Get to the Point by Cutting Fluff Words

Efficiency is necessary in today’s busy lives. Like you, I have a lot to do and very little time to do it in, which means I have to be efficient and exact wherever I can. I apply this approach to language and communication too. I don’t have time for drawn-out email exchanges and confusing analogies, and I bet you and your colleagues don’t either. Getting to the point – quickly and clearly – helps us all get our work done so we can move on to other things in our lives.

Clouds are fluffy. Words should not be.

Mark Twain is attributed with saying, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I ran out of time.” I am a big fan of editing and revising, but like Twain I don’t always have time to do much of it. When time is short, I focus my revisions on removing fluff words that do not add valuable meaning to what I want to say. Below are a few examples.

ReallyReally is often used as a magnifier to add emphasis to a sentiment or word. Its use, however, rarely differentiates the meaning and can sound empty. Notice the difference in the following sentence. Really doesn’t (really) add much, does it?

  • I enjoy working on strategic areas like talent management and process improvement.
  • I really enjoy working on strategic areas like talent management and process improvement.

Very – Like academic curves and performance ratings, the meaning of our words suffers from inflation. Overuse of very is one of the reasons. Save yourself slide or page real estate by removing very. If you need a way to differentiate, rephrase your statement in a more descriptive way.

  • He manages his team’s productivity well.
  • He manages his team’s productivity very well. A more descriptive way to convey this manager’s performance would be: His team’s high productivity is a result of his strong leadership.  

LiterallyLiterally means actually or in a literal sense, however it is frequently used as an incorrect replacement to mean figuratively. Using a word to mean its exact opposite of your intent is a great way to confuse and annoy your readers! Not all uses of literally are incorrect, so familiarize yourself with its proper use and use it sparingly.

  • Incorrect: I literally cried my eyes out at his incorrect grammar usage. (I now cannot see because I have no eyes.)
  • Correct: She literally rewrote the entire project plan to accommodate the increase in scope.

When time is short, revising communications to eliminate fluff words like really, very and literally is an efficient way to shorten and sharpen your message. Your readers and listeners will appreciate your efforts to get to the point!

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @HeatherGNelson1.