Wherever you are reading this it’s certain that people around you quickly judge intelligence and credibility based upon what comes out of an individual’s mouth.
As professional communicators we need to be very aware of this and the reality that linguistic tics are part of everyday speech. But they need to be controlled because they can seriously damage the chances of you, your employer or your clients making a good impression in interviews, presentations or even in everyday conversation.
All languages can give away our unguarded inner thoughts – or lack of them. But given my first language is English let me explain with reference to that particular tongue.
Filler. I’ve put this one first because it really is my pet hate. Sometimes it’s when people insert a word or sound into a sentence when they are pausing to think, but more often than not it’s part of a deliberate speech pattern or accent. Not just `ums` and `ahs` but words like `obviously` when something isn’t and `like` when it doesn’t relate to any matter of taste.
It’s infuriating to the listener, so stop using filler words and pause instead. If you do this, pause, rather than trying to populate space, you’ll end up sounding considered – thoughtful, like you´re choosing your words carefully. If you don’t realise how this habit demeans you, grab your smartphone and record yourself a few times in a meeting and you’ll soon get the idea.
Turning statements into questions also ranks high on my irritation list. This can be a relatively benign raise of voice pitch at the end of the sentence – any Aussies reading this, take note - or, much, much, worse, can be signalled by an actual word or phrase, such as `y’know?` , `innit?’, `yeah?` or `am I right`? This signals constantly that you´re not confident of your ability to communicate clearly or are not listening to your interlocutor’s responses.
If you are really unsure whether the other person is keeping up, first think about whether you could be more effective in your explanation. Then ask a specific question such as, `Does that make sense to you?` or `Anything you’d like me to go over?` The point is either to ask questions or make statements. Don’t do both.
Another bugbear for me is jargon. This consists of a way of talking intended to make a person sound like they are an expert or some sort of insider. So much of it comes from the United States, but is now used around the world. You know the sort of nonsense. `We’re reaching out to establish a dialogue...` Rather than `We´re calling to talk about`.
To avoid this pomposity speak like Hemingway wrote. No, not endless tomes about shark fishing, bullfighting and drinking, but using Anglo Saxon words – `dig` rather than `excavate` – and words as they´re defined in the dictionary, not in your head. That way, you´ll sound more like a professional and less like a BBC manager.
Another always thwarted attempt to sound professional involves the overuse of clichés – words and metaphors that have been used so frequently that they have lost all impact and pretty much all meaning. Anything that is `the new rock ‘n roll` fits into this category, as does describing something as `awesome`.
Did I say filler words were my pet hate? I lied. My greatest opprobrium is reserved the `a` word alone. It and clichés in general aren´t just lazy, unoriginal and make you sound vacuous but also reveal a lack of respect for the listener because you are not making the effort to tell them exactly what you are trying to impart.
It’s just noise so avoid these phrases and words completely or think up some new ones, if you must. If that´s too hard, play with the wording of clichés to make them less clunky, toe curling or sickness-inducing.
Attempting to use apparently impressive sounding words and phrases rather than smaller, common terms usually sounds downright pretentious and prevents clarity. Why say `create strategic options and tactical approaches` when you could say `make a plan`; or `implement multimodal transportation infrastructure` when you mean `help people get around`. A recent prolixity – yep, that’s the posh word to describe such an action – peak involved Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s separation which in a press statement Gwynnie termed a `conscious uncoupling. `
Ms. Paltrow’s problem appears to be the need to feel as if her activities are more important and impressive than you and I and her thoughts more insightful than they are really. In the world of the celeb perhaps they can get away with it – although the sound of vomiting that echoed around the world at Gwynnie’s word-slaughtering might indicate otherwise – but the PR business is one place where plain talking is needed, should be valued and hubris avoided.
Such euphemisms are so often used as a blatant attempt to soften some imagined blow. For example: using `compact` when you mean `tiny` or claiming to `free up their future` when making someone redundant. It’s disingenuous to say the least, so don’t do it.
You´ll get more trust, respect and credibility in the long term for telling smelly truths rather than fragrant lies. Because people aren’t stupid and the reality is you´re not fooling anyone. Except, perhaps, yourself.
False apology too is what people also attempt when they want to lessen the impact of an event or statement of truth when they really don’t mean what they are about to say or they aren´t really sorry for what they have just said. `With the greatest respect` is one of my favourites, signalling the insult to come. Or how often have you heard someone use the phrase `Sorry if that offended anybody` when they clearly don’t care a jot?
If you think about it for a nanosecond, such so-called apologies actually add the passive-aggressive insult of blaming the other person for being offended to the injury of the original slight. In contrast, real apologies are unequivocal.They are brave and honest. If you can´t express regret sincerely, don´t bother, because you´re not really apologising and everyone knows it.
Blurting is a sin committed when someone is apprehensive and is characterised by the spewing out of a stream of facts or observations without considering if any might be of interest to the listener or before anyone can ask questions.
Like all modern communications, whether you are engaging people face to face or remotely, think `friendly conversation` not `market stall pitch`. Relax, ask questions, respond to comments, establish what´s needed, and only then insert easily understood facts, figures and observations that are immediately relevant or add value to the dialogue.
That being said, you will of, course, have noted that I’ve not been able to resist the temptation to put a few big words into this piece – using multiple syllables when a single one could have done the job. I’d argue, of course, that they were chosen carefully to add a bit of colour and variety. Whether to go big or stay small is all about judgement.
Jonathan Simnett has won dozens of awards, building businesses and helping public/private sector organisations and their investors in fast-growth tech-based B2B and B2C segments to: grow; manage change; reposition; enter markets; acquire; sell; IPO and report through the delivery of more effective management, marketing, positioning, content creation and communications strategies.
Leader of the team named Global Communications Department of the Year at the 2009 International Business Awards, New York, he was a founder of Brodeur Worldwide, a global public relations consultancy and part of the team that built a company of 650 people and $95 million turnover worldwide over 15 years, before selling to Omnicom