Heads up: this post appears to be about menus or houses, but don’t be fooled – it’s really about the effectiveness of the language you use in your resumes and pitches. It’s about what words you should avoid, and why. So process accordingly as you read.
In Freakonomics, Dubner and Levitt tell us that houses that are pitched as “charming” or “fantastic” sold for lower prices – while houses sold with specific qualities, such as maple or granite, sold for higher prices. Specifics are good – vague generalities are not.
According to Dan Jurafsky in The Language of Food, this kind of specificity also applies to menu descriptions. What he calls the “empty filler words” correlate with lower prices, and what he calls the “true value words,” like lobster or truffle or olive oil, correlate with higher prices. In fact, he notes that it is middle-priced restaurants that use lots of filler words. These words like fresh, rich, crunchy, tangy, smokey and salty fill the menus at Ruby Tuesday, TGIFriday, California Pizza and so on. Imprecise words like delicious, tasty, terrific are used when you don’t have something really valuable, like oyster or truffle, to say about the dish.
Language philosopher H Paul Grice points out that we default to assuming that a speaker is acting rationally. So if they say something is fresh, there must be some reason for saying so – it’s like saying – you might worry that this food is not fresh but it is, really it is. Really. Linguist Mark Liberman calls this “status anxiety.” Expensive restaurants don’t feel the need to say their food is ripe or fresh because we assume that what should be ripe is indeed so and that everything is fresh. But those middling dining spots fret that you might think they are not fancy enough to have fresh food so they’d better reassure you. And you end up wondering why they said so.
The menu shown above uses: tender, delight, fresh, rich, juicy, mouthwatering, refreshing…. Beats the tough, stale, dry etc alternatives I suppose!
So to your resumes and pitches – yes you say, I am hard working, experienced, innovative, driven, detail-oriented, successful. But maybe your use of all these vague filler words is placing you out of the top tier of candidates or products. Maybe your reader is now wondering why you feel you have to tell them those things. When you can make your case with actual specifics – with value that you bring to the table, with stories of particular successes that probably resulted from all your wonderful qualities – then you may just be positioning yourself comfortably at the top of the heap. Instead of in that mess of people who don’t really have any proof of their value but are defensively trying to describe their worth with no specifics to back it up. This middle tier is not where you want to be.