When I started working at Nickelodeon Online in the late 1990s, an executive gave me advice I’ll never forget. “Never use the word ‘fun,'” he said, challenging me to show fun through descriptive scenes, happy details and clever jokes. Thanks to that guidance, my work is always creative and branded. Writers know this technique as “show, don’t tell.”
But leaders also benefit greatly from this understanding when it comes to avoiding what I call “adjectives”—adjectives so generic and broad that they have little impact. We see them all the time in leadership talks, emails, posts and videos explaining how “great” an idea is, sharing the “amazing” impact it will have, and praising “really good” ideas in projects.
These words may seem useful, but how powerful are they? The air fryer was great, the floor mop was great, and so was the tuna melt. Of course, I shouldn’t use the same words as sandwiches to describe a groundbreaking business idea (even if they do toast perfectly).
To be clear, I don’t mean to remove all adjectives. Only choose what makes the most sense. If you’re a Steve Jobs fan, tech columnist Jason Aten points out that Jobs uses as few words as possible, especially avoiding overused adjectives like “new,” “great,” “amazing,” or “powerful.” “.
“Not that he never used them,” Jason wrote. “But when he does, they make sense.”
Compare these two adjective sets:
The adjectives in group 1 are almost meaningless compared to the adjectives in group 2. When we say something is “great” or “very good,” there is little indication of scale, cause, or specific meaning.
Marketing strategist Geoffrey James talks about bad adjectives (not using the word) that have become clichés in communications from tech companies describing their products. “Marketers are always ‘excited’ to announce a product that is ‘innovative’, ‘cutting edge’ and of course ‘industry leading’,” writes Jeffrey, noting that when it comes to showing, rather than saying , “Most marketing writers — both in publishing and in business — don’t understand the difference.”
So why do we use adjectives? Because they are faster and easier than mining specific words and phrases. But imagine the impact of these phrases if the manager said or emailed you:
DRY Well done, Lisa!
Wow, Lisa, the new market you discovered could lead to a whole new revenue stream!
This event will have an amazing impact. I invite you to join us!
This campaign will make 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 our marketing strategy focuses too much on product benefits and ignores customer needs.
The way to elevate a bad adjective to an impactful answer is to ask and answer why – a design proposal or sentiment has What are the positive effects?
Why is Lisa’s achievement “great”? (Because it could lead to new revenue streams.)
Why did the campaign have an “amazing” impact? (Because it will increase access to healthcare and save lives.)
Why is the marketing strategy weak? (Because it doesn’t pay enough attention to the customer’s needs.)
Once you’ve identified and articulated a specific benefit, you don’t even need meaningless adjectives anymore. Note that these two improved examples do not have the original adjectives.
Adjectives like “fun”, “great”, “nice” and even “fun” are – when cut – will make you create leadership with a laser instead of a fire hose . Not just SpongeBob, of course.