Think About It: What is the Secret Sauce?

Don Meyer, Ph.D.
Don Meyer, Ph.D.

“Every time you share an overused platitude on Facebook, an angel loses its wings.” - Anonymous

In a recent blog, Jack Dahlgren reminded me of the hamburger wars, which took place nearly four decades ago. In the early 70s McDonald’s and Jack in the Box battled for first place. Most of us who lived in those days remember the McDonald’s advertisement with the Big Mac’s ingredients of “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

Jack in the Box tried to fight off the McDonald’s competition with “Two burger patties, American cheese, Jack’s Secret Sauce, shredded lettuce and two pickle slices on a three piece bun.”

Dahlgren acknowledges that, “The two were nearly identical but for the name of the sauce.”


Over the years, the “secret sauce” has come to mean “the essential (but perhaps largely unknown) ingredient for success.” It has been used to describe everything from success in business to success in marriage. The use of it has become so common that it no longer has the punch it once had.

“Secret sauce” is not the only buzz phrase we overuse. Adam Sherk’s research within a prescribed window of time helped him identify the most overused words in press releases. Out of the top 100, these three words were used most frequently: leader (161,000); leading (44,900); and best (43,000). The rest of the top 10 were: top, unique, great, solution, largest and innovative.

Studies like that remind us that we can reach for “low hanging fruit” when we try “to be clear” and, “the rest, as they say, is history.” I go back to this “Secret Sauce” more than I would like to admit.

Here are some leaders who caution against using too many of these business buzz words and phrases. Michael Quinn dislikes “hit the ground running.” He says, “I hear this phrase come up at the end of almost every meeting that I’m in. Whether it comes from somebody on my team or from a client, it’s become a cliché. The goal is always to have positive progress with any new initiative. This phrase is unnecessary and redundant.”

Pivot is not a word Darrah Brustein recommends we use: “Pivot has become a glamorous way of saying that you changed something that wasn’t working. Call it what it is. Admit that you made a mistake or subpar product/service and that you found a way to adjust it. I have much more respect for calling it like it is than trying to put a pretty bow on something to try and save face.”

Another overused word is paradigm: “Okay, the term ‘paradigm shift’ is technically a valid way to describe changing how you do something and the model you use,” Grant Gordon says. “But it has been so overused in the business world as to be redundant — now we’ve got paradigms shifting paradigms of paradigms. I even saw Kevin Spacey use it in a GQ interview a while back. Come on people, think of a new expression!”

And who of us has not heard the term “game changer” many times over? According to Shawn Porat, “I have seen numerous people describing their latest product or service as game-changing or a game changer. This usually turns out to be mainly hype. For one thing, this expression doesn’t really have a precise meaning. How many products fall into this category? When you say something is a game changer, you then have to live up to your own hype and reveal something outstanding. Most of the time, it’s better to tone down your rhetoric and be more realistic about what you’re offering.”

This is not an “empty threat,” nor am I trying to “keep you on your toes.”

In the words of Cervantes, “That which we are capable of feeling, we are capable of saying.” And if we are going to say something, let’s be clear about it.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President Emeritus of the University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville. Connect via,,, Twitter and Instagram: @DrDonMeyer.