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 demonstrate fun through descriptive scenes, cheerful detail and clever jokes. Thanks to these tips, my work has always been 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 “bad-jectives” – adjectives so generic and broad that they have virtually no impact. We see them all the time in leadership speeches, emails, posts and videos explaining how “great” an idea is, sharing the “incredible” impact it will have and praising the “really good “thought that presided over the project.
These words seem useful, but what impact do they have? An air fryer can be awesome, a mop can be amazing, and a tuna melt can be really good. Surely I shouldn’t use the same word to describe a breakthrough business idea as I would for a sandwich (even if they toasted the bread perfectly).
To be clear, I’m not saying remove ALL adjectives. Just pick the ones that make the most sense. If you’re a Steve Jobs fan, tech columnist Jason Aten points out that Jobs used as few words as possible, specifically avoiding overused adjectives like “new”, “awesome”, “incredible” 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:
- Very well
- Save lives
Group 1 badjectives are almost useless compared to group 2 adjectives. When we say something is “awesome” or “very good”, there is little indication of scale, reason, or specific meaning.
Marketing strategist Geoffrey James talks about badjectives (without using that word) that suffer from being clichés in communications from tech companies describing their products. “The marketer is always ‘thrilled’ to announce the product, which is ‘innovative’, ‘state-of-the-art’ and, of course, ‘industry-leading’,” writes Geoffrey, noting that when This is to show, not tell, “most marketing copywriters – in both publishing and business – don’t understand the difference.”
So why do we use badjectives? Because they’re faster and easier than searching for specific words and phrases. But imagine the impact of these phrases if a manager said them to you or emailed them to you:
Wow, Lisa, the new market you’ve discovered could generate a whole new source of income!
This campaign will have an incredible impact. I invite you to join us!
This campaign will make health care more accessible and affordable. I invite you to join our mission to save and improve lives!
I believe our marketing strategy is weak.
I think our marketing strategy focuses too much on product benefits and not enough on customer needs.
The way to elevate badjectives to hard-hitting answers is to ask and answer WHY – what positive impact is the proposition or sentiment designed to produce?
Why was Lisa’s accomplishment “awesome”? (Because it could lead to a new source of income.)
Why will the campaign have an “incredible” impact? (Because it will increase access to health care, saving lives.)
Why was the marketing strategy weak? (Because he didn’t focus enough on customer needs.)
Once you’ve identified and articulated that specific benefit, you don’t even need the unnecessary bad lens anymore. Notice how the two enhanced examples lack the original badjectives.
Like “fun,” “awesome,” “not bad,” and even “interesting,” bad jectives are words that, when cut, will score you leadership points with a laser, not a fire hose. And certainly not just about SpongeBob SquarePants.