Improve communication by avoiding ‘bad words’

When I started working at Nickelodeon Online in the late 1990s, an executive gave me advice that I will never forget. “Never use the word ‘fun,'” he said, challenging me to show fun through descriptive scenes, happy details, and clever jokes. Because of that guidance, my work was always creatively compelling and brand specific. Writers know this technique as ‘show, don’t tell’.

But leaders also benefit immensely from this understanding when it comes to avoiding what I call “badjectives”: adjectives that are so general and broad that they have virtually no impact. We see them all the time in speeches, emails, messages and videos from leadership explaining how “great” an idea is, the “amazing” impact it will have, and praising the “very good” thinking. that has been put into the project.

These words seem useful, but how much impact do they have? A hot air fryer can be great, a floor mop can be great and a tuna melt can be really good. I certainly shouldn’t use the same word to describe a groundbreaking business idea I would for a sandwich (even if they grill the bread perfectly).

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Just to be clear, I’m not saying to remove ALL adjectives. Just pick the most meaningful. If you’re a Steve Jobs fan, tech columnist Jason Aten points out that Jobs used as few words as possible, especially avoiding overused adjectives like “new,” “great,” “great,” or “powerful.” ‘.

“It’s not that he never used them,” Jason writes. “But when he did, they made sense.”

Compare these two sets of adjectives:

Important Great Great Great Very good Urgent Profitable Efficient Unprecedented Lifesaving

The Group 1 adjectives are almost meaningless compared to the Group 2 adjectives. When we say something is “great” or “very good”, there is little indication of scale, reason, or specific meaning.

Marketing strategist Geoffrey James talks about badjectives (without using that word) who suffer from clichés in communications from tech companies describing their products. “The marketer is always ‘eager’ to announce the product, which is ‘innovative’, ‘cutting edge’ and, of course, ‘leading’, writes Geoffrey, pointing out that when it comes to show, don’t tell,” most marketing writers – in publishing as well as in business – don’t understand the difference.”

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So why do we use badjectives? Because they are faster and easier than searching for specific words and phrases. But imagine the impact of these sentences if a manager were to say or email them to you:

Wow, Lisa, the new market you’ve discovered could result in a whole new revenue stream!


This campaign will have a tremendous impact. I invite you to join us!

This campaign makes healthcare more accessible and affordable. I invite you to join our mission to save and improve lives!


I think our marketing strategy is weak.

I believe that our marketing strategy focuses too much on product benefits and too little on customer needs.

The way to elevate bad verbs into impactful answers is to ask and answer WHY – what positive impact should the proposal or sentiment have?

Why was Lisa’s performance “amazing?”

(Because it can lead to a new income stream)

Why will the campaign have an “amazing” impact?

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(Because it will increase access to health care and save lives)

Why was the marketing strategy weak?

(Because it wasn’t focused enough on customer needs)

Once you’ve identified and articulated that particular benefit, you don’t even need the pointless baddie anymore. Note how the two improved examples do not have the original badjectives.

Like “nice,” “great,” “not bad,” and even “interesting,” badjectives are words that — when cut — make you make leadership points with a laser, not a fire hose. And certainly not just about SpongeBob.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not’s.

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