Throw Out The Lifeline
The television show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” made a great splash when launched, and even spawned a number of imitators.
One of the features that made the show popular was the Lifeline. That’s a mechanism an uncertain contestant used to ask for a second opinion, before committing to an answer.
Not long after the show started, I read a cartoon that used the Lifeline idea as the basis of its punchline, and it probably wasn’t the only time that happened. It’s telling, too, isn’t it, that I’ve capitalized the word, making it something more than just another noun.
The cartoon prompted me to recognize the smart use of language by the producers, to support the concept underlying the program. Consider this: the title of the program, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, asks a leading question. The answer, obviously, is an awful lot of people. Literally millions. You won’t find that surprising, though, if you’ve watched or stood in lineups for lottery tickets.
And, if you get a chance to win a million and find yourself stumped for an answer, what do you do? You use your Lifeline.
In my mind, a lifeline is a piece of rope thrown to a person in danger of drowning or being swept away by water. Now, though, a lifeline, with a capital L, means a way to save someone’s chance to win a million dollars. Doesn’t that elevate the perceived importance of the show, and reinforce the importance of winning a million dollars?
As communicators, we need to be aware of how language can be appropriated like this. Such language often comprises part of an organization’s culture, both officially and unofficially. Because of the shared experiences of people who work together, words may have special meanings that elude outsiders. Special meanings provide a sense of shared purpose; of course, they may represent shared bitterness or a sense of subversion just as easily.
Sometimes we shape the language ourselves; in politics that’s called spin-doctoring. In other cases, language shifts and shapes itself in response to all kinds of forces. Sometimes we see the changes coming, sometimes we don’t. But, we always need to be conscious of the meanings of words used in our companies and organizations.
One final note: In raising the subject of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I can’t help but think back to an anecdote from successful entrepreneur Paul Hawken (at least I believe the anecdote comes from him). He said many people approach him and ask how they too can make a million dollars. He responds by asking whether they want to MAKE a million dollars, or whether they want to SPEND a million dollars. The difference, of course, is significant.
In summary, language can be a tricky thing. Be aware that words sometimes have unique meanings within groups. If you’re not part of the group, be sensitive to the use of words that prompt the people around you to exchange knowing glances.