You’re reading What They Said, a project by Chris Gallo.

Beth Dunn


Beth Dunn shares how to use your words. You’ve likely heard her 10 tips before. But Beth really explains these in detail with techniques on how and why to do these things.

She believes we don’t spend enough time thinking about how we sound. We only think about why we want to say. Check out the excerpt below and 10 tips at the bottom of this post. Watch the talk here.

How You’ll Be Seen By Others 1:15

More than anyone else, I would say it was my grandmother who taught me to say please. It was my grandmother who taught me to say thank you.

She was the one to tell me to excuse myself when I’m getting up from the dining room table. To say may I instead of can I.

More than anyone else at that age, it was my grandmother who taught me that the way that I choose my words and use my words determines how I’ll be seen by other people.


How we sound 4:31

In business, we spend so much time and energy thinking about what it is we want to say. What do we want to say?

We have committee meetings about this, meetings and emails. What do we want to say?

We don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about how we sound.


Contractions 9:02

The single most effective that I have found that is probably the first thing I do with any piece of writing I get is I fix stuff like this: I cannot, it does not, you will not.

This is one of the bad habits that we’ve all fallen into. When we think we have to say something important about ourselves, we suddenly affect this formal, stilted language.

Why do we do that? We think it sounds more impressive. So the best thing you can do with any piece of writing you want to make sound more human, sound less like a robot, is use more contractions.

Start bashing words together like you’re at the freaking roller derby.


Use Small Words 10:57

This is another subtle bad habit. It’s these unnecessarily fancy words.

I’m going to call us out on it in this room. We are prime offenders in the business community. And yes, in the marketing and sales community, and in the Inbound community.

We use utilize and employ and leverage, when a simpler word will do. Not just as well, but better.

I’m not saying one use of utilize or one use of leverage will make you seem like some sort of crook, but they have a cumulative affect overtime of suggesting to the reader that you have something to hide.

It’s a little bit extra razzle-dazzle that suggests to the reader that there is some smoke and mirrors going on here. There is too much icing and not enough cake. What if there is no actual cake here?

Clear, simple, concise language. More Hemingway. Less Shakespeare. Actually makes you seem more honest.

Which is why the next thing you do is start shortening your words.

You see words like utilize, employ, and leverage and go for the simpler, shorter, clearer word. Did you know that a synonym for each of these words is use?

There is literally no shade of meaning lost between the word utilize and use. There is no even a little bit of difference in the definition.

Leverage at least has something of a connotation. I would argue unless you’re talking about taking a big stick and moving a disproportionate mass, there is a physical definition of what leverage means. And 90 percent of the time when you see it, you just mean use.

So say use. Not just because I said it was a good idea. Not because I’m some sort of a grammar queen.

Because I want you to seem like you’re more honest in your writing.


Exclamations 13:24

It’s a really common thing. We want people to get excited about what we’re offering them. An announcement. An email. A sales pitch. Whatever.

We want to stoke the fires of enthusiasm in the hearts of our readers. And what do we use to try and achieve that goal?

Exclamation marks!

All the time we use exclamation marks because we want to make our readers excited. Do you know what this actually does? The undermining effect?

It really Just makes you look like you’re kinda new at this game. This whole wordsmithing game.

I would urge you to try this exercise. Go through one piece of your writing, especially email. You have some email in your stable right now that has an exclamation mark or two in the subject line or in the greeting littered throughout.

Just go through that email and take out all the exclamation marks and replace them with periods. And see what happens.

I think you would say now my writing sounds emotionless and flat. And I would say to you, good.

Because this exposes the weakness that was in your writing all along. Now you know the truth and you have a starting point.

You have some place to start. You have to beef up those words. Punctuation in general, not just exclamation points, are uniquely badly suited to convey emotion.

You know what’s great at that? Words.

Words and language are built for it. Exclamation marks can’t bear the weight of human emotion. Words do that.

So strip away the exclamation marks and beef up your words and let them carry the meaning that you’re trying to convey.

