Raise Your Credibility With Executives – Dealbreaker Phrases To Avoid (Part 1 & 2)

A Think Piece – a new language for HR, “Speaking With Dollars and Data” and avoiding turnoff phrases.

Few realize that an otherwise great presentation to executives can be instantly ruined with a single phrase. So for those that want to get promoted or be fully appreciated by their executives. This article provides direction on how HR professionals can learn a new “business results” focused language. Which I call “Speaking With Dollars and Data.” The goal of adopting your executive’s language (that few non-executives use). Is gaining their confidence by demonstrating that you, just like them, are a serious businessperson. You send that message primarily by calculating and then reporting the business impacts of your HR actions in both dollars and numbers. While at the same time avoiding the use of any harmful “dealbreaker phrases.” That could cause executives to tune out during your presentation and therefore lose any interest in your proposal. 

I’m No Expert… So I’m Guessing Here.”

This example of a dealbreaker phrase, when presented…, would instantly reduce your credibility by revealing that you openly act without data or expertise.

After years of research, I am currently finishing a book on how to successfully influence and nudge CEOs. And over the years, I have written extensively on how HR professionals must learn to think and “speak like a CEO.” So, the purpose of this article is to supplement my previous work. And for the first time, reveal how a single verbal slip of a single phrase during a presentation can cause executives to instantly tune out and therefore lose their support for your proposal. Note that this comprehensive list of “dealbreaker phrases” is separated into four categories. Two of which appear in this Part 1, and the remaining two lists appear in Part 2 of the article. 

LIST #1 – The Top 5 Overall “Dealbreaker Phrases” … That Create Max. Damage

Let’s begin with the five most egregious dealbreaker phrases. You will recognize most of these phrases right away. However, many probably won’t fully understand why each of these phrases is such a damaging “dealbreaker.” The most damaging dealbreaker phrases appear at the beginning of each list.

  1. “Tell The Truth”Infers that… this current truth-telling is an exception.
    You instantly damage your credibility than to start off with any variation of the “to tell the truth” phrase. Which instantly lets everyone know that sometimes (or usually) you don’t actually tell the truth. And that you are making an exception this time. Replace this phrase with — “I’m always 100% transparent and forthcoming, so here are the dollars, charts, and data to support what I am saying.”
  1. I’ll Try My Best Reveals… a promise of only your effort, not the required results.
    When executives delegate a serious problem, they expect it to be completely resolved. So “doing my best” becomes a dealbreaker phrase. It leaves open the possibility that the work won’t be 100% completed. If it is beyond your skills and capabilities. Replace it with “I accept full ownership of the problem. And I will find a way to get it done, no matter what.”
  1. I Believe Suggests… that you don’t have data to prove what you’re supporting.
    Starting off by revealing that you make decisions based on your intuition, beliefs, and your gut (rather than based on hard data). It is an instant turnoff to executives that may, in the future, have to justify your approach with data. Replace this phrase with – “I know the answer, and here are the charts, dollars of business impact, and data to back it up.”
  1. Using an abundance of caution -… Suggests… you avoid risks despite the damage.
    In our highly volatile VUCA world, almost everything carries a high risk. And because risk-taking is also an essential requirement for innovation that keeps us ahead. Some executives will interpret “the abundance” part of your phrase to mean that you are purposely using way too much caution. Because you are, in fact, totally risk-averse. And therefore, you will only select options that have almost no measurable level of risk attached to them. And as a result, executives may determine that you are clearly not leadership or executive material. This exaggerated risk avoidance habit will severely hurt both your team and the company. Replace it with – “we require that every considered option must include a calculated numerical and dollar risk assessment, which must fall within our acceptable range. We have calculated the risk (i.e., probability of failure) for these top three options to be 17%, 46%, and 64%. Where our average risk profile is 30%.”
  1. Speaking From An HR Perspective Reveals…that you think narrowly.
    Executives purposely have a laser focus on the “big picture.” Major issues related to corporate goals. So if you limit a presentation to “an HR perspective.” This will likely make executives instantly assume that you either don’t know or care about the strategic big picture factors that executives must manage every day. Replace the phrase with – “from a strategic big picture perspective…” For example, “60% of our white glove customer service problem is caused by an HR functional area (sales training). And here is data proving that our updated sales training will increase customer service ratings throughout the company by 53%. And that will increase our sales revenue within six months by $46.4 million.”

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LIST #2 – Phrases …That Show You’re Not A Data-Driven Businessperson

Let me remind you that rather than “words” that dominate poetry. Instead, it’s numbers that dominate “the language of business.” Yes, “executive language” is dominated by numbers that fall into two categories. 

