“Authentic” is dead

It’s time to retire the following phrases. They should no longer be used, ever, in any context except derisive mocking:


  • Fast and easy
  • Putting customers first
  • The Holy Grail of
  • The leading provider of
  • Legendary customer support

Also eschew these words, as devoid of meaning as a yogi’s mantra and as useless as a simile that doesn’t contribute new information:


  • Authentic
  • Solution
  • Genuine
  • Powerful
  • Secure
  • Simple
  • Innovative
  • Insight
  • Disruptive

These words have been corrupted by those who claim to honor their meaning but do not act accordingly.

When a company claims to “put customers first” but then uses “Level 1 support” as a shield to prevent customers from intruding on profits, we realize talk is cheap.

When a company claims to have “secure” payments but then 100,000 credit card numbers are stolen, we realize you don’t need a permit to claim security.

When a company claims to be “innovative and disruptive” but then pitches an idea you’ve heard ten times in the past month, it reminds us that if you have to say it, it’s probably untrue.

When 78% of “About Us” web pages claim “the leading provider” of something, we are no longer impressed.

Like a song over-played on the radio, like a restaurant over-hyped in the magazines, repetition of even powerful, wonderful phrases can kill them.

Oh I know 21% of you stopped reading as soon as you saw that “authentic” made the list, and shot down to the comments section to unleash a scathing missive explaining how “authenticity” is the prime mover of modern marketing, honorable salesmanship, and meaningful relationships.

I agree! In fact all these words and phrases should theoretically carry meaning, but theory is for people who don’t need to sell $2,600 more software by next Friday so they can make rent.

If I had enough hubris to run around christening years, I would declare 2009 The Year of “Authentic.” Enough! We get it! I respect the work of all those bloggers and Twitter-ers and lecturers and consultants who drove this word deep into our psyches. Indeed it’s a tremendous gift: bringing concepts like authenticity, genuineness, and give-first-sell-later to the traditionally aggressive, non-engaging, selfish world of marketing. The more people honor this new code, the better for us all.

Nevertheless, it’s time to retire words like “authentic.” The misuse is to too widespread, the abuse too deep.

So what should you do instead?

Be specific.
Many of the dead words weren’t especially illustrative to begin with. As far as I know, a “solution” just means product and/or service, so the word doesn’t add information anyway. Instead, be specific and inspire me.

  • Instead of “easy” say “so straightforward, you won’t need a manual.”
  • Instead of “inexpensive” say “just a dollar a day.”
  • Instead of “powerful” say “processes 6,253,427 requests daily.”
  • Instead of “disruptive” say “72% of our customers say they’ll never go back to a normal email client.”
Want even more specifics? Here.

Show, don’t tell.
Some dead words are descriptive, but they don’t paint a picture. “Powerful” sounds nice I suppose, but how does that change my life? Showing something in action is more evocative than describing it.

  • Instead of saying it’s fast, show a speed test (especially against competitors).
  • Instead of saying it’s easy, have a video demonstrating your tool solving someone’s problem in 60 seconds flat.
  • Instead of saying you have eager, responsive, intelligent tech support, put a “chat now” bar on every page of your website.
  • Instead of a bullet-list of benefits, quote actual customers describing your impact on their lives.

Face it.
My favorite way to start a sales pitch is to make fun of typical sales pitches. For example:

I know you were hoping for a 22-slide PowerPoint deck with our mission statement and company history. I’m really sorry to disappoint! ‘Cause I’m just going to start the demo and let you interrupt me with questions.


People claim that peer code review tools will do magic things like make your developers smarter or fix existing social problems with the team. Actually, if anything code review can magnify social issues! However, I do believe our tool will save you time and aggravation in these 4 specific ways …. so as we go through the demo, see if you agree.

Because you’re willing to say what others won’t, especially when we all know it’s the truth, you’ve earned credibility. Now folks are more open to your claims — even those that are well-worn.

Own it.
You can still use an abused word if you totally, 100% own the concept.

