How to protect yourself from “engineered speech?”

"Engineered speech" is a conversational technique to get results from people by withholding information, pushing people's psychological buttons, or selling them a new narrative. While it can harm people through manipulation, it can also help by reframing the situation positively.

This essay is based on my conversations with Carrie Allard.

The boss

I am dreading the next meeting with Ramesh, my boss. I know that most of what Ramesh says is insincere and manipulative. However, on the surface, he's polite and caring. He's asking about how I feel and how my family is. Ramesh is asking if I have anything on top of my mind and would like to spend time talking about it. However, he quickly becomes evasive when I start asking real questions: "What's our team's strategy?", "Which projects should we focus on to achieve success?" or "What can I do to get promoted?"

When it comes to honest high-stakes discussion, it's impossible to get a straight answer. Ramesh usually thinks for a few seconds and gives me a calculated meaningless reply that keeps me excited without sharing any substantive information. Ramesh is smart, and he's using his intelligence to create a thick layer of smoke to hide his true thoughts and intentions.

My relationship with Ramesh was never great, but I recently started doubting whether we could work together. His evasiveness makes me feel that he always has some sinister agenda. Like he's playing some game where I'm just a sacrificial pawn in his game of influence. So then I started looking for a position in another team, hoping to find a mentor who could have a more open and trusting relationship.

Ramesh was using “Engineered speech”. This communication technique created distrust, and our relationship has never been repaired.

What is engineered speech?

There are two communication styles: "open" and "engineered."

Your speech is open when you're not holding back, bringing your authentic self. Open communication enables divergent thinking - allows people to explore new ideas and generate serendipity. This is great for creating innovation in your team and building authentic relationships. You can make a mistake. And you can correct yourself. Like free-flowing, you're really saying what's on your mind. Like if you have a creative session and you're brainstorming.

"Engineered" communication occurs when you choose your words carefully, think about people's reactions, and lead towards some specific behavior. You build a mental map of what people need to hear and use it to choose your words carefully.

Many techniques could be used to manipulate the story:

  • Lie. Classic telling the wrong information.
  • Withholding. Not revealing important information.
  • Filtering. Creatively selecting facts that fit the narrative.
  • Misdirecting attention. Adding information to the story that positions someone else as a villain.
  • Changing the frame of reference. Describing the story from a new point of view that changes the conclusion.
  • Psychological tricks. When you push people's buttons to get what you want. For example, someone can troll, gaslight, and trigger other people off their emotional balance.
  • Empathy. Trying to understand the person on a deep level to build rapport and understand their thoughts and emotions would give you an upper hand in the discussion.

The most interesting examples of engineered speech are subtle, when there's no obvious lie or blunt aggression.


A few years ago, I worked in a startup that wasn't doing well and needed a reboot. So the board hired a seasoned CEO to improve culture, products, and sales.

He delivered several upbeat speeches and convinced the team that the company was doing very well. However, something about his manner of speaking was too polished. It sounded too much like something from a press conference or a movie rather than real life. It sounded fake. It sounded "engineered."

Nevertheless, the team got convinced about the excellent prospects of the company. One person even bought a house, expecting a stable paycheck. However, in two weeks, half of the team was laid-off, including the guy who had just bought the house.

The CEO's engineered speech misled the team and provoked people to take unnecessary financial risks.

The angry teammate

On Monday, I got an email from an engineer who was clearly upset. One of our group's executives talked about deprecating a feature that the engineer was working on and planned to justify his promo.

I'd really want to know why you make statements like "deprecating feature X." What is the plan? What is the timeline? What should the people who support this feature do when everyone thinks that it's being deprecated? We can't get any support to do maintenance work!

The person continued pinging me on chat, so I decided to step up and deal with the situation, even though it wasn't me who was spreading the rumors.

I called a meeting the next day and invited the upset person, his boss, and my engineering partner. A few other people were added to the forum.

When I joined, I started listening very intently to the over bursting expression of their anger. I was trying to see the situation from their point of view. I was using mirroring and labeling techniques to keep them talking and slowly making the connection. Finally, I admitted the wrongdoing and validated their perspective. I was using "engineered speech."

Slowly the angry team calmed down, and we agreed to reach out to the executive to clarify that the deprecation plans are not confirmed yet.

The engineered speech helped me to resolve a conflict.

Is it good or bad?

"Engineered speech" is a tool. It's neither good nor bad. It depends on how we use it. We use it to manipulate people and provoke them to do something, not in their best interest. However, we can also help people reframe a situation more productively or defuse an argument.

As a practitioner, there are three risks to be aware of:

  1. Engineered speech can undermine existing relationships and breed distrust. When my boss used engineered speech with me, I felt patronized. Why didn't this person tell me the truth? Is it because I'm not worthy? Can I handle only pre-polished sterilized lies instead of absolute raw truth? So our relationship didn't hold up for long, and I moved to another team.
  2. Engineered speech increases the distance between people and makes new connections less likely. Since engineered speech treats people like an object, it makes empathy less likely. Some people detect it quicker than others, but eventually, any intelligent person would understand what's going on. And when they do, the natural empathy and serendipity will fade away, and the conversation becomes boring and sterile.
  3. Engineered speech decreases your authenticity because it follows predefined templates. People are multi-dimensional creatures. We are poor judges of which our own reactions and thoughts are the best. Therefore, when we put on engineered speech as a mask, we replace something alive, vibrant, and authentic with a positional game of a sleek manipulator who robotically repeats the lines written in the past.

So, what can you do?

Since engineered speech has power over people, it's good to pay attention to avoid being manipulated.

When I hear a person's speech sounding artificially polished, I immediately put my guards up. They are using engineered speech. Something is going on.

It's hard to interact with a person in good faith without trusting what they are saying. Since engineered speech is subtle, it's hard to confront them. They are not technically lying, so there's nothing to expose. You are not going to change their mind. You are more likely to make them back off and become more subtle and sneaky.

So, the best advice that I follow is to walk away and spend time instead with people you can trust, be authentic, and connect on a deeper level.