The first numbers category covers dollars – and they add extra value because they assign a monetary value to all successes and failures. And the use of these dollars impacts (on revenue) and ROI. Allows executives to directly compare the problems and solutions from different business functions side-by-side. For example, a simple statement like “we lost 12 salespeople.” Simply doesn’t garner the same level of executive attention. As when the numbers representing your results are converted into dollars. So instead, state that “this 12 salesperson loss reduced our sales revenue by $11.5 million last year. And the next highest revenue loss in the company was $4.6 million!” 

The second category of numbers covers numerical data – this category covers data that quantifies a result or output with a specific number (or percentage). So that you can unambiguously reveal your results clearly and objectively (as opposed to using “words” like improving, decreasing, or better, to describe your results.

  • Wish Me Luck Shows… you prefer faith over calculated probabilities.
    This and related phrases like “pray for me” directly state that you prefer to rely on low-accuracy approaches like luck, prayer, faith, and betting odds. When you mention luck, it instantly makes it clear that you haven’t (or can’t) actually calculated the numerical probability of success. Replace it with – “my data reveals that this solution will have an 89% chance of complete success.”
  • Our Results Are ImprovingReveals… you use descriptive words over numbers.
    Using vague words to describe your results ignores the executive expectation that all business results and impacts must be measured and reported in dollars and/or with numbers/data. So when you use vague descriptive terms like better, promising, or less than we hoped for. Many executives will instantly assume that you are avoiding accountability by hiding your results behind “words” that could mean almost anything. Replace it with – “sales income improved 31.7%, which one converted to dollars resulted in an increased revenue of $17.9 million.”
  • I Read Somewhere Reveals… that your info. may not be from reliable sources.
    Relying solely on your personal memory or what someone once told you is simply not an acceptable source of business information or data. Executives can’t know the source/date of your information. They can’t assess whether the information source is credible or if the conclusion is still valid years later. Instead, executives expect both current and precise data/information to come from reliable business sources that can be verified. Replace it with – “my memory and information concerning this turnover solution were out of date. So I updated my information using our own HR internal retention data and from studies in the April 2021 Harvard Business Review.
  • Basically, It’s_____ – Suggests that you don’t know the real descriptive number!
    One of the most overused business words is “basically.” Along with the word “essentially,” they are dealbreaker words because each only means approximately. And purposely being vague infers that you don’t have the actual descriptive number (or you’re afraid to reveal it). Replace this phrase with – specific numbers. Like, “the precise range of costs include a high of $42,000, an average of $30,700, and a low of $22,100.”
  • I’m No Expert – … Reveals… that you solve problems without expertise.
    By declaring you’re “no expert” even once. You are instantly letting everyone know that you either discount the value of becoming one; or the practice of consulting with experts. Replace it with – “I will voice no opinion. And I will only comment when I have acquired the necessary expertise, data, and answers.” 
  • I Don’t Foresee Any Problems -… Suggests… that you are probably naïve.
    We live in a complex, competitive, and changing world where everyone must realize that literally, every implemented solution will encounter multiple problems. So when a presenter states that they don’t foresee any design or implementation problems. Executives will, unfortunately, conclude that they are either naïve or too invested in this solution to accurately assess it. Replace it with – “after benchmarking five implemented solutions. We compiled a list of the 7 most likely problems that we are probably to encounter. As well as the probability of overcoming it and the costs of each likely problem if it’s not solved.”
  • It’s An Art, Not A Science Suggests… you want to operate without restrictions.
    When a field is classified as “an art.” A manager is usually allowed to operate in a free-form manner. Phrases like “It’s an art” or “I support a more human approach.” It makes executives question whether it really is. Or whether you, as a manager, simply don’t like to operate under prescribed policies, rules, and protocols. Stating “it’s an art” is a hard sell because today, in our complex fast-moving world, almost every business process is data-driven, and it operates under “guardrails.” So when you declare that you will use a free-form approach. You are essentially telling executives that their traditional data-driven, scientific, logical, and businesslike approach won’t work in this case. So they may view your contention as little more than a thinly disguised excuse for avoiding corporate rules. Replace it with – “we have data proving that our analytical, systematic approach, and protocols in this area produce superior results (when compared to the free-form approach).” 

Raise Your Credibility With Executives – Dealbreaker Phrases To Avoid (Part 2 of 2

LIST #3 – Phrases… That Show Your Lack Of Data… Limits Trying New Ways

In our fast-moving world, your executives will be instantly concerned when any phrase you use suggests that your lack of data will prohibit or limit updating or trying brand-new approaches and solutions. 

