The say/do ratio is a term used to describe the extent to which someone’s actions are consistent with their words or promises. It refers to the ratio between what someone says they will do and what they actually do. Ideally, everyone’s say/do ratio would be one—that is, they would always deliver on their promises—but we all know that this is not the case.

The say/do ratio can be an important metric in personal relationships, business partnerships, and leadership positions. When someone always delivers on their promises, it helps to build trust and credibility. However, when there is often a mismatch between words and deeds, this can damage relationships and reputations.

For example, when someone frequently makes promises but fails to follow through on them, their say/do ratio is low. This might reasonably be taken to mean a lack of reliability and trustworthiness. However, someone who consistently follows through on their commitments has a high say/do ratio. This generally suggests a strong sense of integrity and accountability. 

The origin of the say/do ratio

The origins of the say/do ratio are not entirely clear. However, the concept is frequently found in the field of leadership development and management. Effective leadership requires more than words: it also requires the ability to follow through on commitments and promises. Communication skills are important—but not the only metric.

Various leadership writers have discussed the say/do ratio. These include Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centred Leadership. Covey emphasises the importance of building trust by aligning words and actions. He suggests that the say/do ratio is a useful way to measure this alignment. It has therefore become widely recognised as a way to measure credibility and reliability. Some organisations even use it in performance evaluations.

The say/do ratio in thought leadership

Any tool that helps to establish trust and credibility may be useful in thought leadership. The point to remember is that like other leaders, thought leaders are not only judged on their words, but also on their actions.

It is easy to forget that thought leadership is not only about what you say. We discuss the importance of content, but you cannot build a reputation on words alone. To build a solid reputation as an expert—a prerequisite to being seen as a thought leader—you need to ‘walk the walk’. Otherwise, you are simply expressing unfounded opinions. Thought leaders whose words align with their actions are more likely to be seen as authentic, reliable and trustworthy. 

You can improve your say/do ratio as a thought leader in several ways. First, be transparent and authentic. Sharing personal experiences will show your commitment to your ideas and values. Second, always follow through on commitments. If you make promises, especially in public forums, act on them. This can be as simple as sending more information. Third, be consistent in your messages across all platforms and everything that you say or publish. This should not be hard if what you say and do is always guided by your values.

Finally, seek regular feedback from your followers. This will help to ensure that you understand the effect of your words and actions on others, and therefore help you to monitor your say/do ratio. Taken together, these four actions should help you to build stronger relationships with your audience.

Challenges of the say/do ratio

The say/do ratio has some practical challenges to formal use. In particular, it is not always easy to measure properly. We all have an idea of our own and others’ say/do ratio, but is that grounded in reality, or just an impression—and does that matter? After all, reputation is about impressions, and not necessarily facts. It is hard to build a reputation for reliability and consistency, but very easy to lose it through one mistake or inaction. 

The say/do ratio may also be culturally sensitive. In high context cultures, direct communications and firm commitments are valued. However, in lower context cultures, much more may go unsaid. You may even be unaware that you are perceived as having made a commitment. 

A useful tool—but not the only one

The say/do ratio is therefore probably best seen as a useful way of thinking about your words and behaviours in the context of building trust and reliability, rather than a formal measure. It will affect how others view you, but you also need to be aware that reputation tends to rest on more than a single measure.