Improve Your Communication Skills by Eliminating One Little Word…

The idea for this article about came to me when I was listening to a BBC radio broadcast recently. The radio presenter was reviewing a particularly poignant programme about a mother who discovered her child had a serious illness, and she said in her introduction:

For the first four days she had a beautiful baby but then the diagnosis of illness was made.’

It made me reflect on the use of the word ‘but’ and how that little word had conveyed the impression that the baby was no longer beautiful and how it had taken away the impact of the opening words.

How different that phrase would have sounded if but wasn’t in it. I’m sure the presenter did not mean to imply that a baby with an illness is no longer beautiful; that would have been contrary to the whole tone of the programme. However, she gave that impression in her opening remarks by her choice of that one tiny word.

Apart from sending a subliminal message that somehow disability, or illness, is inherently unbeautiful, that phrase set me thinking how that tiniest of words in the English language can undermine much of the intent of our communication and weaken the messages we think we are giving out.


I looked up some of the definitions of ‘but’ in the dictionary and they are:

‘On the contrary’



The plural ‘buts’, is defined as ‘reservations’ or ‘objections’, which is exactly what using it does. It sends a message of reservation and lessens the impact of whatever has gone before it.

Are You a Butter?

Think back over some of your recent client meetings or conversations with colleagues and try to see if you are a regular butter. I know I often do it without thinking and have even written it once or twice while writing this article! When we say ‘but’ a lot it’s almost the verbal equivalent of holding up our hand like a police officer calling halt on traffic duty. Have you ever found yourself saying to a colleague or someone who works for you?

I really liked the way you handled that difficult client but if you had stopped the conversation ten minutes earlier it would have had more impact.’

Or maybe

That was an excellent proposal you wrote for the board but I have made one or two alterations’.

In both cases a compliment is being given about the nature of the work done, but the receivers of those phrases will only have heard that it needed changing in some way thereby not learning and developing their skills. Depending on the circumstances, most of us would hear that phrase as a criticism of our work when actually it is quite complimentary. The use of the word ‘but’ negates the positivism of the earlier words.


Are your sales people, front line staff, or even you, giving the wrong impression of your product or service?
I have experienced this several times when trying to purchase something and asking about a specific feature. For example, a salesperson will say to me, ‘Yes, it does have that particular feature but you need to do this first to make it happen. I hear the ’but’ and am mentally walking away because I hear that actually it doesn’t easily do what I want it to. Or, ‘yes, you can have life assurance cover at that price but it will increase when you reach 55’. Again, I only hear that a price increase is on the way, not that it is want I want right now.

Do you give back handers?

Have you heard the phrase a ‘back handed compliment’? For example, ‘you look quite business like when you make an effort’. The subtext of which is, ‘most of the time you don’t make an effort and look an unprofessional mess!’ If you use ‘but’ a lot in your speech you may find you are giving people a back hander without meaning to.

Practical Steps

When running seminars within either the private or public sector, I often use a variation of the following exercise which I believe will be helpful to you if you incorporate it into either your own, or your staff, training plan:

Imagine that you are giving feed back to a member of staff or a colleague. As well as complimenting them on what they do well, you are going to add something that will improve their performance. For example,

Your summary of our sales objectives to the new director was excellent BUT it would have been even better if you had been able to add this month’s figures as well.’

Now try that as:

Your summary of our sales objectives to the new director was excellent AND it would have been even better if you had been able to add this month’s figures as well’.

The use of and does not detract from the sentence in the same way that using but does and it still conveys message you want to get across. You want them to continue to do all the things they did right plus, something additional not something instead of, or on the contrary. You are adding something. And when you are selling something, describing your service, explaining your business USP, applying for a career boost, you want to add to your impact, not subtract.

So, each time you find yourself tempted to insert a ‘but’ into your speech think, what am I taking away by doing this, how is this message going to be heard, and try using and instead!


Posted on April 5th, 2009 by

Jane's Book

Paperback or Electronic copy

Free Updates
Simply fill in your details below to get regular updates in your in box. Your details will not be shared – ever.

Connect with me
facebook twitter google+ linkedin RSS