Wil’s Sunday: Getting rid of buts

Reading time: 4 minutes

While I mainly write about the intersection of communications and technology, I also enjoy sharing personal essays and a behind-the-scenes view of my experiences.

I call these Wil’s Sundays.

Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up (for free) and join more than 250 other CEOs, technology decision makers and modern marketers who are curious about using smart, simple, effective communications to reach their audiences.

Enjoy this Sunday’s article.

We’ve figured out what we are but have given ourselves room to evolve — to become better at achieving our mission.

Source: https://www.texastribune.org/2021/11/03/texas-tribune-12-years-old

Five years ago…

…I vowed to stop staying the word but from my vocabulary. Mostly replacing it with the word and.

Take the Texas Tribune quote above as an example. Doesn’t replacing the word but with and give the sentence a more positive, more empowered feel?

It started at a conference in Portland, Oregon in 2016. It was a small conference. Maybe, maybe, 50 attendees and event staff.

Sometimes, smaller conferences are better experiences. Although, I find smaller conferences also tend to highlight the cliques and groups a bit more.

The main portion of the conference was held in a few rooms at the Portland Art Museum. I hadn’t been to that art museum, so during lunch time I’d walk around up looking at the different exhibits on the different floors.

I don’t remember any installation in particular, just that it was a pleasant experience. Everyone there seemed to enjoy, even revel, in the fact they worked at the museum. A sense of pride to show off the different aspects of the building, the art and the museum’s history.

Across the street from the museum was a park. Maybe South Park?

It was a long, skinny park. Basically the width of another street that covered 20 or so blocks. The layout of that park reminded me a lot of the borough of Manhattan.

That park’s culture also reminded me a lot of Market Street in downtown San Francisco. A mix of suits, students, food trucks, tourists, residents and homeless all operating together. No fuss. A bit of a mess.

I think there was a University nearby. (I only learned that a few years later, visiting Portland again and that park was home to a farmer’s market. Lots of students picking up food for the week.)

Typically, when I attend conferences, I tend to get up earlier than normal and turn down a bit later. It gives me an opportunity to catch up on personal and work stuff before the conference while adding a few extra hours in the day that I use to visit the city outside of the conference.

Many times, this is my first time to this particular city. (One of the big draws of attending conferences.)

I’m pretty sure I had been to Portland previously. However it had been a long time. Since we moved from New York, it made sense to attend conferences in states and provinces on the western side of the country (and Canada).

  • Austin, TX
  • Boise, ID
  • Bozeman, MT
  • Denver, CO
  • Portland, OR
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Squamish, BC

Back east, the train tended to make visiting different cities a little easier. Hop on Amtrak and in an hour or two, you’d be in a new city at a different conference.

  • Boston, MA
  • Falls Church, VA
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Trenton, NJ
  • Washington, DC
  • and even different conference locations in NYC

In Portland I used the morning hours to check out all the public artwork and buildings. Super impressive.

In 2016 the Portland food truck scene was a big, big deal. Given the world today, I wonder if those food trucks are still as popular?

I think I ended up with grilled cheese and some fries.

Back at the conference, we were seated in pairs for a particular exercise. Facing each other, our goal was to tell a story with one person describing an idea and the other person responding with the word but (followed by why the idea wouldn’t work).

We’d swap sides and go through the same storytelling process.

The room fell quiet 15 seconds into the exercise. It was demoralizing. As the person playing the but role, it was awful. To be responsible for the excitement draining from the other person. Thier face. Their voice. Their posture.

It was just terrible being the person who shot down all these great ideas.


After a long attendee discussion, we sheepishly paired back up. This time, we’d tell the same stories with the response having to start with and.

Within 10 seconds, people were laughing and screeching and giggling. It was incredible. I think our team of two ended up taking a purple horse back to New York while stopping off at every White Castle we could find.

The goal of the session was to unlock ideas by engaging with teams in a different way. We talk all the time about creative sessions, however how many times do you create the environment to really let your mind wander and think of some truly creative things?

Will the creative output from these discussions end up in a marketing or communications campaign?

On their own, likely not.

However, much like the horse heading to White Castle, there were some ideas we grabbed from that story that helped seed and influence future campaigns.

And for me, it was completely eye-opening.

That night, I silently vowed to remove the word but from my vocabulary.

I took the train back to the airport on my journey home. And during that train ride, I wondered if it was actually possible to remove the word ‘but’ from my day-to-day vocabulary.

  • Especially as a manager and as a leader, what kind of impact would it have on my team?
  • Would anyone even notice?
  • Would it kick-start a trend of positivity?
  • Would it even matter?

After five years, I can tell you it remains a difficult word to remove.

It also remains a wonderful indicator of tone and message when talking with someone.

And that’s what I will remember from that conference.

I attended this conference one more time. I took away one more memory from that second conference that I still think about every day.

Well, three things actually:

Brought to you by Smartr Daily, the essential newsletter for curious minds. Thought-provoking ideas and insights are delivered straight to your inbox daily. Sign up for free!

Please Login to Comment.