You can claim “legendary customer service” if you back that with first-ring, human phone service, online chat from your home page, quick-response Twitter monitoring, and 15-minute turn-around time on tech support emails even at 3am on a Sunday. Be sure to communicate all that too, because if you lead with the dead phrase I’ll leave before you get the chance to prove it.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.   —Gandhi
When old ideas become cliché, that’s an implicit call for new ideas. This time around, can you lead instead of follow?

Of course this is a bit unfair. Quick: Come up with a compelling new philosophy for human interaction and global communication, marketing, sales, and relationships!

Yeah it’s an unreasonable expectation, and not certainly required, but remember the best ideas often aren’t (excuse the clichés) ground-breaking, innovative, out-of-the-box, Earth-shattering epiphanies. Often great ideas are a synthesis of other ideas with just a smidge of novel insight, or just putting into words what others sense but cannot articulate.

This is the hardest and most time-consuming way to break out of the mundane, but also the most rewarding. And if you do come up with something, there’s a lot of people who will love to help you spread the word.

What else?

What other phrases should be avoided? What are good alternatives? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

74 responses to ““Authentic” is dead”

  1. One Stop Shop, Single Source Solution….sounds like Walmart however I have been guilty of using these terms in sales presentations for our software and services. Maybe a better way to describe would be…
    “Your starting point to achieving XYZ objective”

  2. I had > 1000 blogs I’ve been neglecting since I’ve returned from vacation. I was going through them (NNW ⌘A – ⇧⌘U) when this gem caught my eye. A W E S O M E ! I couldn’t agree with you more. Action speaks volumes – Words are pointless.

  3. Amen as usual.
    I said almost the same things here: http://www.straysoft.com/dblog/articolo.asp?id=33 one year ago.
    It’s hard to keep up because it’s the hard way of doing business. Results are mixed and , sometimes, I fall on the ground and overhype something. Anyway, it’s not only an attitude that differentiates you among the competitors, it is “Right”, ethically right, and that’s enough to adhere.
    .-= Stray__Cat’s latest blog post: Slicing and dicing the income statement (1), organization =-.

  4. Ideally the companies should just stick to their business and let the customers do the talking. Regardless what words they will use it’ll be a lot more “authentic”.

  5. Funny, I just wrote a quick rant on the same subject yesterday… http://blog.thentic.com/

    It’s really pretty pathetic that it has come to this. I believe if people were solving problems they face personally, instead of searching for a problem they don’t care about but could profit from, then they’d make better solutions and those solutions would sell themselves without all the bs.

  6. solid post. We’ve actually run tests on our own site that agree with your points more or less empirically.

    I am 100% with you on “Show, don’t tell”, especially with regards to customer service. Responsive, intelligent customer sales/support is such a common claim, but so many companies either (a) don’t see the real value of good support or (b) don’t understand the tools they could be using to prove it. Our last few blog posts discuss this topic a bit:


    I can tell you we feel a lot more comfortable “owning” claims to great customer service by rotating *all* team members on sales/support duty and using our own tools to do it…and we also get concrete, direct feedback for improving our product :)

    Thanks again for condensing the problems of inauthenticity into one post, good stuff.

  7. how about “rockstar” ?

    Yeah, now that’s the type of persona I want to trust – and make the organization a type or Dr. Drews celebrity rehab.

      • Although…..In the sentence “My dog took a ninja-dump in your yard last night” I think the prefix “ninja” effectively articulates the sentiment I am trying to convey….

  8. Add “Profound” to the list. If something really is profound, it usually speaks for itself and doesn’t need to be pointed out.

  9. Great article. The one company that I know of that backs up their claim for “Fanatical Support” is Rackspace who actually picks up their phone (by a human) within three rings, every time you call them, regardless of time of day/week.

