Published:  01:18 AM, 05 September 2017

Why language matters to female entrepreneurs

Why language matters to female entrepreneurs

"Wanted - successful women entrepreneurs running fast-growing companies". You would think that an advert like this would have hordes of women making contact wouldn't you? Well, that's not the case.

A few years ago I was involved in an initiative whose target market was women entrepreneurs running fast-growth companies. My role was to find these businesses to see how they could be supported in raising capital, and gaining access to mentors to help them during their growth journey.

However, the problem was that we could not find many women who identified with this description. The traditional advertising routes were not working, so I set out to check if the lack of interest meant that they actually didn't exist.

What I discovered surprised me. There were many women who had ambitious growth plans and whose businesses were generating annual revenues well in excess of £250,000 - but they did not categorize themselves as a "fast growth company".

In fact, it took a little time during the conversations for them to recognize how successful they actually were. I would begin with getting to know them as individuals and find out what their passions were; why they started up their business and what progress they had made to date. Then I would enquire what their future plans were, and what they hoped to gain as a result of that success. In other words, I started with where they were now, and slowly uncovered what they were moving towards.

As a result of these conversations I realized that in every case, the businesses did qualify as fast growth, and the business owner was focused and driven to achieve further success. What I had uncovered was that the women did not identify with the label used and had not come forward as a result. So the language seemed to matter.

More recently I have been delivering a series of talks on the subject of risk, and using the risk type compass as a way to help leaders to appreciate that risk-taking can look quite different depending on your risk disposition.

For those that are warier and prudent, or more risk averse; stating ambitious growth aspirations for their company may seem highly uncomfortable. While they are perfectly capable of getting that outcome, how they express their ambitions may be somewhat different to those who are more adventurous and carefree, and more comfortable with risk-taking.

I describe these differences using the story of climbing a mountain. If I was to ask the more risk-averse woman to climb a mountain, their immediate reaction is likely to be, "no that's too difficult, I can't do that - you should ask my friend Jo, she likes adventures".

However, if I said, "let's go out for a walk, and enjoy the fresh air, we can have a chat along the way - it might get a bit uneven under foot, so come prepared" they are likely to turn up with enthusiasm and the correct footwear, then before they know it we have walked half way up the mountain! Two ways to achieve a similar outcome, but different language used to motivate the individual depending on what words resonate with them.

TED talk superstar, Amy Cuddy also talks about how language can have an impact on action in her recent book, Presence. She recalls her desire to become a runner and that she repeatedly failed in her New Year resolution because in every run she did, she felt like a failure against her ideal of someone who was self-disciplined, fast and able to complete marathons.

Eventually she took a different approach. She just resolved to run once. She dropped the long term, inspirational goals, and just set out to make running a positive experience. Rather than focusing on what she believed she could not do, she focused on what she could do and linked it to something she enjoys, which is travel. So now when she travels for work, so goes for a short run to experience a little more of her new environment in a different way.

Cuddy uses the term "self-nudging" to describe this approach. Along with her Harvard colleague Alison Wood Brooks, they arranged a seminar on the topic, aiming to discover more about the psychological hurdles that stop people from performing well. What they learned was that when we reframe anxiety as excitement, the better we are likely to do.

Brooks carried out experiments with people using three different stressful situations and found that those who took a moment to reframe their anxiety as excitement outperformed the others. Self-nudging, is about focusing on each moment in front of you, rather than the end outcome, to slowly nudge yourself towards being bolder.

So what does this mean for those who are working in the field of women's enterprise support? I think it means that language matters. We are so used to talking about inspirational end goals - startup to IPO, fast growth to exit, making a million, that maybe some thought should be given to "being the best you can be in your business today" mantra. Reflecting on "what is" as well as "what could be" using real-time feedback as a means of motivating oneself without being pressurized into defining what the end outcome should be.

The UK government formed a behavioral insights team focused on implementing changes in processes and systems to nudge people. They have had successes in the areas of car tax and income tax, so perhaps they should now turn their attention to developing some nudges to encourage more women to start up and grow their businesses, or encourage more diversity in the workplace. We can all think about how to encourage people to make different choices based on how options are presented, so maybe a little more thought about the words you are using can make a big difference.


Sue Stockdale is an executive coach, author and motivational speaker

-Sue Stockdale


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