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The awesome power of words

Feb. 1, 2001
Your mother was right: What you say - and how you say it - can make the difference between success or failure, including dentistry, says Dr. Nate Booth.

by Nate Booth, DDS

Patrick Henry knew the power of words. He stood and proclaimed, "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" His words inspired a nation to declare its independence.

Winston Churchill knew the power of words. During World War II, his call to Britons to make this their "finest hour" carried more power than any German weapon.

John F. Kennedy knew the power of words. In his inaugural address, he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." A new generation took up the task of creating a "Great Society."

Henry, Churchill, and Kennedy chose their words carefully. They knew that words were more than just sounds: they are firecrackers that ignite meaning in the mind of the listener. And like a string of firecrackers, one lighting the next, the meaning directs the listener's thinking to a specific area. The thinking creates emotion, and emotion leads to action.

It's unfortunate that many words uttered by dental professionals create negative meaning in people's minds, which leads to negative thinking and emotions. Let me give you an example of a word most dentists use every day: patient. We call those who walk in our doors "patients" - but what message does that word send? To most people, a patient is a person treated for a disease. What do doctors and dentists do to patients? They treat them.

What's usually involved? Pain, time away from work and family, inconvenience, and cost. How does it feel to be a patient? For most people, it's not the greatest experience.

What if you called the people who walked in your door "guests?" What message does this word send? A guest is someone you care for and take extremely good care of. How does it feel to be a guest? Wonderful! By simply changing your words, you can change the meaning people give to a visit to your office.

You might be saying, "This is just semantics." You're right - it is semantics. The definition of "semantics" is "the study of meaning in language." Meaning directs thinking, creates emotion, and produces action - three things not to be taken lightly.

In addition to the listener, there is another person who is shaped by language: the speaker. The words you choose to describe the people, things, and tasks in your office help define how you see yourself and your profession. Here are descriptions of two dentists. As you read these descriptions, ask, "Which one would I rather be?"

Dentist A

  • sees patients and works with a staff
  • tells people what procedures they need at the case presentation
  • cuts teeth with a drill and puts in fillings

Dentist B

  • sees guests and works with a team
  • advises patients on treatment options
  • shapes teeth with a handpiece and places restorations.

Which dentist would you rather be? More importantly, which dentist do you think the average person would rather see?

If any of the above words seem so strange that you say, "I could never use that," think again. Maybe your resistance is simply inertia - you've been using the old words so long that anything else sounds strange. Remember, comfortable doesn't always equal right; it just means you're used to a certain way of doing things. Here's a physical example of what I'm talking about. Right now, fold your arms in front of you, one on top of the other. Now, fold them so the other arm is on top. It feels strange, doesn't it? But is one way more "correct" than the other? Of course not. It's the same with changing the words you habitually use. Try using a few new words and see what effect they have on your "guests," your "team," and yourself.

I wrote this article after reading about and then visiting Dr. Lori Ann Kemmet of Boulder, Col. Dr. Kemmett and her team have mastered the awesome power of words. Using terms like "guest," "studio" and "service coordinator" helped Dr. Kemmett create a solo practice that grosses $1.2 million and nets more than $500,000 within a four-day week. Some of the listed word pairs are from Dr. Kirk Larson's wonderful and wacky Web site,

Click here to enlarge image

If you're ready to change the vocabulary of your office to increase the results in your own practice, here are four simple steps:

1. Create a clear vision of the kind of office you want to create.

2. Come up with a list of words that do the best job of describing that office, the people who work there, and the services they perform. Use the list on the second page of this article as a starting point.

3. Clearly communicate to your team which words you want them to use, and why.

4. At the beginning of the week, give each team member 10 $1 bills. Anyone who uses the "wrong" word must put $1 in a jar. The money collected goes to charity. Your staff gets to keep any dollars they don't have to put in the jar.

Aldous Huxley said, "Words form the thread on which we string our experiences." Do you want to experience something different in your practice? Maybe it's time you look at the thread that holds the whole thing together: the words you choose to use.

It's fitting to end this article with the words of Mark Twain, who said, "A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words ... the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt."

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