    • Agreed! In fact they were exactly who I was thinking about when I wrote about all those things you echoed. :-)

  10. Jason, this post is one of the best guides to good writing I’ve seen in a long while.

    I’d like to add “system” and “process” to the list of words to eschew (though I concede I’m guilty of throwing these abstractions around from time to time). Interesting how these often go hand in hand with the words you’ve already listed.
    .-= Dan Nestle’s latest blog post: What happens to Twitter when marketers get real jobs again? =-.

  11. Jason, thanks for the friendly, non-confrontational reminder that we need to be more thoughtful about what we’re saying and how we can get our point accross better, especially the adage “show don’t tell”. I often try to visualize how to do this better, so your input is very much appreciated.

  12. OK, you forgot synergy, convergence of idea, and organic. This blog is totally dead on, and goes to the point that using esoteric words do not work especially when you do not “walk the talk!” OMG, just thought of another one…I was too busy to read this blog, but you sucked me in with the title, and after reading it Jason, I am glad I did. Part of the problem with these words is that there are varying degrees of authenticity, as opposed to being pregnant or telling the truth (its the truth and everything else is a lie), these soft words are not specific.

    Bottom line (oops, another one) is that in order to be what you say you are you really have to pay attention to the details. Lots and lots and lots of people understand the concepts, but few practice them much less master them. It is sort of like the difference of a guy who is sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game telling the guy at the plate how to hit a baseball. Unless you happen to be Derek Jeter (in the stands), you better not be criticizing him when he is at the plate.

  13. I would like to add unique to the list. We can’t ALL be unique! Yes, we can certainly do things in unique ways, but only ONE can be unique!

  14. I’d like to add:
    Unique (only ONE can be unique)

    And these I’d add just because they are so overused:

    • Unique is a fair suggestion. Although “being the only one of a particular type” begs the question, which type? Nearly everything is unique if the type is refined sufficiently.

      A worse offender in my opinion is ultimate. Is the product either the last, the fundamental or the greatest there will ever be? Inevitably no.

      (Especially overused in American corporate discourse)

  15. How about “Fast and reliable”… I don’t like the sound of that.
    Jason, you are right about companies and people needing to be more descriptive instead of shielding themselves and their products or services with meaningless words… good post.


  16. I recommend adding the word “experience” to that list It’s used in the same way as “solution”, as in, “It’s not just fast food, it’s a burger experience.”

    You know a word is pointless when you can add it onto the end of *nearly everything*. “A McDonalds Experience.” “A Driving Experience.” “A Vacation Experience.”

    That whole list of words are ones that can be removed entirely with no loss of meaning, and not just because they’re overused, but because they never had any real meaning to begin with. Saying that you offer a “powerful customer service solution” is the same as saying you offer “customer service.”
    .-= Justin’s latest blog post: "The editors of the periodical you forwarded are, I understand, members of a literary clique……" =-.

  17. Spot on Jason. And the comments are as interesting as the post itself.

    Apart from the fact that these words have been done to death, another reason why NOT to use such vague words would be: People are getting increasingly busy with all the wealth of information and choices all around. For every need of theirs, they typically look at around 4-5 solutions before settling down on one. The only way to get their attention and hit them hard would be using solid numbers. Statistics can’t lie.

    Also one of the reasons I see the increasing use of phrases that have been used, over-used, misused and abused is the increasing need for people to seek “inspiration” for everything they do. Right from how their website should look to how their navigation should work to how they should write the copy, they are always seeking inspiration and end up copying someone popular – someone who is cited as an example by a number of resources becomes their copy-from source and the result is exactly what we are discussing here.

    • Hey,

      It’s a widespread misconception that statistics can’t lie..but as long as it remains a widespread misconception for both the marketeers and the customer, all’s well I guess!!

  18. What about “secret formula”? I actually saw this today as described on a webinar for how to build a website.

  19. AGREED!!! Great points all around. Actually, you should just make this an annual thing even. Next year it will just be something else.

  20. So what you are really saying is that marketeers should be dropped off a boat with concrete shoes because they lie all the time?

    Something we can agree on.

    Stop dealing with the symptom, deal with the cause.

