You’re in New York for the final presentation in the pitch for a major bank brand. The strategists, media experts, and creatives on your team have all knocked it out of the park in what just might be the best new-business presentation your agency has ever made. Only one speaker remains on the agenda: you.
So, after a deep breath and a silent prayer, you step up in front of the client’s team of Ivy League-educated, sophisticated banking executives to deliver what is sure to be the biggest close of your life. All eyes are on you as you begin to speak.
“First of all, the agency team and myself would like to thank you for the opportunity to compete for this business. From the moment we were invited to the pitch, Stan and I’s approach has been to put our very best people on this assignment. Him and I are confident that we have the right culture, the right talent, and the right ideas to take your brand to the next level.”
Your closing statement continues, but somehow you sense that you’ve lost the room. Heads are turning. Whispered comments are exchanged. And Stan is looking at you as if to say, “When we get home, you might want to dust off your résumé.”
What happened? How did a few short comments in your closing statement derail such a spectacular presentation? Where did you go wrong?
If you’ve read this far and don’t know the answers to those questions, you’re most likely new to this industry and may even be unaware that some patterns of speech that you’ve grown perfectly comfortable with are grammatically incorrect and out of place in the world of business.
Please consider this an intervention.
Bastardization of personal pronoun usage can unwittingly broadcast signals of ignorance, inadequate education, and intellectual laziness. Yet it’s become so common in our society that it often slips into our business conversations without anyone raising an eyebrow.
Well, consider this eyebrow officially raised. Fortunately, this really isn’t all that complicated, and there’s an easy way to double-check yourself if you’re ever unsure.
Subjective personal pronouns (I, we, he, she, they, etc.) are used in the subject of a sentence. They can also be used in combination (he and I, he and she, etc.). But they should never be used in the predicate of a sentence (the part of a sentence that modifies the subject).
Objective personal pronouns (me, him, her, us, them, etc.) are used in the predicate of a sentence. They can also be used in combination in the predicate (them and us, him and me, etc.). They should never appear in the subject of a sentence (e.g., “Him and his leadership team made a key decision”).
A few neutral personal pronouns can be used in either part of a sentence (you, it, one). Because they work either way, they rarely cause a problem.
Reflexive personal pronouns (myself, itself, ourselves, etc.) should be used only to refer back to a subjective personal pronoun in the same sentence (e.g., “I did it by myself”). It is improper to use them when there is no subjective personal pronoun as a reference point (e.g., “Feel free to call John or myself if you have questions”).
Finally, possessive personal pronouns never use an apostrophe and an “s” (except in the case of one). So, you would never say they’s, him’s, or I’s. Most of those pronouns have separate possessive forms that convey the proper idea (their, his, my, etc.).
Since most of the trouble people have with personal pronouns comes when using them in combination, here is a simple tool you can use to check yourself before you speak: Try your sentence with the personal pronouns you want to use in isolation. If it’s improper grammar in isolation, it will also be improper in combination.
For example, suppose I want to say, “They reviewed the results with Stan and I.” When I break the pronoun I apart from the combination, I can see that it’s improper: “They reviewed the results with I.” The proper sentence is, “They reviewed the results with Stan and me.”
I know this post may come across as a bit of a rant. But if it succeeds in helping a few of you who are new to this business fine-tune your communication skills, I’ll consider it worth that risk. Above all, I never want you to find yourself in the situation I described earlier, where your lack of attention to proper use of the English language leads to a poor reflection on you and on the agency.
Who knows? My little rant actually “might could” help some of you future stars improve your professional potential in this business. (Okay, we’ll save that topic for some other day.)