6 Poison words that cheapen your creative services

So often in business (and in life), it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Subtle changes in how you present yourself and your business – whether on your website, at a networking event, or while meeting with a potential client – can have profound effects on how you’re perceived and ultimately, whether or not you get hired.

And we all want to get hired, am I right? (At least by the right clients – learn where to find those here and here and here.)

Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here’s a list of words I replaced in my vocabulary (and why you should consider replacing them, too).


Better word: Investment

Cost is a dirty word in business. Clients hear the word “cost” and see dollar signs bleeding out of their bank accounts. They see less profit, and they feel the negative emotional hit.

But your services aren’t just costs for cost’s sake. They’re investments with the goal of increasing your clients’ revenue (likely). Investments merge value and expense by allowing the client to weigh input and outcome as one concept rather than two.

Example: Let’s say you quote $5000 for a project. (Doesn’t matter what project.) The cost is $5000, and ouch, that’s a lot of money! But with just a $5K investment, the company might rake in $20K in revenue.

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Now you might not be able to learn what your client thinks they can make off this investment, but you can get your client thinking about it with questions like these:

  • “How many products would you have to sell for this investment to be a success?”
  • “If this could increase your sales by 20% next month, would this investment seem worth it?”

Note: This is just the tip of the iceberg in switching to value-based pricing. Read more about how one small business is reaping the rewards by clicking here.


Better word: Improve

Fix is a word your plumber uses when you call frantically on Saturday morning. Fix implies something is broken.

So unless you’re specifically repairing something (or in the business of doing so), you’re putting your client on the immediate defensive by using the word “fix.”

That’s because before they hired you, often your clients did the work themselves (or internally). And there’s no better way to stick your foot in your mouth than to comment on how badly “whoever did this” did it, only to find out you’re talking to them.

Improve, however, is a positive word. Improve means your client did their best, and you’re the professional that’s going to bring their whole business up a notch.

Even if you’re going to totally replace what they did, you’re still improving upon what existed before.


Better word: Client

Product-based businesses have customers; service-based businesses have clients. If your business is both, you may have both clients and customers.

Customers go shopping and can choose the self-checkout line. They initiate the contact when something is needed.

Clients are taken care of and often have relationships with not only the business or brand, but a specific contact as well.

Consider this: you may be a loyal Apple customer, but probably no one at Apple has called you to see if you need any additional features. However, your financial planner/accountant contacts you (or should) before the end of the fiscal year to go over your taxes and next year’s goals.

Make sure you use the right one at the right time.


Better word: Proposal

Sure, clients ask for quotes all the time. But what you should give them is a proposal, and here’s why:

  • A quote is the cost (there’s that dirty word again) for what they think they need.
  • A proposal is a detailed statement of the value you’re going to provide.

A quote can be as simple as a one-sentence answer: “That’ll be $130.”

But a proposal is a document you’ve prepared that details what your client’s specifications are, what you’re going to do, what they’re going to get, and when they’re going to get it. Oh, and that little bit about how much they need to invest for all of this to happen.

(A quote can be a proposal, too, but again, it’s all in the semantics.)


Better word: Readers, visitors, audience, customers, etc.

When communicating with your client, it’s easy to slip into generalizations like the word “people.”

  • “When people come to your website…”
  • “As people are walking around your store…”
  • “When you give people your business card…”

But your client isn’t looking to get more “people.” They want more readers, visitors, customers, clients, leads, and/or buyers.

Why is that?

It’s because “people” is too general, too unqualified. We can get 10,000 people to follow your blog by posting cute cat pictures, but that doesn’t sell any of your widgets.

But if we can get 10,000 customers, now that’s something. Because customers are specialized people: people who have bought something. That’s what your clients are really looking for.

A minor distinction? Maybe. But sometimes that’s all it takes.


Better word: Concept

Proofing is what editors do. They assume whatever it is you’ve presented to them is essentially finalized, and they pore over it to find errors.

So when you’re “sending over proofs,” that’s semantically what you’re saying to your clients. Which is, “Here’s my work. I’m done with it, and all you need to do is check for errors.”

Probably not what you mean, right?

But when you “send over concepts,” you’re telling your client that these are the creative ideas you’ve turned into potential solutions, and that you’d like to work with them to find the best one and polish it until it’s the perfect fit for their business.

That sounds more like it.

Final thoughts

Now I’ll agree that many clients don’t consciously internalize the difference in word choice, but there’s a reason language is complex and full of nuances.

(Chiefly, so that those who put effort and care into what they’re saying are able to say exactly what they mean.)

And there’s a reason why some creatives seem to find and keep all the best clients. Their word choices might not be the only reason, but it’s assuredly part of a greater style of doing business that they’ve carefully honed.

How have you changed what you’re saying to boost conversions and retain clients?

What words have you replaced in your business vocabulary?

Do you have better replacement words than me?

Share your stories and ideas in the comments!

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About April Greer

April is the Director of Projects at Reliable PSD, a design-to-code company for designers, by designers. She’s the glue keeping everything together, organized, and right on time, and giving everyone a fantastic experience while she does it.



  1. Jerome Tanibata says

    GREAT article, April. This makes so much sense, I’m going to print it out and keep it in sight so I remember it. Powerful stuff here, thanks for sharing!!

  2. New Vision Media says

    Thanks – Love this one. should print out as Jerome suggested

  3. I love this thoughtful list of “poison” words along with their much healthier counterparts.
    I work in paper floral design for weddings and events so many of the terms shown here are also seen in my field.

    Replacing “people” with guests/attendants/family/wedding party not only sounds better but also gets myself and my clients thinking about the different types of “humans” to consider in the overall design.

    Instead of “proofs” I was offering my client’s “samples”. I never liked that word because it just reminded me of a free sample, or something easily made (or discarded). Perhaps as a “concept” they will be better able to focus on the creative artistry, rather than searching for errors that need fixing.

    I look forward to hearing what other words different creatives use in their fields.
    Thanks April!

    • You’re welcome!

      I love how you talk about the different types of your “people” – making your clients think about them as individuals gives them a new perspective.

  4. JoSantos says

    This is very nice article. Thanks for sharing it with us. Some of them are being used already, but the rest… ohh boy, it is nice to know it.

  5. Sometimes “problem” will surely retrieve bad emotions from the client’s memory too. That is another word I try to avoid, even if it’s just for hypothetical discussion or for the explanation of a solution.

    And by the way:Awesome post

    Peterson Teixeira

  6. Love this! I’ll definitely throw a couple of those words out of my vocab!


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