  • We Always Do It This Way  Infers… you don’t use data to assess improvement
    In a fast-moving world where environmental, technology, and industry changes are constant. It’s unlikely that a corporation can stay ahead in any area if they continually use the same dated “past practices.” Therefore the use of this “we always do it this way” phrase may cause executives to assume that you’re not constantly critically analyzing the effectiveness of your current approaches. And you likely are not using data to ensure that the results from all past practices increase yearly. Replace it with – “we will continue to use our current practice because our analysis shows that the results from this established practice are improving at 25% above its set target improvement rate each year. And those results are among the top 5% in our industry.”
  • Everyone Does It This Way  Suggests… that you primarily only copy others
    Whenever you state that “everyone does it this way.” You may cause your executives to question whether your function only copies the practices of other firms. Therefore, you perhaps unknowingly limit our chances of leading the industry and developing a competitive advantage in this functional area. You can’t be an industry leader without innovation and being the first to develop effective practices. Replace it with – “although we will study benchmark approaches. Our goal is to be constantly first with innovative and new, more effective approaches in every important functional area. Even though currently no one “does it this way.”
  • No, We Already Tried That  Suggests… that you prematurely give up on ideas
    With the “we tried that” phrase, you are stating you assume after something didn’t work the first time (perhaps years ago on its first try), this justifies never trying that approach again. This is a mistake because your executives know everything from the Wright Brother’s airplane to the Dyson vacuum. All failed not just on the first but many early tries. So the best approach is to rely on data-driven experiments and repeatedly try all promising new ideas. Replace it with – “after identifying the root causes of its last failure, and lots of subsequent testing to demonstrate “proof of concept.” Our data show that our modified and improved new approach will have an 87% probability of reaching its goals.”
  • We can’t drop it. It’s part of our culture – Infers… that our culture can’t change
    Even though maintaining a corporate culture has some value. In our fast-changing world, elements of our corporate culture can’t be exempt from being agile. Instead, data must be used to analyze each cultural element periodically and whenever new data indicates a cultural change is necessary. Decision-makers need to be open to action. Replace it with – “even though this is an established cultural element. Our proactive research produced data that shows that as a result of business changes. It’s now time to consider dropping or modifying that cultural element to improve our business results.”
  • Let’s go for it Suggests… you will try new things without supporting data
    Whenever you state in a cavalier manner, “why not try it.” You reveal that your “go ahead decisions” are partially driven by chance and intuition rather than data and calculated probabilities of success. Replace it with – “with a projected 79% success rate and a likely ROI of 1.5 to 1. The data supports our decision to go ahead with this attempt.”

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LIST #4 – Phrases… That Reveal That A Manager Uses Flawed Decision-Making 

This last category of “Dealbreaker Phrases” covers those that reveal that the presenting decision-maker uses a flawed decision-making process. Or they have values and priorities inconsistent with the ones established by their executives. 

