This is a story about Delta Air Lines, effective communication, and basic grammar. It's the kind of takeaway you'll find in my free e-book, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines.

Last week, Delta sent an email message from CEO Ed Bastian to millions of its most loyal passengers. It was an effective email, and one of its secrets--sort of hiding in plain sight--was the way it repeated a single word, over and over.

Let's set the stage and then examine how this all worked--including the sheer number of times this word was used in the message, and why it matters.

It's all about 'you.'

Times are tough for airlines as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery, even as they post better numbers--a situation highlighted by staff shortages, higher than expected passenger levels, flight cancellations, and frayed nerves. 

Delta is no exception. In some cases, passengers have reported hours-long waits to reach Delta customer service agents on the phone. People were not happy.

Against that, Bastian's message, which a Delta spokesperson confirmed was sent to all SkyMiles members (and reports last year put total membership at more than 100 million), seemed to spark at least begrudging respect.

You can see the full text of the message here. I admit I read it three or four times before I realized the simple trick keeping it on track and making it effective.

It's that in the course of the 740-word message (the same length as this column), the second-person pronoun and the second-person possessive pronoun -- "you" and "your" -- are repeated over and over, far more than any other word. 

Together, they appear a total of 44 times:

  • "We know you expect more ..." 
  • "... assure you that these challenges are temporary ..."
  • "The Delta team is here to serve you ..."
  • "... you deserve to get to your destination at the time that best suits your travel plans ..."
  • "... save you time and give you more control over your trip ..."

Grammatical guardrails

I'm aware, obviously, that "you" is an extremely common word, but the repetition -- let's call it "grammatical guardrails" -- does two things:

  • First, it keeps the message on track, focused on the customer's perspective (as opposed to, say, the airline's challenges, or its employees' efforts, or even Delta's plans for the future).
  • Second, it offers a subtle, rhetorical reassurance to even the casual reader who only skims the message. This isn't about us. It's about you.

Here's a specific example. Bastian writes about Delta's plan to hire 5,000 new employees including 1,300 new customer service specialists, and to add "a new phone platform," to make its employees more efficient.

That's nice-to-know, I guess. Airline industry observers might have an interest in Delta's internal machinations.

But what passengers really care about is: How does this affect me? 

Lo and behold, that's where we go next, when Bastian promises that the changes will let agents "address your questions efficiently and get you on your way."

"Not an apology"

As an indication of the effectiveness of this message, some commentators took it as an apology ( one they seemed to accept), despite the fact it never uses words like "sorry" or "apologize."

In fact, the Delta spokesperson told me via email the message was "not an apology," but instead "an acknowledgment of what our customers are telling us, a reassurance we're listening and that we're taking action."

Call it what you will. But think about the lessons for your business.

Customers might express empathy for the challenges that you face. But they usually have other options. So, your most effective messages are ones that show them they are your main concern, and explain how what you have to offer will affect them.

  • Here's how much money you'll make or you'll save.
  • Here's how you'll see that your life is improved.
  • Here's how this will help you, or how it will make you feel.

See what I mean? Study the airlines. It's like they're running a free MBA program sometimes, with constant case studies on how they address the challenges almost all businesses face--doing it in real-time, and in public. 

Today's big takeaway? Count your words. Literally, count them.

The ones you use the most might say more about you than you realize.