We have a saying at our house: “You can always tell a Franklin. But you can’t tell them much.”

When we use words to obscure our meanings, it tells people more about us than our subject – and usually not what we’d like …

You Can Always Tell a Euphemism

Over the weekend, Trump Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative fact.” This referred to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period” when photographic evidence showed the 2009 Obama crowd was larger.

“Meet the Press” Host Chuck Todd asked Conway why Trump would ask Spicer to start a “ridiculous litigation” of crowd size at his first press conference. Conway responded, “I’ll answer it this way: Think about what you just said to your viewers. That’s why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”

Crap detectors went off around the world.

It’s easy to get sanctimonious about this. But we have another saying at our house: “You’re not speaking from a protected place.”

Watch Your Language

A euphemism is “the substitution of a mild, indirect or vague term for one considered to be harsh, blunt, or offensive.”

Perhaps that’s even a euphemism — for “corporate double talk.” I call it “weasel words,” for trying to weasel out of something.

How many times have you used “downsizing” for “layoff”?  Or “adjusted our forecast” for “we were falling short so we reduced our goals”? Or “it was a challenging year” for “our growth strategy didn’t work”? Or “market correction” for “stock prices dropped”?

Of course everyone reads between the lines and knows what the truth is. But what do people think about you when you say these things? It’s probably one of these:

  • “You want to avoid responsibility for something bad.”
  • “You’re trying to baffle us with bull sh*t.”
  • “You’re lying to us.”


Prettifying our language can help distance us from an unpleasant event. But the price we pay is more than a momentary eye roll from our audience.

They’re less likely to believe us the next time. Or they may start listening extra closely and point out when we stray too far from what they see.

The best gift you can give any audience – inside or outside your organization – is also the best one you can give yourself. Speak as plainly and as truthfully as you can. Even when you have gotten news to share. #1: It’s refreshing. #2: It will earn you credibility points – and the chance to be heard in the future.

And the euphemism for that is “authentic” – which is too rare a quality in business these days.