTO at 12 pm EoM”
    • Then people wonder where you are at 1:15 pm and it’s clear no one knows what your intention was
      • Out Of The Office & End of Message

Now it makes sense that they couldn’t find you and that there wasn’t anything in the body of your email. 


  • Assigning a goal of outbound calls but not helping script the pitch
    • I don’t get it, everyone hit their call number, but no one hit their sales number...

It came naturally to you, but not everyone is you. Go through your process, slowly. Write down the words and phrases you say. Then let the team make it their own.


  • Instructions are to “work the room” at this important event
    • An employee comes back with stories of meeting a few people but “there wasn’t much time for networking”

Explain that “the most interesting person in the room is the person most interested in you”. It doesn’t matter how much time is designated for networking, everyone in there wants to be interesting. This is your opportunity as the leader to define working a room. Equip them with questions. Explain what to look for and where to stand. Maybe read “Captivated” by Vanessa Van Edwards together.


  • “Follow-up on an opportunity”
    • This is much more than an email recap, it’s a chance to stand out and earn trust

Patiently give examples of when you have done this well. More importantly, share where you’ve failed. Seriously. Tell them where you’ve messed up and that you want them to be better than you.


Start With Why Clarity

It may feel strange to “dumb it down” but you’ve already lost if you aren’t clear. You aren’t taking away from your content, you’re making it palatable.  What do I mean? My son didn’t need a well-spoken lesson on “not wandering from the path” when we were at the park. He needed to know what the little rocks were.


It’s the same for any situation where we’re leading—we need to slow down enough to make sure everyone knows what the heck we’re talking about. When people need to ask questions it’s our responsibility to keep it a safe environment. Ridicule one person and you’ll detonate a bomb on the foundation of trust you’ve been trying to build. Protect it. Call out the mean kids. Don’t let quick-witted jerks undermine what you’re building.


Why do definitions matter? Well, how else will we really know what you’re talking about? Don’t leave it up to chance, say what you mean and be clear about it. When all else fails, think first date.  On a first date, you want the person you’re with to feel cared for and confident in what you’re saying. If they ask questions you don’t mind, you’re glad they’re interested.


Definitions also matter because they hold us accountable. As leaders, our words have a particular weight because of our influence. Flippant speech and assumptions will cause people to shut down. No one wants to be the butt of your joke or feel stupid.


Aim for clarity. Speak in order to benefit those in your care. Apologize regularly.

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