The Power of Well-Chosen Words

Quick quiz — what people (or companies) come to mind when you hear the following phrases?

1)  Just do it.
2)  Elementary, my dear Watson.
3)  That’s the way it is.
4)  Where’s the beef?
5)  Billions and billions.
6)  Make it so.
7)  Bam!
8)  Just the facts, Ma’am.
9)  Good night and God bless.
10)  Make my day.

While I threw this list together on the fly, spanning a few different decades of pop culture, I think you’d agree that it represents the lasting impressions that can take place when an individual or organization chooses to associate themselves with a short catchphrase or a few well-chosen words.  Less, as they say, is more.  This is equally true when you’re competing for a job.  You may need to do a little copywriting for yourself to stand out from the crowd, since you’ll get almost nowhere if you fall back on using common cliches like dynamic, seasoned, self-starter, versatile, results-oriented, etc.  that have already had the life completely squeezed out of them by the thousands of unimaginative job seekers who came before you.

A great sound bite, in other words, is a powerful thing in the hands of an employment-seeking professional.  “Owning” a short phrase of this kind will not only will help you feel more anchored and confident about how you’re presenting yourself to people, but will cater beautifully to the short attention span of so many Americans these days, including the busy executives and recruiters you’re trying to convince to hire you.  So as part of your job search “messaging” effort, spend some time pondering whether there’s a short, memorable phrase that effectively sums up your career positioning, key strengths, and/or the solutions you offer — and then try using this language consistently in your interviewing and networking efforts.

The inspiration behind discussing this topic today, in fact, was a voice mail I just received a former client of mine whom I worked with 2-3 years ago.  This client (we’ll call her “Sally” for the purposes of this story) was seeking a fairly standard executive assistant / office manager type of role.  And what’s more, she brought to the table all of the standard skills, qualifications, and credentials one would expect for such an assignment.  So what was the problem?  So did everybody else she was competing against — and she was therefore finding it difficult to differentiate herself and come up with a way to explain the true “uniqueness” of what she brought to the table.

After chatting with her for a while, however, and listening to her describe the seamless way in which she assisted her previous supervisors, she uttered a word that immediately grabbed my attention.  The word was rhythm.  She said that if there was one thing that made her extremely effective at her job, it was that she was naturally able to find the right “rhythm” for interacting with each executive she supported.  This wasn’t a word I had heard people use very often in describing themselves.  It had emotion.  It painted a picture.  It summed up in one word the type of relationship and collaboration most executives probably want with their assistant, but don’t quite know how to express.  Enhancing the “branding concept” even further was the fact that my client was an accomplished ballroom dancer, so she was able to reinforce this notion through the strengths and talents displayed in her personal life, as well.

At any rate, I was so smitten by this word, I suggested that she use it consistently in describing herself — and just a few weeks later, she ended up landing a great new position supporting several executives for a new startup organization!  Here’s the kicker, though.  At the time of hire, we had no way of knowing whether this single word “rhythm” played any kind of role in her landing the opportunity and I’m certainly not contending that it was the sole element involved in her success.  It was just one of many things she said in the interview process, hoping something would stick.  Now, however, over two years later, she says that her boss called her into his office the other day and said:

“Sally, you’re doing such an amazing job for us, and boy, in hindsight all I can say is that you were exactly right — when you told us in your interview way back when that you brought a real ‘rhythm’ to your work with people, you weren’t kidding.  You’re always anticipating our needs and there to provide just the right assistance, when we need it.  Working with you has been a dream come true!”

Striking, eh?  That a boss would remember a single word like this, even after two years and dozens (or hundreds) of interviews they likely had conducted since?  Another client of mine, even farther back, told me a very similar story.  Apparently she was chit-chatting with her boss, several years after getting hired, and out of the blue her supervisor made a comment along the lines of:

“Jenny, did I ever told you why we picked you for this job?  We had a lot of other candidates apply for the role and honestly, several of them were even more qualified than you for the assignment, on paper.  But at one point, when we were describing some of the challenges of the role, you just looked us square in the eye and said ‘don’t worry, I’m fearless!’  And that was exactly the attitude we were looking for.”

Fearless.  Rhythm.  Bam.  Schweppervescence.  Fahrvergnügen.   Is there a single word that can sum YOU up to those around you?

Just some brain fodder for a rainy Tuesday.  And if you’re interested in exploring this concept further, you might also check out a related posting here by Personal Branding guru Dan Schawbel.  In this article, and the comments that follow it, you’ll find some great additional discussion about the power of a single word and what it can do, if promoted in the right context.

P.S.  And in case you didn’t guess them all, the answers to the quiz are 1- Nike; 2-Sherlock Holmes; 3-Walter Kronkite; 4-Wendy’s (the fast food chain); 5-Carl Sagan; 6-Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek); 7-Emeril; 8-Joe Friday; 9-Red Skelton; and 10-Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry).  Although for the record, Carl Sagan claimed he never actually uttered the three words he became so famous for…

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5 Responses to “The Power of Well-Chosen Words”

  1. Great post, Matt!
    I might also point out that, when you have such a “catch” word or phrase, you really need to make it your own.
    One book I recommend, along these lines is “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath. All of your quoted phrases “stick” with their owners (i.e. when you say the phrase, we immediately know who you are talking about.

  2. Good point — and another “signature phrase” I somehow forget to include in my list is the classic “My Oh My” from the late, great you-know-who!

  3. I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan and although the public associates this phrase with him, I believe he never said it in any of the original stories.

  4. Awesome post Matt – and I got all the phrases correct! (I could be at the right age group to know them all…=)

  5. you forgot “I’ll be back….”

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