FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.
Powerless Language: Credibility Killers
Your doctor saunters into your hospital room and announces:
"Okay so we, like, got the results of your pre-op bloodwork? And there were, you know, some abnormalities? Your PTT level? Which umm ... measures how long it takes for your blood to clot? It's kinda over the limit? And I may be wrong, but this sort of precludes you from, well, having surgery at this time?"
Think about how you're feeling now. Is this the person you want performing your surgery right now?
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If your doctor, lawyer, or stockbroker spoke to you like this, it could dramatically impact your impression of him or her. It paints an impression of someone who is nervous and self-doubting, less intelligent, and less professional. Based on that verbal performance alone, you may even take your business elsewhere.
So then why do the rest of us allow verbal bad habits to sneak into our language and sap its strength?
Wimpy, Watered Down and Gutless: This Isn't You
Overuse of upspeak, filler words, disclaimers, and other verbal bad habits render language less powerful. They are credibility killers. Our words become wimpy, our message is watered down, and our audience perceives us as gutless and inexperienced.
When I encounter someone who speaks this way—especially within a professional context—two words immediately come to mind: no backbone. As in jellyfish.
Time has come to kick verbal bad habits to the curb. Make an impression that matches your inner awesomeness!
Verbal Communication: More Important Than We Think
Perhaps you've heard of the often-repeated statistic that only 7% of our communication is verbal, while 38% is a tone of voice, and 55% is body language (e.g., facial expressions, gestures). This assertion is repeated in introductory psychology classes and in the popular press. It even has a catchy name: the 7-38-55 rule of personal communication. (Okay, it's not all that catchy, but still.)
Did You Know?
This incorrect "rule" was based, however, on only two small studies in the 1960s—studies that investigated feelings and attitudes conveyed by women in a single word.1 What this means is that results of those two studies are too narrow to be generalizable. The famous 7%-38%-55% statistic is thus based on misunderstandings of psychological research.
Regardless, verbal communication remains an important method of
- communicating requests and needs
- imparting facts, opinions, attitudes, and emotions
- persuading others
- building and maintaining relationships and
- preventing or clarifying misunderstandings.2
Read More From Toughnickel
Speak with authority to effectively convey your message. Don't undermine yourself with verbal bad habits. Fix them.
Hesitations Are Umm ... the Junk Food of Verbal Communication
If you've ever listened to a speaker litter his language with umm ... er ... uhh, then you have heard verbal hesitations. You may have become so distracted by the speaker's vocal faltering that you began to count their umms. Even Presidents known for their superb oratory skills have been mocked for such vocal faltering.
Hesitations are empty words or sounds that we use to fill time, and each language has its own list of favorites.3 Think of them as the junk food of verbal communication. It is acceptable to use them on occasion, but indulge in too many too often and they inflict major damage to your credibility.
One study, for example, found that speakers who routinely overused hesitations were perceived as
uncomfortable, inarticulate, uninteresting, ill-prepared, nervous, disfluent, unattractive, monotonous, unsophisticated, and lacking [in] confidence.4
That's certainly not the impression you want to achieve.
Know When You Say "Umm"
Hesitations are most likely to occur when we
- use longer sentences
- engage in dialog, as opposed to a monologue
- talk to other people (rather than machines)
- speak on unfamiliar topics, particularly if they're abstract or complex
- are under high cognitive load (i.e., have a lot mentally going on at the time) and
- need to search for a word that is uncommon or unanticipated.5
Compared with the use of uhh, the use of umm involves longer pauses; umm signals that the speaker is having greater levels of difficulty. Unfortunately, such filler words can become part of your collateral message. Hesitations provide your listener with your unintentional self-assessment on your verbal performance—a signal that you're in trouble or know you're not communicating well.6
How to Rid Yourself of This Verbal Bad Habit
The more formal the situation, the more urgent it is to take control of your language. For example, during job interviews, presentations, and business situations, it is particularly important to avoid using umms and uhhs excessively or in clusters.
Public speaking coaches often suggest that each time you sense you're about to use a filler word or sound, simply pause to collect your thoughts. They recommend replacing the umms with silence while your brain catches up to your mouth.
That sounds like reasonable advice, but research suggests that you should only adopt this technique if you want to be perceived as more anxious! Instead, focus on making the substance of your message outstanding. Keep your sentences short.
If it's a planned speech or job interview, rehearse. Familiarize yourself with unusual words or technical phrases that may come up so you won't search for them or stumble over them when needed.
You can also videotape yourself to increase self-awareness of the severity of this problem. Work on reducing hesitations of all types—periods of unplanned silence as well as your use of umms, ers, and uhhs. Monitor your progress using video, too. The pain is worth the gain. This is your image we're talking about!
Are Credibility Killers Holding You Back?
|Credibility Killer||What It Is||Examples||Do This Instead|
Filler sounds and words that detract from your message, especially when used too much.
umm, ah, uhh, er, well, you know, like, I mean
Concentrate on the substance of your message.
Noncommital phrases that water down the power and clarity of your message.
kind of, sort of, I guess, somewhat, possibly, I think, I feel like, perhaps, possibly, more or less
If you must soften your assertions, do it sparingly. The following hedges are more acceptable: may, seem to, likely.
Ending statements with a question that communicates your need for validation.
right? don't you think? isn't it? wouldn't it? can't we?
Make a statement. If you need to ask the listener his/her perspective, then do so clearly and confidently (e.g., "What's your opinion?")
Prefacing a statement with a notice that your opinion cannot be trusted as competent.
call me crazy but, maybe I'm not understanding this right but, this may sound like a weird idea but, I could be wrong but
Break this habit now. Stop putting yourself down.
Using rising intonation at the end of a declarative statement.
I'm your doctor? I'm from Michigan?
Own your perspective. Either make a statement or ask a question. Don't intermingle the two.