Why “Impactful” …Isn’t

Remember Joe’s excellent question: Impactful how? *

Impactful seems to be the latest and greatest of the dandelion words. After decades — actually, centuries — living without it, this gritty, tough-sounding expression has become as ubiquitous as my previous verbal shoe-pebble: “partner (the verb).” Still loathe that one.

Rare is the Linked In feed-refresh that doesn’t have at least a sprinkling of impactfuls. It shows up frequently now on the nightly news, in political discourse, and it trips off the tongue of every coach and sports-owner this side of the Atlantic (or Pacific). My guess is that it mostly stays below the Canadian border however, as our neighbors to the north retain their familial discourse with England, where “impactful” surely sounds too earnest, obvious, and self-serving. That is: quintessentially American.

Of course the main problem with using any dandelion word is that your audience starts to detach the minute you utter them.  I don’t have the brain-scan and galvanic skin response evidence modern science provides (and thus requires!) for this assertion, but I’d bet a thousand bucks this is something that could actually be measured.  (I know you could measure it on my skin, and if you had an eye-roll sensor, you’d get that too.)  Until that test occurs, just glance around at the next CMO gathering you attend, and watch as people start looking at their smart phones the minute clichéd speechifying starts spilling down from the podium. 

Teams are impactful. Leaders, lead teams, and teams lead to results!

And so on, and on and on.

My main problem with impactful is that it trades sensation for meaning. Hardcore users surely like the way it sounds: authoritative, explosive, powerful…and manly. It does make a dent after all!  …But like any blunt object that leaves an impression, the specifics of the message tend to get obscured. 

Possible Cures

First, take impactful to the currency-exchange in your neighborhood and see if they’ll give you some older coin. I’ve yet to read a passage or hear a speaker utter the phrase without thinking that many of its proven elders might say more:

influential

impressive

persuasive

exemplary

definitive

decisive

pivotal

crucial

essential

vital

convincing…

Take your pick. They’re all adjectives, so they’re not going to do the job by themselves — but that’s an argument in their favor, actually. And it also points out the primary temptation (and weakness) of impactful. Far too often, speakers seem to think that this one word says it all:

It was an impactful message,

He was an impactful player.

It was an impactful seminar.

This is an impactful book.

I’m reminded of Joe Pesci’s immortal “Funny, how??” inquisition from Goodfellas.  …Every time I hear impactful, I get a little Joe Pesci in me, that’s for sure. 

The best solution for solving the impactful problem, is to put this wisdom to good use — start out by answering, as best you can, Joe’s eminently sensible question:

Impactful, how?

If a message was impactful because it stirred you to action, caused discussion, changed minds, started a movement, revealed heretofore unknown facts — all of that is more interesting and word-count worthy than brash and brawny (but inarticulate) impactful. The same is true about players, seminars, books, and anything else that’s especially affecting or effective.

I’m not sure what it is about impactful that makes speakers feel like they’ve said it all, but it seems very popular with folks who are impatient to do just that. The same way it closes off inquiry for the speaker (who really should be all about the business of answering Pesci’s question), it also has a kind of confrontational quality for the listener, as if the term is implicitly accompanied by a kind of pre-rebuttal:

Whaddaya mean impactful how?  Imapctful! Like I said!

The word also seems to have a performative or incantatory aspect, whereby its use confers its qualities on the utterance, and the speaker. Which is to say: impactful is…impactful.

The only problem is…it isn’t.

*Credit goes to my pal Pat Daly for the Joe Pesci metaphor. Doenke Schoen!

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