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Five Words We've Banned At Work

And what we say instead to unlock our creativity


I’m in the business of words. So it makes sense that when I’m building a media company I’m happy to work in, the words we use form the culture we create in.

My creative partner is 100% on board with this. Kate is also a recovering burned out producer. In the months we’ve worked together, we have made a determined effort to reframe or eliminate past toxic work practices we once mastered as senior producers on top-rated shows.

Here are the Top 5 words or phrases we’ve stopped using and what we say instead.

#1. Follow up

I’ve said this a few times, but McEwen Media has a “no follow up” policy. It’s pretty remarkable for a business that is 90% pitching and outreach, but I honestly believe this official policy is the secret to my success.

The term “follow up” is peak passive-agressive office-speak. It puts the onus and power on the other person. It’s loaded with the feeling of “I can’t take action until you decide on this”.

If you “follow up”, you’re opting out of your own momentum.

Instead, we “reconnect” or “update” whoever is receiving our intial pitch. If I’ve pitched a show a bunch of ideas and don’t hear back, “following up” on those original ideas won’t make a difference.

Instead, I go back to them with fresh, new ideas. I create value in my outreach because I’m showing I can offer more than those initial ideas. I can think of many angles and be a collaborative partner.

In short, I’m not putting pressure on them to do all the work. I’m an active participant in this exchange.

This approach has proven so successful, I have multiple clients booked for ideas I pitched months earlier. I know for a fact producers keep my pitches on file, because I’ve proven I’m an endless source of new ideas. I’m not waiting for them to decide before I take action. I’m taking my own action and giving them new material to consider.

2. Should

I wrote about this loaded word recently in a post on why I’ve banned “post-mortems” in my business. Not just the phrase, but the act of looking for mistakes in general.

The word “should” is another way we put focus and give power to outside sources. Who is deciding what we “should” be doing? How we “should” be acting? And why are we giving it so much power?

I don’t have a direct reframe for this. I just know it’s a trigger for when I’ve lost sight of my goal and my direction. If this word pops up in my thoughts or conversation, I immediately pop up: wait, why am I should-ing myself?

Whenever I find myself or someone else talking about what we “should” do, I interrupt it with “ok, but what do we want to do?” I check in with my goals, or my partner’s goals. We’ve even started doing regular goal checks for our clients to make sure we’re doing what they want, not what they “should”.

3. Salvage

This one actually came from my creative partner Kate who was triggered by a problem-solving session with one of our clients. The initial pitch strategy wasn’t working the way we wanted it to, so Kate was pivoting.

When the client asked “what can we salvage?” she had a visceral reaction. To him, this was an innocent question. He has a marketing background, so I know this term is just part of his daily speech.

To Kate, it evoked an image that is the polar opposite of how we approach situations that aren’t working the way we plan.

“Salvage” suggests we’re looking at a wreckage. An accident so catastrophic, all we’re left with is blood-stained pieces. I used to work for an EP who met every update with “what a disaster”. He said it with a joking tone, as if to diffuse the situation. But he said it with everything, so you never got a sense of how bad this update was. In his words, everything that wasn’t the previously laid out plan was a “disaster”.

This is not how we approach pitches that don’t work the way we want them to. At McEwen Media, we work in the realm of infinite possibilities. Something isn’t working the way we plan so we recalibrate.

Salvage has the same energy as “follow up”. There’s no momentum behind it. The word suggests we need to stop, regroup and maybe even start over again. But when a pitch isn’t picked up, that’s not a catastrophe. At most it’s a missed term with your GPS.

Whenever we hit blocks, we don’t “assess the damage”. We look at the map. We find where we want to go, look at where we are, and see the infinite alternative routes ahead of us. Then we pick the one we like the best.

4. Failure/Set Back/Problem

Now, I admit this could border on toxic positivity. I’m not building a workplace environment where everything is perfect and nothing ever goes wrong. Things go wrong all the time. But they also work out all the time.

I often talk about my pitch rate. I would estimate only about 10% of the pitches I send out get picked up. That means 90% of my outreach is just floating in the ether.

The 10% I do get to move forward on? That work is incredible and its fuelling the growth of my business.

Call it the law of opposites or the law of polarity, but you can’t have the good without the bad. I never know which pitch will land. Each idea will either come back in the affirmative, or disappear from memory.

My success is surrounded by failure. But the success I have is amazing.

When you’re building a creative career, you can’t be afraid to fail. You have to learn to live with its constant pressence. Otherwise you will never have the courage to try new things. To branch out. To stretch your capabilities.

When I worked in network TV, we were obsessed with ratings. We would analyze anything that might have lead to good or bad ratings. In theory, this helped us stay the #1 shows at a #1 network.

But creatively? It handcuffed decisions. We programmed safe ideas, with experts we knew and rarely took risks. It’s the same logic that gives us three choices in primetime TV: cop/medical procedurals, talent shows, sitcoms (specifically reboots).

When you take the fear out of it, failure is freedom.

5. How?

This isn’t new to self-help and professional development circles. But the concept of “Who, not how” is the most liberating idea to come to my creative career since my first writing job.

It might seem counter-intuitive to ban “how do we do this?” from a creative business. I mean, every idea needs to be followed by an action plan, right?

Yes, but “how” is the most limiting way to approach it.

The “how” nearly drove me to quitting my own business a year into it, when I was on the cusp of growing it to its full potential.

When you come up with a plan, you cut yourself off from seeing other, sometimes better ways of getting results. It can give you tunnel vision. It can lead you to “following up” because you can’t see any other way beyond that first plan.

At the same time, following too many directions can leave you feeling directionless or unfocused.

Here’s what we do instead.

We have an end goal. Say, it’s booking a client as co-host of a popular daytime show. Instead of asking “how”, we ask “what would this look like?” Then we look at where we are and look at all of the possible routes to get us there, knowing all of this is possible.

Once we’ve explored the infinite possibilities, we ask “what step do I want to take today to move us toward the goal?” And we keep doing that, taking each step with the goal in mind until we hit it.

Sometimes it’s a direct step forward, sometimes a diagonal. But it has the flexibility to sidestep any obstacles that might disrupt one set path.

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