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Words Matter

Posted on August 17, 2015

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. – Mark Twain

The way we communicate in business says a lot about us. Even the most talented people can miss opportunities due to poor communication skills. Likewise, someone who lacks experience can command respect when they are strong communicators. Aside from obvious recommendations like using proper grammar and spelling, here are a few tips when communicating inward, outward and upward in business.


As the number of acceptable business communication touch points has grown to include IM’s and texting, business banter has become far more causal. In the spirit of one of my favorite sayings, “just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you should,” erring on the formal side of communication is a good general rule. I once received an email from a brand new, young team member, back when I was an EVP, whom I had not yet had the opportunity to meet directly. She was following up on a request from her manager to ask about the status of a project I was leading. Her mail to me started with one word that, while quite innocent, could send the wrong message: “Hey!” It went on to ask about the status of my project and instructed me to get back to her “ASAP.” I took the initiative and called her to discuss the status. Then I asked about her background and where she saw herself going within our organization. She was enthusiastic and energetic and clearly had her sights set on moving up within the company. I suggested she look at the various leaders in the company and determine which ones she could aspire to emulate and learn from to help her get to her goals. I also shared with her the importance of understanding the hierarchy of a company, and that in business, recognizing seniority within a company is good practice. So while it might seem perfectly acceptable for her to address colleagues at her same level with a “Hey” and an “ASAP,” communicating too casually with senior leadership might sound disrespectful and send the wrong message to the people who are in the best position to support your growth. Likewise, respectful communication, even with equal peers and those more junior, can help reinforce good habits.

Drama, drama, drama…

Blame it on the 80’s, but our society has gotten into a bad habit of using the most extreme versions of words to describe everyday situations. If the cheeseburger you are eating is “totally awesome,” how are you going to describe your first skydiving experience or seeing the pyramids? If you’re “so depressed” because you ruined your favorite shirt, what kind of empathy will we have for people with clinical depression? In business, when your manager asks how the meeting went, “amazing” should mean that the client gave a standing ovation, got out their pen and asked to sign the contract. If you felt the proposal flowed nicely or you were really comfortable with the material and thought your delivery was solid, say that. If the client said you really understood their objectives and asked to see what we could deliver for triple the budget, then say that. On the flip side, describing an unexpected, challenging situation as a “disaster” just adds to the drama. While some people let these words roll off their skin, for others it creates added stress and anxiety, which can delay executing a solution. Now, let’s assume it really IS a disaster. Using more manageable and empowering words can rally a team to action. I used to have a client, Bill Green, who was a towering man with a voice like James Earl Jones. He had a team of people under him that were my day-to-day contacts and when the receptionist would call and say “Bill Green is on the phone,” I knew something got screwed up. His outlook on problem solving epitomizes this concept. He would start every one of these conversations the same way: “Good afternoon, Sherry. We have an opportunity.” An opportunity to fix a problem, evaluate its root cause and create new processes to prevent them in the future. This smart approach would send me into problem-solving mode instead of crisis mode and was energy better spent.

Like, totally!

In addition to exaggerating and mall hair, the 80’s brought us the Valley Girl: unnecessary additional words, like, inserted into sentences that, like, you know, end in an up-tone, and make, like, every line sound like a question? This used to be a teenage affliction, like acne, that most would eventually outgrow. Now I hear 40-year-old soccer moms Oh. My. Goding. in the supermarket. Listen to any politician, newscaster, or even the flight attendant reading the safety information. A great technique used to capture a listener’s attention and convey respect and authority is to end sentences in a down tone. And now the latest linguistic evasion: the dreaded vocal fry. That’s the creaky, nasally sound made at the back of the throat, usually at the end of a sentence (perfected by the Kardashians). In social settings it’s a great way to express ironic feelings or add emphasis to a simple word. But in business, it can sound too casual and might be mistaken for indifference. In a similar way that newscasters don’t likely speak to their friends and family in that same “newsy” tone, think about adjusting your tone to best fit your surroundings in order to make sure you get noticed for the right things.

Speak up

In this digital age, it’s way too easy to hide behind emails and texts. Use your lovely voices and speak to your colleagues. Not only will you be able to get to know them better, but you avoid the risk of having your communication misinterpreted. Because tone and inflection are lost in the written word, you are at the mercy of the voice inside the reader’s head to determine intent. Sending a message that says “I reviewed your work and it’s not what I expected” will almost always put the reader on the defensive. Unless it was unexpected because you were so pleasantly pleased with the work, you probably don’t want to just throw something like that out there in an IM. Sensitive conversations are best done in person, or over the phone if that’s not an option, and done at a time when you know you’re not catching that person at a bad moment. Even a heartfelt compliment can be mistakenly viewed as sarcastic if someone isn’t in the right frame of mind. When you must communicate in writing, remember that using a little more “frosting” than you might normally use verbally can often prevent misunderstandings.

Reply to all

Lastly, never put something in writing you could regret later. Every one of us has (or will) at some point in your career, accidentally “reply to all”. What you said in that email can be the difference between a colleague or client having a good laugh at the accidental mishap or finding yourself “consulting” until you find a new gig. No matter how difficult a client might be, never say a negative word over email. If your boss or colleague is driving you crazy, don’t vent over the company airwaves. Those of us who have learned this lesson the hard way also learned that there really is no good “recall” option in Outlook, and that when you try to do it, you also send another message telling recipients that you tried to recall it. This just tells everyone that it must be really juicy and to read it immediately.


So in summation, dude, you might think this was the most incredible, totally awesome article you’ve ever read in your entire life! Or you might have noted a few interesting points that you can put into practice today. Choose your words wisely.


Sherry Orel

Sherry Orel is the CEO of Brand Connections, an independent global media and marketing company that specializes in Making Marketing Easier for Marketers™, providing tailored solutions that link critical marketing disciplines to help marketers connect the dots to deliver a better business outcome. She has 25 years experience in working with Fortune 500 brands to develop strategic, multi-channel solutions, integrating disciplines from out-of-home, digital, mobile, social, promotion, sponsorship, experiential, CRM and retail activation.

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