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FutureNow Article
Monday, Dec. 10, 2007

Are Your Words Saying What You Want Them To?

By Holly Buchanan
December 10th, 2007

Crest is Pro-Health“Words schmords. What’s so important about words? Images — that’s where it’s at. It’s all about the images, right?”

I hear that often. And yes, images are important. Very important. But don’t write off the word (no pun intended). Words change entire battles (see also: “withdrawal date” and “surrender date”). Which is easier to support, “affirmative action” or “racial preference”? Politicians understand the power of words. Marketers are also taking notice.

Look at word choice in products. “Oil of Olay” dropped the “oil” due to today’s negative connotations of having oil in a beauty product. They now go by “Olay.” And, as Advertising Age points out, after losing share for eight years, Crest revitalized sales with their “Pro-Health” line of products.

Pro-Health has reached $100 million in sales, adding about two share points for Crest, according to Information Resources Inc.

Words are powerful. That’s why it’s so important to understand what your words are really saying.

Are your customers hearing what you’re saying?

Spas finally got smart and realized marketing services to “pamper yourself” wasn’t a great idea. The word “pamper” is negative. It implies you’re selfish, frivolous. What woman wants to feel that way? So spas now market services that “rejuvenate.” They promote wellness products. A good masseuse no longer asks, “How was the massage?” or “How was the session?” He asks, “How was your treatment?”

Our team was working on a persona for a client. The phrase I’d written was, “She will be disappointed with anything less than a full carat diamond.” A suggestion was made to change it to, “It had better be a full carat diamond.” Here’s the problem: We instantly dislike this persona. The term “better be” implies insistence, dominance, a threat.

Most golf sites are geared toward men. Look in any gift section copy and you’ll likely see “Here’s a gift for the golfer in your life. He’ll love this golf video.” Sounds perfectly normal. But what message is this sending to female golfers? One word change could let your female golf customers know you acknowledge and value them (“Here’s a gift for the golfer in your life. They’ll love this golf video.”)

I wrote recently about Deloitte’s efforts to reach out to female clients. Yet their instructions to employees was to “Bring along your subordinates to the meeting.” The very use of the word “subordinates” let women know male hierarchical communication style is alive and well.

On a similar note, I read a Wall Street Journal article about the most important qualities in CEO’s. The article refers to “hard” and “soft” skills. Interesting that all the “hard” skills are more typically associated with males and the”soft” skills are more typically associated with females.

Here are five CEO traits that correlate most closely with business success at buyout companies — and five that score lowest, according to University of Chicago researchers.

Traits that matter…

• Persistence

• Attention to detail

• Efficiency

• Analytical skills

• Setting high standards

…and not so much

• Strong oral communication

• Teamwork

• Flexibility/adaptability

• Enthusiasm

• Listening skills

Communication was labeled as a less important “soft” skill. They seem to have separated out “oral.” Most CEO’s have to be able to communicate both in writing and in person. My question is, since when is communication soft? If you’re going to succeed as a CEO, you MUST have direct, clear, concrete communication. You must communicate not only with the people who report to you, but with your entire staff, your customers, and the media.

Look at some more of the language:

“We found that ‘hard’ skills, which are all about getting things done, were paramount,” says lead author Steven Kaplan, a professor of finance and entrepreneurship. “Soft skills centering on teamwork weren’t as pivotal. That was a bit of a surprise to us.”

Once again I have to ask how “hard” skills are associated with getting things done and “soft” skills are about, what, not getting things done? Granted, this is language from a research study. But imagine if a company used this kind of language? What message would it be sending to its female employees? I’m sure in the surveys they didn’t apply loaded labels like “hard” and “soft” to skills. It would have tainted the results. (What self-respecting CEO would admit using “softs” skills in their job?)

Now, I hear some of you grumbling out there (“There’s nothing saying hard skills are male skills and soft skills are female skills. You’re just making that up so you have something to gripe about, Holly.”)

True, there isn’t a direct comparison. But I guarantee you, our cultural biases cause us to make subtle connections.

How else could our own individual bias affect what we hear? Check out the comments on this fascinating post from the Pain In the English blog about the meaning of “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley. Some people swore it was about romantic relationships with women:

Hmmm… I had always thought that he was saying that without a woman you’ll have no tears, or, in other words women = pain and suffering…


It means that if you don’t have a woman, or you’re not involved with people emotionally, you won’t cry.

Other people swore it had a different meaning:

It means: No woman, don’t cry. Women in the trench town ghetto had a hard life, this is a song of comfort and tribute to the people of that community.


I do think that it means: “hey woman, please don’t cry”, something softer, a kind of advice…..

Fascinating stuff. Same words, two totally different interpretations. My guess is that our own personal experience may influence the meaning we take away.

What’s the psychological impact of the words you use? What are you saying? What is your audience hearing?

[Editor's note: If you'd like to learn how to chose your words wisely, join Holly at the Persuasive Online Copywriting seminar on January 14th in sunny Orlando, Florida. She'll be one of the instructors, and there will be plenty of time to discuss ways to improve your online copy and branding. Accordingly, we're keeping the class size small, so early registration is recommended. Sign-up by this Friday and save $100!]

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Comments (9)

  1. [...] Holly Buchanan created an interesting post today on Are Your Words Saying What You Want Them To? [...]

  2. Thanks for the article. It reminds me of years ago when I was in Sales School at a Major Computer Company and we were addressing the issue of words and their interpretation and the example was:
    “Darling , every time I look at you, time stand still”
    as opposed to:
    “Darling you have a face that can stop a clock”

  3. Thank for great article.

  4. Thank for great article.

  5. It reminds me of years ago when I was in Sales School at a Major Computer Company and we were addressing the issue of words and their interpretation.

  6. I like your writing skills. Made me think. Keep posting. Thanks

  7. I appreciate your insights and the good information you have shared here. All points are significantly important for me and your article have helped me a great

  8. I had to do alot of small verbage changes on my website. It hard to use strong language that denotes exclusions or absolute conditions if you sell a service like massage. People should be relaxed. You can’t use words like “must” or “required” instead use “should” or “is necessary”

  9. I liked the example of Golfers.

    Changing “he’ll” to “they’ll would definitely increase the sales to include the female golfers.

    It’s amazing how one word could have that much impact on how you come across with any pitch.

    I did Cold-Calling Sales for many years. One wrong word and its all over.

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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