A Leader’s 5 Keys to No Nonsense Communication

j0309615I like words.   All kinds of words.   I guess you could say I’m infatuated with the English language.   In fact, one of my favorite books of all-time is Webster’s Dictionary.

I wrote about this love affair, and how it was cultivated, several years ago on Joyful Jubilant Learning (JJL).    And it still gives me great pleasure to have my friends reach for the dictionary when I ask them to quit acting insouciantly.

The funny thing is, when it comes to being a business leader, I feel quite differently about words and how I use them to communicate.  It’s a whole different ballgame.

I found that out pretty early in my career, when my boss at the time decided to challenge me on my dictionary prowess.   As I noted in that JJL piece,

…..he once asked my about my views on a business decision we needed to make. I replied, “there seems to be a dichotomy of opinions on this”, to which he asked his usual  “what do you mean?” After I said, “well, there are two different ways folks are looking at this” he retorted “so my boy, why didn’t you just say so!”

Needless to say, I haven’t said the word “dichotomy” since, unless I was telling this story.  That’s how much it stuck with me.

What I’ve learned is that there’s much more directness and economy needed in business communication.   Less is usually more.  There’s not much room for nuance, or expansive prose.

I call it “no nonsense communication“.

There are five types of words in particular that I believe a good leader must avoid to stay in “no nonsense” mode:

  1. “Negation Words”These are those lovely conjunctions that can, in one fell swoop, cancel out whatever you put before it.   The poster child word in this instance is “but“.   I wrote a whole post about the problems with that one.   In a nutshell, they can be morale killers. (Yes, one little word)
  2. Half-heart Words – The first word in line here is “hope“.   Don’t misunderstand me – hope is a very good word.  It’s just not that helpful in the boardroom.  See my Leadership Battles post for my rationale.  Here’s another one, when used in this context – “we should do this”.   I have found that “should” just doesn’t carry enough urgency if you really want the “this” to get done – so I usually go with “will“, or “must“, or even “need to“.
  3. Run to the Dictionary Words” – See the “dichotomy” story above.   Save the verbosity for other occasions. Like blog posts. 🙂
  4. “Absolute words” – One of my favorite “half-fullisms” is “stay away from absolutes, absolutely“. It’s really practicing the art of the possible mixed with the realization that there are exceptions to every rule, so words like “can’t“, “always“, and “never” are out of the mix.
  5. “Bad Emphasis words” – I ranted a teeny bit on this one a few years ago. Here is what I mean by this, taken from that post:  “a linguistic device that now leaves me squirming every time I hear it – the use of an emphatic word or phrase (or from a usage point of view, an interjection of some kind) in front of a statement that doesn’t really need emphasis”.

Of course, I have another learning-the-hard-way story on that last one (from that very same piece):

The problem with using [bad emphasis] was shown to me very directly by one of my bosses – he had asked me about my opinion on something, and I said “honestly sir, I think we need to go in such-and-such a direction“, to which he replied, “HONESTLY? What do you think we’re running around here, a boy scout troop”?

Point taken.  I should be speaking honestly EVERY time. I don’t need to telegraph it.

That’s a perfect example of “no nonsense”.   Keep these 5 word types out of your business vocabulary and you’ll get better results.


  1. says

    Negation words are my least favorite in this group. Too many rely on it. They stop creativity, fun, and happiness in the workplace. I’m glad you included this one.

    I’m actually a big fan of hope too, just not in the workplace. Although I do use it in a lot of my emails. For ex. “Hope you are having a grrrrrreat day.” I may have to rethink this one now.

  2. says

    Love this post and this topic. I’m often tempted to write similar comments on students’ papers… but since they’re college freshmen in intro to communications classes, I take a deep breath, and give only the introduction and hope their English teachers address it later on.

    I don’t know if I’m doing them a disservice, because I don’t know what they learn in the next 3.5 years. What do you think, Terry? Do you think it would be beneficial for students to hear [all] this stuff from day one?

  3. says

    Thanks Karl & Christina for stopping by!

    Karl, I think “hope you are having a good day” is OK. “I hope you can attend my meeting” is not.

    Christina, I certainly think it’s beneficial to learn more effective English as early as possible, so go for it! Especially as freshmen in college. I was lucky enough to have an English teacher my freshman year who really challenged us – and I’m all the better for it.

    Thanks again to you both, and all the best!

  4. says

    Love your post – as a communicator/editor I spend a lot of time trying to de-buzz and de-complicate corporate messaging. As a mom I spend a lot of time pushing correct grammar and word usage on my kids (and grinning when they correct their friends). It sometimes feels as though general use of English is degrading over time … it’s nice to read a post that indicates there’s still respect for the language out there. Thanks!

  5. says

    Thanks for the reminder. Words have a very powerful impact to ourselves and those around us. I’d like to see more people be mindful with words…I’ll start with myself!

  6. says

    I think you’ll probably find a dichotomy of opinions on this topic, my friend, but HONESTLY, I always hope that any excess bloviation on my part never encroaches on a half-full emphasis.

  7. says


    Great tips! I’d like to offer a sixth one.

    6. Using consensus-building and partnership words.
    Instead of “either, or” I suggest learning to use “both, and.” Focus on how to build a partnership and combine things instead of creating polarization. Yes, there are some situations where this will not hold true. Yet, there is something attractive about seeking buy-in from all parties involved and creating a win-win with “both, and.”

  8. says

    I really like the last one. I hear “bad emphasis” a lot when I’m interviewing for positions and it usually throws up a red flag as to how the individual views communication. “Honestly…truthfully…well, to be honest…” When did honesty become an option? I thought it was the automatic default setting.

    My theory is that at some point, around the time being “PC” reached the level of paranoia, suddenly “bad emphasis” words became the way to “say it without offending anyone”.

    And to Christina the college professor…yes, please address it! I hire mostly college students for my educational summer programs. Students can benefit from your feedback and raising the bar will help them compete for better jobs and internships even while they’re still in school.

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