We would never intentionally send out a memo or important document with typos and misspellings. Yet, we regularly speak or make presentations peppered with “verbal typos” that detract from our message and undermine our leadership presence. Verbal typos include:
We know how distracting it is when speakers constantly clear their throats or drop “umm’s” or “uh’s” after every three or four words. But even more irritating are sentences punctuated with phrases such as “you know,” “actually,” “like,” and “well.” Imagine someone saying, “You know, I actually think we, well, have made, umm, progress on our new product, that, uh, will, like, you know, boost the division’s, uh, profitability.” Painful!
When we’re reaching for a word, phrase, or idea, we often resort to an “umm” or a “you know” to fill up aural space. But when used too often, vocal tics become crutches that we never get rid of. As hard as it might be, it’s better to make no tic-ish utterances at all when reaching for the right word or stating an idea. Silence can be a powerful way to re-center and give your audience time to think. Being comfortable with silence shows confidence, while vocal tics imply nervousness.
Power limiters are words and phrases that qualify our message and convey lack of confidence and indecision. Here’s a statement laden with power limiters and qualifiers: “Well, I guess we kind of have a plan to launch the new product maybe next month sometime, right?” From the very first words, the speaker hesitates, expresses uncertainty, then waffles about “kind of” having a plan, leaving the listener to wonder whether a plan exists or if the speaker has confidence in the plan, which “maybe” will happen “sometime.” And following all this vague uncertainty, the speaker asks for reassurance—or is it a lifeline?—by turning what was a statement into a question.
Obviously, starting a sentence with “I guess” undercuts a speaker’s presence and credibility. Likewise, ending a sentence by asking for validation further diminishes the speaker’s power. Some executives conclude their words by asking, “Does that make sense?” or “Was that clear?” While the goal may be to make sure listeners understood what was said, these questions can come across as belittling or as a tacit admission that what was said may not have made sense. To ensure listeners understand, simply ask, “What questions do you have?”
Modifying an adjective with a superlative is like gilding a really super pretty lily. When we’re struggling to convey just how good, smart, strong or exceptional someone or something is, we may resort to using “really,” “very,” or “super.” While acceptable, these words do little to strengthen our ideas. If we’re trying to convey how smart a person is, how much insight are we providing by saying, “She’s so super smart”?
Instead of piling on the superlatives, choose more explicit adjectives. Is that “super smart” person creative, analytical, inventive, perceptive, clever, intuitive, knowledgeable? Is she a gifted programmer? A creative problem solver? An imaginative product developer? Each of these words gives more concrete information about the way she is smart while conveying your ability to communicate ideas with precision.
Unless we’ve been working out regularly by making TED Talk presentations, we all carry some verbal flab—canned phrases we invoke thinking they make us sound distinctive, erudite, frank or worldly. “Let me just say this about that . . . To be perfectly honest . . . That being said . . . Be that as it may . . . For all intents and purposes . . . In my humble opinion . . .” All these phrases bulk up our communications without adding substance, and sometimes they serve as red flags. For example, all too often nothing pleasant or sincere comes after the preface, “Let me be perfectly honest . . .” And that “humble” opinion is sometimes anything but.
Flab may be more elegant than vocal tics like “umm” or “uh.” But they are crutches just the same, and they muddy our message.
We All Need Verbal Proofreading
Just like typos in print, verbal typos can sabotage your message and undermine your authority. How do you recognize the verbal typos in your language that sap your power? Record your conversations and presentations and then count how many times you said words like “umm,” “you know,” “really,” “okay,” and “sort of.” Or maybe your tendency is to use superlative, power limiters, or flab. Ask others to listen for your verbal typos and point them out to you. Once you start to hear your verbal typos, with intention you will be able to eliminate them and speak in a clearer, more powerful way.