Quick, can you spot what's wrong with this sentence:

"I think I just need to say I'm sorry about that."

If you write that in an email, be careful. It tells the recipient you are a little wishy-washy. In fact, there are at least three "problem" words. When you compose a message, if you say "I think" it implies you are not sure of your position. Maybe it's a wild guess, but it's better to show a stronger sense of confidence. The word "just" is also a dead giveaway. It's a weak throwaway word that doesn't need to be there. And, if you say "sorry" in an email, it comes across as timid.

Fortunately, there's a new add-on for Google Chrome called Just Not Sorry that works with Gmail. It was created by Tami Reiss, Steve Brudz, and Manish Kakwani of Cyrus Innovation as part of the Female Founder initiative. You install the add-on and then, as you write new messages, the add-on uses a a red dotted line to identify weak words. You can then decide to rephrase things or ignore the nudge.

In my tests, it worked perfectly. If you hover around the underline, you can see a comment from famous folks like economist  Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Fast Company writer Lydia Dishman about why the word should make you (ahem) think twice.

It's all about perception. If you keep using weak words in a message, even if you really do need to say you are sorry or if you are thinking out loud, it creates an overall tone that displays a lack of confidence.

In using the extension, I caught myself several times, especially using the word "just" too often. It's superfluous, but for some reason it (oops) just kept cropping up.

Weak writing is a serious problem in business because it's often hard to set the correct tone. You don't want to be brash and arrogant, so sometimes we soften things to make them seem more appealing or more palatable. We try to squeeze in qualifiers in hopes that the reader will accept what we are trying to say. Yet, there's a fine balance between arrogance and a lack of confidence in writing. The trick is to use strong words that make it easier to understand your intent.

Why is it so serious? I believe weak writing is one of the main reasons some companies fail to go to the next level. They are not good at communicating ideas effectively. Strong writing--in email, marketing lit, and other business docs--sells a company to investors, partners, customers, and the general public. 

I like the Just Not Sorry extension, although I will say it could go much further. I'd like to use an extension to spots all passive voice, poor word choices, unclear phrasing, and fuzzy ideas. And, it would be great if the add-on worked the other way around, looking for language that sounds overconfident or rude.

I'm curious if you try the extension and if it helps you write stronger emails. If it does, send me a quick note with some examples of how you decided to change your writing style. I will publish the best examples in a future post.

Published on: Dec 29, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.