Word Choices Can Build or Destroy Trust


Just because we all speak English doesn’t mean we speak the same language.

I attended a webinar on “inclusive language” in which the presenter reminded us how easy it is to say something that can inadvertently offend or alienate others. Those who sell for a living know that every encounter with a buyer is precious, so it is wise to structure what is said, and how it is said, to avoid unintentional offense.

Language is complex, and the meanings we assign to words and phrases can vary from slightly different to polar opposites. Take, for example, the phrase: “That was insane!” It could mean that was nuts/stupid/ridiculous, or it could mean that was awesome/the best/great. It all depends…

The words we use are defined through context.

There are many factors contributing to our definition of words. The environment we were raised in, cultural norms, where we work, what we studied in school, where we live, and other factors influence how we define words. Since this is a broad topic, I’m narrowing our focus on three very specific don’ts and dos that help sales people avoid unintended misunderstandings:

1. Don’t use pet-phrases that others may not understand.

Example: Our products are “top of the line.” Everyone knows what that means, right? Well, if English is my second language, I might be envisioning a clothes line and your product on top of it. I’m confused, but smiling, nodding, and not saying a word because I don’t want to look stupid.You may, in fact, sell well-crafted items that have a lot of attention to detail, which makes them unique in the marketplace. Say that instead!

2. Don’t use acronyms; those words composed of initials that people may or may not understand.

For example, SME, pronounced smeeee. If the salesperson says, “We have SMEs to help you with your implementation every step of the way,” as if it is a wonderful thing worth paying for, but the buyer has no clue what a SME is, the effect is lost. Translation? SME means, subject matter expert!  Drop the acronym, and say what it really means.

3. Don’t use industry slang — those words or phrases that only mean something if you are well acquainted with the industry.

I recently heard the term “lead magnet” when working with a website marketing company. Logic might prevail with this one, because I know what a lead is and magnet speaks to attracting, in this case, leads. But what exactly is it and how does it work? The answer to that is it is completely contextual and requires explanation.  Again, if you have to explain the meaning, just explain it and skip the label which ends up being a sloppy shortcut that invites assumptions.

I’ll wrap up with a real brain twister a retired Navy Colonel brought to my attention. If you talk about “deadlines” (the date something is due) with someone who has served in the military, they may not know what you mean because they call deadlines the “suspense date”.  One can only guess why it is so, but it really doesn’t matter, does it? Word meanings are relative to context and background understanding. I share this example to drive home the point that although we all speak English, it doesn’t mean we understand each other.

When in doubt, use clear, simple language that anyone can understand. Also, make it a habit to define your terms without making someone ask you to do so. People will thank you for taking the time to make sure they understand.

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