  • Wait till we get all of the information  Causes… unnecessarily delayed decisions
    Managers that are overly risk averse will try to withhold decisions until they get “perfect information.” Including 100% of the requested information and feedback. Unfortunately, in today’s incredibly fast-moving business world. Waiting for “perfect information” often delays the decision beyond the optimal time when the decision is required. And that delay will be costly if the need for the decision and its probability of success fade because others or the marketplace have long ago made their decision. The required approach for speeding up decisions includes making them when only 80% of the requested information is in hand. Replace it with – “because settling for an “80% decision” allows us to make decisions prior to the time the market requires it. We have made 80% of decisions our standard expectation.
  • We’ll Take A Vote – Suggests… you are trying to minimize your accountability
    After soliciting feedback, leaders are expected to make tough decisions. However, some executives may judge taking a vote among teammates as a possible negative indication that you as a leader are trying to limit or completely avoid personal accountability. So realize that “letting the majority decide” (or going with the flow) can be a huge mistake that reflects under leadership. Also, be aware that in the many cases where some team members have a great deal of high-level information and expertise while others have very little. A majority vote (where all team members are equal) may actually be damaging when some team members automatically vote for their personal interests (regardless of the facts). Replace it with – “when there is an expertise differential, our practice is only to let those with the highest level of expertise influence the final decision.”
  • But we might get sued  Because… many lawsuit suggestions are a delay tactic
    Even though HR is a compliance function, few in HR actually have a law degree. In addition, few HR departments have a risk analysis team that can estimate the probability of both being sued and losing, as well as the likely costs. So when an HR leader proclaims, “but we might get sued,” or “that might be illegal” without data and written legal advice. Executives can view this threat as little more than an excuse (or delaying tactic) by the leader to stop something they don’t support. Replace it with – “our compliance risk data reveals that there is only a .05 chance of legal action. And then even with a 55% chance of a loss, the potential costs would not exceed $250,000″ (less than 1% of our yearly revenue). So both inside and outside legal assessments recommend that we don’t hesitate.”
  • I apologize – Means… you likely haven’t developed actions for ending this issue
    Although, some may appreciate personal apologies. Unfortunately, too often, accepting one ends all attention on the issue. So instead, many executives want to hear that you have used data to develop action steps. And when implemented, they will assure that the issue/problem doesn’t recur. Replace it with – “I identified all of the issue’s critical success and failure factors. And based on those factors. Here are the actions that I will take to ensure that this problem will have a less than 1% chance of happening again in the future.”
  • We put people first  Suggests… a human bias will limit technology alternatives
    Because we are people ourselves, we often support “our kind” by letting our preference for human employees overly influence our “who does the work” decisions. And because there are so many effective technology substitutes for human labor these days. I can do the work better, faster, cheaper, and with fewer safety risks. Many more objective executives view this HR bias “toward hiring employees” as a serious and growing problem. And you will find many to be intolerant when you don’t present data showing that you proactively assessed every human and technology option for doing new work. Replace it with – “in every case; HR will gather data to determine objectively whether people or technology should be used to do needed work.”
  • I focus on costs and efficiency  Suggests… you don’t focus on business impacts
    I find that overhead professionals, like those in HR,” are exclusively focused on reducing costs. Although inefficiency is never a good thing, it might not be a strategic approach because, in most cases, the total HR costs are usually less than 1% of the total budget. And because executives are laser-focused on quantified business and revenue impacts. They may act negatively if you don’t spend a majority of your time on increasing business impacts rather than doing things faster and more efficiently. Replace it with – “we strategically focus on business impacts. Here (verified by the CFO) are the dollar impacts of HR programs on our sales, product development, and customer service results.”
  • I watch my team like a hawk   Suggests… damaging micromanagement
    I have found that the most damaging management approach in a collaborative team environment is micromanaging the employees. It frustrates and limits the growth and learning of each teammate. And for innovators, micromanagement is a prime cause of turnover. Replace it with – “to maximize innovation and have our employees learn from their mistakes. I set goals and expectations for each employee. And then I mostly manage from a distance, relying primarily on a few pre-agreed upon performance and results metrics.”
If you can only do one thing – start small by making a personal commitment to stop forever using at least the top three “Dealbreaker Phrases” (to tell the truth, I’ll try my best, and I believe). And then to ensure that mentioning them will no longer occur. Use your phone to record all of your practice sessions and your actual presentation. And then, use this list of “Dealbreaker Phrases” to identify and fix any additional areas where nonstrategic word usage could hurt you during future presentations. 

Strategic Business Phrases To Add That Might Excite Your Executives 

Some of the strategic phrases that, unfortunately, are used primarily by executives. These should be added to your vocabulary and are listed below in the table. 

Business caseROIBusiness model
Competitive advantageStrategic goalsAlgorithms
Hypothesis testingIf-then scenario planningSplit sample testing
Performance differentialFailure analysisPrescriptive metrics
Global mindsetPrioritizationShareholder value

And finally, at the same time. HR professionals need to avoid using our own “HR speak” because it befuddles many executives.

Final Thoughts

Obviously, when you want to ensure that you effectively influence and sell any group. It’s a good idea to completely research the language and phrases that leaders in that group frequently use. Unfortunately, after two years of research, I am now revealing to you the most damaging “Dealbreaker Phrases” that can turn off executives. And I have added explanations to each phrase so that you’ll know why each phrase can be damaging.

So, in addition to dressing and acting like an executive. If you want a fast-moving career both inside and outside of HR. You must, early in your career, learn how to “talk strategically” at a level well above your current pay grade. In part because executives will never lose focus during presentations by administrative professionals if they don’t mistakenly slip in a single ugly deal-breaking phrase. HR professionals should also know that the phrases will, if remembered, continue to hurt during future presentations. And the use of these phrases will also hurt you during promotional and new job interviews. 

Note if you wish to add your own dealbreaker phrases to my list – you can do that by adding the phrase as a comment following this posted article on Dr. Sullivan’s LinkedIn page.

Author’s Note 

  • Please share these phrases by sending this article to your team/network or posting it on your favorite media. 
  • Next, if you don’t already subscribe to Dr. Sullivan’s weekly Aggressive Recruiting Newsletter, you can do that here.
  • Also, join the well over 11,000 that have followed or connected with Dr. Sullivan’s community on LinkedIn.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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