  21. Another great article on this topic. The movement behind “death-to-mindless-corporate-speak” continues to grow.

    My rule of thumb to overcome this: if my sentence relies on an adjective, it needs a better verb.

    • Your title is still arguable better than mine… Mine gets confused with the company, plus it sounds weird to call yourself “smart.”

      Titles are often victim of circumstance, I wouldn’t worry about it.

  22. Your an idiot if you think those phrases are dead, they will be around long after your ass has passed on from this life

  23. How about adding “thought leadership” to this list! I would like to see more “Do Leadership” or “Execution Leadership” (not refering to execution execution!) or “Operational Supremacy Leadership”. Let’s talk about that, lets help each other out in that, then we have building blocks for what works what doesn’t and what people want more of. Thanks for calling this out. Blogging with intention, like it!

  24. Your statement, “Often great ideas are a synthesis of other ideas…” is so true and something we all tend to forget from time to time. It reminds me of the book How Breakthroughs Happen by Andrew Hargadon. He discusses Technology Brokering, the concept that innovation is really about recombining existing people, ideas, and objects in new ways. He points to Thomas Edison (light bulb) and Henry Ford (assembly line) as examples. It’s a good book and worth reading if you haven’t.

    My comment is a little off topic, but the concept of Technology Brokering reminds me to stay away from these overused words that really bring no meaning to my product. Thanks for the post.
    .-= Zuly Gonzalez’s latest blog post: Why You Are Not “Good Enough” to Avoid Malware =-.

  25. Back in the 70’s, I learned sales as a process of listening very carefully to what the customer was actually saying. From there, we were taught to make sure we knew what the customer was talking about. In other words, talk to the person instead of launching a pitch.

    We were never encouraged to use cliché pitches; in fact, we weren’t taught pitches at all. We also weren’t taught to “close a deal” but rather to “open a relationship.” The objective had more in common with making a new friend than with making a sale. And the interesting thing was that if this approach was followed to the letter, it worked.

    When I got my first sales job and put those principles into practice, I made a hell of a pile of friends. At first, there were few sales, but within six months, I was the top salesman in the company. I even had other salesmen swiping my deals if I was out of the store, but in the end it didn’t matter because even with that going on, I was still making more money that they were and my customers always asked for me first.

    I didn’t stick with it long enough to get rich, but I did prove to myself that sales is not about pleasing the boss or head office or lining my pockets with money. All those things are by-products. The most important thing is building friendships and that’s the only way to build trust. And that means telling the customer you don’t have what he needs, but you know another store that does. Then send him there! Next time he wants something, he’ll think of you first because you acted more like a friend than a salesman.

    My boss at that time didn’t understand my approach and we had more than a few arguments about it. But at the end of each month, when he tallied up the sales, my approach was adding more to his bottom line than any other. He never got to the point of asking what my secret was, but I like to think he was smart enough that he would have eventually.

    I find it interesting to deal with sales people these days and look for fragments of this sales approach. It’s not common, but it’s far more visible now than it was ten years ago. I guess everyone is finally learning this stuff by osmosis. It seems that where it’s most prevalent is in stores where commissions are not paid, which is kind of sad because someone who’s doing their job well should always be rewarded.

    So, when all is said and done, the term “honorable salesmanship” does NOT have to be an oxymoron.

    -Ron T.

  26. I would have added democratic to the list. Very interesting article, even for a European!

  27. It is a constant and endless fight that I hope ends up with common-sense being triumphant.

    Yesterday I saw an ad from an orange-juice concentrate drink, proudly boasting “PICKED FRESH!” (as opposed to the previously “picked rotten!” ????)

    I still haven’t gotten over some of the dotcom boom buzzwords like synergy. I haven’t heard it said years but I still fear it.

    Question – Has anyone ever purposely sought out a companies mission statement? (other than for giggles of course)
    That, and “holistic”.

