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How Using Vague Language Can Block Business Opportunities 2021

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about Neil Armstrong visiting a class of Japanese students after visiting the moon landing. When a student asked what it was like on the moon, Armstrong answered, “well, it wasn’t made of green cheese.” The translator told the students that Armstrong had said, “well, there weren’t any rabbits.” This is because the moon being “made out of cheese” exists in American culture, but not in Japanese culture. However, in Japan, there is the legend of Tsuki no Usagi,” which is the Rabbit in the Moon. Had the translator simply converted English to Japanese, the sentence wouldn’t have made any sense, but the translator was able to put it in a context that the audience could understand.

English is an idiosyncratic language. Native speakers don’t often think about this because we’re used to it. But English is a difficult language to learn, especially for native speakers of languages with almost no commonalities, such as Russian, Arabic, Mandarin, or Japanese.

An example of a linguistic quirk that’s mostly exclusive to English is phrasal verbs, which is when we add a preposition to a verb to change the verb’s meaning. For example, I’m going to run to the bar, where I might run into Steve, and I expect we’ll run up quite a tab while he runs on about nothing. But I’ll shut up because he’s picking up the tab, so I’m willing to put up with his nonsense.

Phrasal verbs are just the tip of the iceberg (see what I did there) when it comes to all the ways English is a confusing language. Here are some other examples:

  • Homographs (words that are spelled the same but have multiple meanings: “I ate bass before playing bass on the bow of a ship while wearing a bow tie.”)
  • Homonyms (words that sound the same but are spelled differently: “the lone applicant got the loan”).
  • Regional pronunciations and dialects (how you pronounce merry, marry, and Mary can usually indicate where you’re from; if someone calls you “nebby,” it means being nosy or a busybody, but only in Pittsburgh. Or, if you’re thirsty and it’s not COVID, you can find a “bubbler” in Boston or Wisconsin, but it’s a water fountain almost everywhere else)
  • Rules with lots of exceptions (i before e except after c, unless you’re talking about the weird science of glaciers.)
  • Emphasis that completely changes the meaning (“I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that.”)
  • Synonyms that almost mean the same thing but can’t be swapped (“I watch the game” vs. “I see the game”)
  • Idioms (“If you think I’m going to just play this by ear, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.”)
  • Words that have many synonyms, but each synonym has nuance in what it actually means (angry is synonymous with apoplectic, enraged, furious, hot, mad, riled, and ticked)

All of these rules matter with your communications, and sales is basically just a series of communications. In addition to all of the linguistic quirks, communicators must be cognizant of cultural norms, politics (internal/with the client), dynamics regarding race/gender/sexual orientation, and more. For example, many of us use “you guys,” even when the audience comprises men, women, and those who don’t identify as male or female.

All of this complexity means that it’s easy for communicators to make mistakes. And these mistakes can show up in both verbal and written communication. Let’s explore some examples of things that presenters say that can negatively impact an audience, and then we’ll look at an email that could use some improvement.

Mistakes in presentations, aka #DemoFails

“Let’s get going – we have a lot to get through in today’s presentation.”

Why this is bad: You’re telling the audience that you’re going to spend the next 30-60 minutes (or more) throwing information at them, so they get to leave feeling overwhelmed and confused. Rather than pay attention to you, you have now cued that it’s OK for the audience to just tune out and save themselves the mental stress of processing everything.

Even worse, this phrase is a throwaway. Not only is it meaningless, but it also doesn’t actually do anything to move your meeting forward.

Alternative: “I appreciate all of the background you shared with me – let’s take a look at how we can help you.”

“We’re going to leverage our unique expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning to drive digital transformation and create a single source of truth. That way, you can have a 360-degree view of your customers, all delivered to a single pane of glass. “

Why this is bad: So. Many. Reasons. It’s written at about the 14th grade level (sophomore year of college), which takes a lot of processing power for audiences, even if they understand the words. It also raises more questions than it answers – what, exactly, is digital transformation? Why do I care about artificial intelligence when lots of vendors have that?

Alternative:We can make it easier for you to know what your customers are doing to quickly make decisions based on the data.”

What about email?

Email is a particularly interesting communication channel for this discussion. When you’re emailing someone (for sales/marketing), you’re trying to get them to take action. That action could be a click, a reply, a phone call, a share, or something else.

Many of us read an email and simply move on without giving it another thought. To be effective, an email requires crystal clear language behind why the email was sent, what the desired action is, and why the action is important.

An effective email contains three elements:

  1. An idea stated as concisely as possible, in plain language, so it can easily become concrete in the reader’s mind.
  2. Content that passes the “describe it to a 5th grader” test. The data show that the highest response rates come from emails written at a 5th-grade level.
  3. Words that leave no room for interpretation. Vague phrases such as “data-driven decisions” or “outsourced leadership” can be interpreted in any number of ways. This leads to either the recipient not getting it or the recipient thinking about how to interpret it, which requires effort (and the more mental effort something takes, the less likely it is to get a response).

Whether speaking or writing, using vague language makes it hard for the recipient to take action. Communicators should do everything possible to keep their language simple, clean, and clear. The more audiences understand, the more likely they are to take the desired action, which should lead to higher conversations, as well as deals closing faster.

For our final example, let’s take a standard email and break it down through the lens of the prospect.

Standard email:

Hi *prospect*,

As the Co-Founder & CFO, I know you must spend a ton of time glancing at the income statement; of course, you want costs to be low and revenue to be high, right?

Few things lead to an audience tuning out as much as rhetorical questions – and “right” is one of the worst culprits. Is the communicator looking for an answer to this question? What should the response be? Forget it, that’s too much work. Next.

Hiring and onboarding are expensive, so you want to make the right choice the first time around. *My company* has helped several other *industry* companies like *relevant company* in *location* to mitigate the risk of hiring falloffs by being a consultative partner.

This is all about the communicator and not about the audience. Therefore, the audience has no reason to care.

With a 97% long-term retention rate for placements we’ve made in the past year, you can be sure that the money saved can be reinvested back into the future of your patients.

Oh, you’re not going to just take my money and not deliver value? Again, this is all about the communicator and not about the recipient.

Let’s hop on a call for 15 minutes and see if we can help. I have an open slot at 1 pm tomorrow, or here’s my CEO’s calendar: *Calendar Link* feel free to pick any time.

I stopped reading the last paragraph.

Better email:

Hi *prospect*,

Have you felt the sting of making a bad hire yet?

It’s unavoidable to some extent. You spend the time and money onboarding, then it just doesn’t work out.

What’s worked best in your hiring process to screen out a bad hire?

If you’re open to it, I would love to hear more about what’s working for you.

I can also share some of what we’ve learned working with *industry* companies like *relevant company*.

Talk soon,


See the difference? Not only is the first email too long, but it is also all about the sender and not the recipient. The second email is shorter, and it comes off as curious and informative instead of “let me tell you about myself.” It also gives the recipient options in terms of how to respond – there are questions that can be answered besides, “can I have a meeting?”

By understanding the complexities of the English language, effective communicators can ensure that audiences don’t misunderstand them. Something as simple as a misplaced idiom, a poorly chosen phrasal verb, or a meaningless buzzword can be the difference between advancing your deal or having your email deleted. As actor turned communications expert, Alan Alda put it – “The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows them.”

This was a collaboration post by Ed Jaffe & Will Allred. See more of Will’s posts here.

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