Language Leverage: Effective messaging starts with words

A few years ago, I made a mistake. It’s a common mistake that happens to the best of us, but I made it publicly and refused to recognize my error until it was too late.

As a copywriter, I hold myself to certain standards of linguistic and literary abilities. I also entertain the notion of adding insult to injury when I see poorly drafted messages on social media. Like any other day, I commented with an asterisk and the correction I thought was needed, “*for all intensive purposes.” Seemed logical, colloquial even. Had I done a quick search, I’d have found that the real phrase is “for all intents and purposes.” Oops.

The literate world continues to evolve and debate specific words and phrases, but it is important to avoid assuming you know what these words and phrases represent. Take the word ‘leverage.’ Leverage is a noun. It describes what you possess when you have an advantage thanks to a lever or device, figuratively or literally. Commonly, ‘leverage’ is used as a verb and, until recently, I was using it that way as well. It is not a verb. At least, it wasn’t.

You’ll find post after post debating whether ‘leverage’ is a verb, but Seth Godin puts it best: “the more you say ‘leverage’, the less you’ve probably thought about what you’re saying.”

“…the less you’ve probably thought about what you’re saying.”

That’s the key: taking time to think about what you say. The “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” meme comes to mind each time I hear someone incorrectly using the English language. We’ve gone so far as to add certain versions of words to dictionaries while noting that the usage is ‘slang’, ‘uncommon’ or ‘informal’. Their inclusion and explanation is important, but it doesn’t justify using ‘awesomesauce’ in your next business presentation.

A quick look at the leading brands will show you that public gaffes happen all too often. Old Navy forgot an apostrophe on its “Lets Go [College]” shirt line, Nike and Verizon are plagued by Twitter support grammar errors, and even giants like Pepsi have four times the social media errors than competitors like Coca Cola, a trend that certainly isn’t helping the “Sorry, we don’t have coke”-brand.


Not only was my public correction embarrassing because I was wrong, but, because of my profession, my ‘brand’ revolves around writing. Speaking on behalf of your company, your clients or your team members places a public eye on you and on how you convey and carry yourself.

The point in this is not that we should fact-check every idiom or pull out a dictionary for every misused homonym, but rather to urge awareness. As you prepare for your next meeting or presentation, double-check your assumptions on colloquial and cultural sayings.

There’s always a word for what you want to say, it just may not be the word you want to use.

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