  28. hegel would say “the example is the truth of the idea”

  29. You forgot “collaboration.” I want a mental brillo pad every time I hear yet one more solo-contributing prima donna who’s never collaborated with anyone in his life talk about how great it is. That word needs to be retired, like Joe Montana’s jersey.
    .-= Alora Chistiakoff’s latest blog post: Can You Learn To Do, Instead of By Doing? =-.

  30. Oh please! Who are these people defending the validity of authenticity? The 21st Century wouldn’t know authentic if it stood up in our cornflakes. Holidays in theme parks, Dove selling plainness, oil companies branding green, reality TV, food from franchise chains, botox, Second Life, blogging, CNN… The Western world doesn’t have a clue what’s authentic any more.

    Quality, integrity, authenticity: my late father understood them, his father had them in spades. Post-modernism and post-WWII both put an end to them.
    .-= The IT Skeptic’s latest blog post: the top 10 things you can do to be green =-.

  31. I recently completed a book on Web 2.0 “salesmanship” that, as far as I know, is considered to be “hot stuff” within the digital native community. While I found the insight about using the Web as another platform for daring and productive self-expression, and as a tool for business, to be inspiring and helpful, the extended emphasis on meeting, greeting, fitting in and talking one’s self up “authentically” in an effort to win people’s admiration was a bit too much for me. In the end, the book felt heavy in my hands. Likewise, I recently attended a conference of international delegates (inspired, in part, I admit, by said book), and was horrified (yes, this is the word I mean to use — “horrified”), by the way most everyone showed up to eat lunch, take pictures of themselves, exchange business cards and … leave as the expert panel was about to speak or … fiddle with their mobiles as the panel was speaking or … make extended jargon-filled comments on their own work without engaging the subject matter at hand. This was all done under the mantra of “authentic concern with the issues.” It was not a boring panel (one of the most intellectually rigorous experts on capitalism was there) and the issues on the table were pressing and directly related to the success of the work of the people in attendance; plus, they simply weren’t going to get the information presented everyday in such a concentrated and direct form. I don’t advocate for avoiding people and communities and I know a businessperson or other professional needs to be able to engage and communicate with an audience and peers about their skills and deliverables. But, I do believe that if people spent less time letting everyone know what they are doing and how “amazing” it all is (one less Tweet today?), and more time getting a better handle on the actual program (life program), perhaps we could cut down on the verbal pollution you mention above and make the world a much better place — intentionally fostered through some sense of silence. Thank you for your writing, I take it all in sooner or later via RSS feed.

    • Yup, we’re on the same wavelength. It’s sad that you can write that in 2006 and yet those phrases are still not dead.

      • So true. And yet, you’ve got the antidotes just right: be specific, dig deeper than cliché in your writing, and make sure to actually DO what you SAY you do. Pretty soon you will be known for being authentic and having integrity in your business.

        Any of these terms have more weight if they are said *about* you than if they are just repeated ad nauseum *by* you. Pesky things, words.
        .-= Anne Hill’s latest blog post: A is for Authenticity =-.

  32. What about “Actionable Insights”? I hate seeing those when it comes to all sort of information systems…

  33. You are so right!

    And even though I agree, we are so surrounded by this meaningless language that when I come to write my own marketing material I find myself easily falling into using it too.I think it takes much more effort to think through and say honestly, without BS, what I am trying to say.

    And also, I think certain formatting should be avoided too – like the typical sales letter format for an eBook. You know; personable comment, video testimonials, bullet points, red lines around boxes of text, more testimonials, more bullet points, guarantee, unfindable price, bonuses etc. As soon as I see that, my brain yells “SCAM!!” and I click off the page. But maybe that’s a topic for another article!

    • Ha, so true about the marketing drawings. Unfortunately it’s still true that everyone reads text in boxes before text elsewhere. But surely it can be more tasteful, and surely the text inside the box can be quality.

      You’re right it takes far more effort to be specific, and worse still it requires that you actually decide what’s important/interesting!

      Then again, if you don’t decide those things, why do you think anyone else will get excited after reading it?

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