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Drive, They Said–But What Did They Mean?

Over the past 10 days I have received more than a dozen emails that refer to driving. People are driving change, driving responses, driving learning, driving sales, and driving customers.

graphic with alternative verbs to replace "to drive" in business writing

What’s with all the driving? And what precisely do the writers mean?

Below are examples excerpted from messages in my inbox. Can you be certain what each drive means?

  1. The best HR business partners collaborate with leaders to drive strategies.
  2. We offer the information and tools you need to drive impactful change at your organization.
  3. Drive business decisions for your organization through total workforce visibility.
  4. Find out what the most effective learning organizations are doing to drive learning transfer and increase the value of training.
  5. This book reveals how you can drive a world-class HR function in your company using both your head and your heart.
  6. We will drive continuous improvement, engagement, development, and learning opportunities to deliver great business results.
  7. Tailor your ads to drive sales on specific offerings or promotions.
  8. Drive more customers to your website this year.

It’s easy to say we all know what the writers meant by drive, but I am not so certain. What does it mean to “drive a world-class HR function”? What are we doing when we “drive business decisions”?

I admit I do know what it means to “Drive more customers to your website.” It means to send them there. But the verb drive feels vague to me even in that example. I wonder how we will drive them there. By inviting them? Engaging them? Enticing them?

To consult the experts, I pulled out my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition for definitions of drive. These definitions and examples from M-W show the many meanings of drive that might apply to the sentences in my email:

  • to give shape or impulse to (factors that drive the business cycle)
  • to carry on or through energetically (drive a hard bargain)
  • to set or keep in motion or operation (drive machinery by electricity)
  • to operate the mechanism and controls and direct the course of (drive a car)
  • to exert inescapable or coercive pressure on, force
  • to urge relentlessly to continuous exertion (the sergeant drove his recruits)
  • to press or force into an activity, course, or direction (the drug habit drives addicts to steal)
  • to project, inject, or impress incisively (drove her point home)

To support precise language, I recommend a no-driving day for business writers. On that day writers would choose a more precise word or phrase than drive. Depending on the context, writers might choose lead, manage, oversee, control, cause, plan, inspire, increase, create, invite, urge, encourage, maintain, implement, support, or something else that clearly expresses their meaning.

Would you support the no-driving day? Or is the word drive essential to your business messages?

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

12 comments on “Drive, They Said–But What Did They Mean?”

  • “Drive” is up there with “deliver” as one of those flaccid business verbs that say nothing. Have you noticed, too, how “drive” seems to attract other examples of awful business jargon and cliche?

    In the sentences you cite we find the dreaded “impactful”,”world-class” and “offerings” to name but a few.

    And as for “total workforce visibility” and “learning transfer” – what on earth do they mean?

  • As a writer, I appreciate posts like this. In the search for power words and a less boring way to express ideas, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of overused words. Ironic, isn’t it, since that’s what you are trying to avoid. 🙂 We need periodic wake-up calls. It does make you wonder if we have run out of ideas. 🙂 Thanks, Lynn.

  • Hi, Clare, Will, and Cathy. Thanks for making this a conversation.

    Clare, I am glad you pointed out the other vague words in the sentences. I did not do that in the post because I did not want to cover too much. Thanks for making that important point. Also, thanks for listing “world-class” as a problem expression. I have used it occasionally to describe some of my clients. I will need to think of an alternative.

    Will, thanks for a hearty laugh!

    Cathy, I appreciate your giving us the writer’s perspective. It is interesting that power words become weak with constant use.


  • You haven’t gotten any mentioning “tensioning” yet? Coming soon to a meeting near you! I think you could have a no jargon / BS day and the resulting silence would let us turn off the white noise generators.

    I’m as guilty of using “drive” as anyone (see my comment on your “Change Processes” post.) I think when one is immersed in a culture where jargon and BS are acceptable and encouraged, it is very hard not to let them creep into one’s every day vocabulary. My opinion is that these types of words make some influential people feel excited and powerful. “How can I seem like I am smarter than everyone else? Take words and use them to mean something they currently don’t mean. I’m important! I set trends.” I’m only partially kidding.

    However, what struck me when I read your post was how the word “drive” speaks so clearly about a company’s culture and about the writer’s mindset. Drive says, we aren’t going to bother to try to do it constructively – it’s our way or the highway. We don’t care about what you want or have to say. Trying to convince people to change the way they work is hard! Most of us don’t have good role models to show us how to introduce change effectively – we do it in a way that makes changing processes as painful as birthing babies. In my prior post, in addition to lazy writing and the jargon pitfall, my use of the word drive highlighted my frustration with trying to improve a process and dealing with the resultant pushback.

    Or, maybe I just wanted to feel important and exciting in my comment – I get to drive people, aren’t I important? 😉

  • Hi, Jennifer. “Tensioning”? Yikes! I can’t imagine what it means. I do not want to be in that meeting.

    Your analysis of the use of “drive” inside a company is very interesting. I think people may just fall into unconscious habits. When I asked why so many people used “drive” at a pharmaceutical company recently, writing class participants were surprised. They told me “drive” is simply part of their culture.

    I do think we can create a culture of clear, concise communication. Just keep spreading the word, Jennifer, and I will do the same.

    I appreciate your ideas and your passion on the topic.


  • Jennifer clearly identifies the reason why people use these words when she writes, “How can I seem like I am smarter than everyone else? Take words and use them to mean something they currently don’t mean.”
    And what about that awful word “impactful”? I hear it all the time and constantly wonder if it is really a word or just another one of those irritating conversions of nouns into verbs, adverbs etc. Thank you everyone for a thoughtful start to my day.

  • Hi, Cathy. I agree “impactful” is an awful word choice. It has no zest or interest. Unfortunately, three of the four respected, current dictionaries on my bookshelf declare it a word.

    I am glad you liked the company here and joined in.


  • Times change: In 1974 my English professor thought “prioritize” was awful. “Drive” now has almost as many meanings as “get”. I think the popularity of “drive” stems from all its connotations, including power, control, speed, simplicity and flexibility.


  • Hi, Lynn.

    Thanks for the great post. Just yesterday I changed ‘drive’ to ‘lead’ when editing a business document. ‘Drive’ is business writing cliché that has lost any real meaning. I support a ‘no-driving’ day.


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