Sub Out ‘Soft Phrases’ for Punchier Ones


If you begin emails with phrases such as, “Just wanted to follow up,” you may want to adjust your approach: Many experts consider it bad form to use softly constructed phrases when addressing others.

In addition to such phrases, so-called “permission words” such as “just” also potentially minimize the importance of your work, and put you in a subordinate position to any discussion that follows from your initial email. Whether you’re on the job or looking for work, choosing the right words in your communications will give you a subtle, but real, advantage.

Soft speech, where one’s tone makes them come off as hesitant or even apologetic, can prove a particular problem among tech professionals, who tend to be introverted and private. For many who fall in that category, “it’s almost an ingrained way of communicating,” said Jennifer Hay, owner of IT Resume Service in Kirkland, Wash. “It comes off as almost apologetic, as if they’re saying, ‘I’m just sharing something but it’s fine for you to ignore me.’”

Take phrases such as:

  • “I just wanted to”
  • “I think”
  • “In my opinion”

Any of the above can lead managers and recruiters to believe that you’re hesitant, unsure of yourself or, perhaps worse, disinterested.

“If your communication is lackadaisical, without strong points, you lose,” said Amy Gies, founder and president of Capstone Resumes in San Mateo, Calif. “Remember, you’re up against other candidates. Why would you be the one they pick?” The hiring manager, she added, has a special function in mind for you, and your communications need to speak to that: “You want to pay attention to your language. You want to sound strong. Your message should be ‘I’m your person.’”

Going Against the Grain

For many tech people, such advice can seem counter-intuitive. Over the years, we’re often trained to believe that stating things plainly makes us sound pushy or egotistical. But today, Gies notes, managers “are all about performance.” In evaluating candidates, they’re less focused on experience in itself, choosing instead to zero in on what you’ve accomplished in previous jobs. “You have to speak to that,” Gies said.

And you do that by being positive, confidant and specific. For example, saying on your resume that you were “responsible for” a particular project or operation “doesn’t get it done,” Gies said. The reason: It doesn’t explain how you got the work done, how well you performed, or how you exceeded expectations.

“You have to focus on achievement, rather than process,” according to J.M. Auron, a technology executive resume writer and career coach in Colorado Springs, Colo. “‘Lead,’ ‘direct,’ ‘build’ and ‘forge’ are all good words to use. They’re certainly better than ‘managed’ or ‘oversaw.’”

“Make it direct,” Hay advised. “People think things sound better with more words, or they worry that someone will say, ‘No, you’re not,’” when you cite your strengths. The key to getting around that—to keeping in mind the context you’re working in and to choosing the most effective words—is to “be aware, then be direct,” she said.

Step Back and Think

By that, Hay means you have to “step outside yourself” and be honest about the value of the work you’ve done. “There’s a little attitude adjustment involved in this,” she said. “You have to realize and believe you really are great for this job or this assignment.”

The notion many tech pros rely on—that they’re not expected to have strong communications skills—doesn’t apply anymore, Hay noted. Nowadays, tech pros who can communicate effectively have a distinct advantage over those who can’t. “It’s about the language you use when you’re working, not just interviewing,” she said. “Ask yourself: ‘Am I being weak?’ Take the moment to step back and look at what you’re doing.”

The upside to this can be notable. Communicating in a confident and positive way “can make or break an opportunity to get to the next level,” said Gies. Cover letters and resumes are “your first presentation—your first exposure—so you want to come off strong.”