This will, single handedly, level up your writing to heights that you couldn’t imagine.


Avoid Jargon 16:04

What is the thing we do that undermines this effort in our writing? We use jargon.

Now, I can actually physically hear some of you rolling your eyes. Because this is one of the most common things that you’ll see in those listicle blog posts about how to be a better writer. Don’t use jargon.

So you’re like yeah I know, use smaller words. Don’t use jargon.

What I specifically want to call us out on, again I’m a prime offender on this and I think we here in this room are particularly bad on this count.

A certain type of jargon that we all fall into a bad habit of using are these acronyms. Yeah, we love our acronyms in marketing don’t we.

CTA. ROI. DFUI. STFC.

What do they even mean? We in this room know what a lot of those mean. And we love to use them. Why?

Because it’s like a secret handshake. It’s membership in a club. This Inbound club. And what is Inbound? Except one great big tribal gathering.

And I love it. I love being a member of this community and these secret handshakes, and these inside jokes we tell each other. But in our marketing and sales communications this is the last thing we want to do. Is have a secret handshake.

That’s slamming the door in the face of your readers. It’s saying you don’t belong. You can’t sit with us.

And I don’t think that’s what we want to get across. So I would urge you to pull apart as many of these acronyms as you reasonably can.

Again this isn’t an absolutist stance. Define them and define them a little bit longer than you think you should. Not because I’m a rules person.

Because I think you would want to appear more helpful.

This is one of those thousand paper cuts effect. A little bit of this doesn’t hurt you, but overtime it makes you seem less helpful to your reader if you don’t define these terms.


Check Your Pronouns 27:12

We want to be seen as people who care about our readers. This is vital. I care about you. I’m here for you. I’m focused on your needs.

Check your pronouns. I don’t mean gender. Although that is an important thing to focus on as well.

The thing that is undermining you in your desire to want to be seen as someone who cares about your reader is not whether or not you’re using he or she as much whether you’re using crap like this:

I’m excited to announce. We value your feedback. We’re working hard to bring you.

Who cares? You’re leading off each one of those sentences with me, I, and we. And you’re putting the spotlight on yourself and not on your reader.

You’re talking about your emotional state. I don’t care about your emotional state or you’re excited about what you’re announcing. I’m your reader. Tell me why I should care.

So when I say check your pronouns, if you want to look less like you’re all about you, avoid using we and I, especially in announcement type communications. And use you and your instead.

Just like with the exclamation marks, if you make this one simple change, it will require you to do some heavy lifting to suddenly change the rest of the words in the sentence. But that’s a really valuable exercise.

Because suddenly you will be forced to cast what you’re saying in terms of the value to the reader.

It’s not about your emotional state. I’m excited about this new feature. That’s not the point.

If the point you’re trying to get across in your email is why they should be excited, than say that instead.

You’ll be happy to hear. Your opinion matters. You’re going to love this.

Simple, subtle change, but gives the impression that you’re all about them.

The spotlight is on them. You really do, as I know you do, spend all of your waking moments and sleepless nights thinking about your customers, your users, your readers.


Role Play 30:51

Imagine yourself as this specific person having the worst possible day. Mary from Topeka is in no mood for you little funny jokes.

She’s had a really rough day. She was late to work. Spilled coffee on her favorite new shirt. Her boss reamed her out. And now she’s opened your funny little email.

Is it funny? Or is it going to fall flat on her worst possible day.

Because you don’t write or communicate out into a vacuum. You communicate out to human beings who are having good and bad days. And probably, arguably, more bad than good.

At least, it’s best to prepare for that eventuality.


  1. Use Contractions 7:47
  2. Use Small Words 10:29
  3. Don’t Use Exclamation Marks 13:10
  4. Avoid Jargon and Acronyms 15:47
  5. Use Spellcheck 18:27
  6. Use a Style Guide 22:48
  7. Hire an Editor 25:23
  8. Check Your Pronouns 27:16
  9. Imagine You’re a Reader 29:27
  10. Don’t Be Snarky 31:33

Thanks, Beth.