Propulsion-Blog-masthead-blue with tagline (Sized).png
By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Reform Your Language, Transform Your Firm

In business as in life, words matter. Relationships can rise and fall based on the language we use with family, friends, and colleagues. So too, the terminology we employ when talking with clients and prospects can produce powerful effects.

There’s even a scientific concept that helps us understand our choice of words is so consequential: performativity. Performativity theory states that language doesn’t simply describe things, but can actually change the way people behave toward them.

The language of cost vs. the language of value

Consider the language used by agencies when dealing with clients on economic matters. During a recent office tour of a multinational agency in the Middle East, I encountered a literal wall of words in the form of wallpaper in the offices of the finance department. Designed as a word cloud with dozens of words, here are some of the terms that caught my attention:

  • Cost

  • Overhead

  • Cost Reduction

  • Timesheet

  • Balance Sheet

  • Audit

  • Liabilities

  • Reconciliation

  • Discount

  • Rate

  • Overtime

  • Write Off

  • Exposure

What do all these words have in common? They represent the language of cost. And thanks to well-meaning finance professionals, these terms get drummed into the consciousness of client-facing agency executives, who enter into pricing discussions using exactly the wrong vocabulary. As sellers, agencies should be using the language of value, not the language of cost. 

The word “cost” itself is a buyer’s term. From a seller’s standpoint, the word should be “price.” Agency documents labeled “estimated cost” should instead simply say “pricing.” 

Observe the aisles of grocery stores, the shelves of department stores, or the check-out pages of e-commerce websites, and the monetary value of products and services is always represented by the word “price,” not “cost.” As commercial partners to brands, agencies should know better.

We’re having the wrong conversation

Instead of talking about labor, rates, and cost of service, agency professionals should use the value-oriented language of sellers, which revolves around words like solutions, results, outcomes, and talent. In place of the word budget, “investment.” Not a contact, but the friendlier designation “agreement.” Instead of a bill, an “invoice.”

Small points? Perhaps. But taken in aggregate, our glossary of terms sends meaningful signals. It seems more than a little ironic that communications professionals should need to be convinced of the importance of word choice. Consider the copywriters who labor over le mot juste in a headline. The expressions we use in a discussion deciding the terms of an agency-client working relationship are decidedly just as consequential. 


In the hallways and conference rooms of agencies and brands alike, we’re largely having the wrong conversation, driven by the wrong linguistics. We talk about “utilization” when we should be emphasizing “accountability.” We deliberate about the cost efficiency of a campaign when we should be conversing about its efficacy. We waste time discussing “reconciliation” of hours spent instead of the impact of value created. The same goes for every dialog around “burn rates,” “burndowns” and “shortfalls.” Managers that drone on about a team’s “billability” (a curious word if there ever was one) would be better served stressing the velocity and quality of work completed. 

— “All revolutions begin with language.” —

EST founder Werner Erhard famously taught that “All transformations are linguistic.” A similar view is held by many behavioral psychologists, who posit that language is the precursor to behavior change. In effect, all revolutions begin with language.

For those of us filling the streets demanding a revolution in marketing, we would do well to take a few steps back and arm ourselves not with torches and pitchforks, but with a change in our lexicon.

1 Comment