The power of language.
Have you ever said or written something that you felt was clear, only to find that it was misunderstood?
Perhaps you’ve written an email that you felt was clearly stating your position, only to find that the meaning hadn’t been clear?
If so, then you’re not alone.
I’ve experienced this with my own writing and speaking, also in my work with clients as well.
The trick is in understanding the power of words.
How we use our words.
My stepfather was recently talking to me about a “Great Courses” class he had listened to that explained the nuances of conversation skills. In one of the chapters, the professor Anne Curzan, Ph.D. talks about how many of us use “discourse markers” in our every day conversation. (Disclaimer: I’ve downloaded the class, but I haven’t listened to it, yet.)
These can be simple and obvious (“like,” “um,” “you know”) or more subtle, like using the word “so” at the beginning of a sentence.
He was fascinated with this human language tic and got a kick out of every time he used one during dinner conversation.
(Yes, he’s delightful.)
(Jack, I know you’re reading this. Thanks for the term!)
Why do we do this?
It’s easy to demonize these discourse markers, or to feel ashamed of using them too often.
Adults often make fun of teenagers for their various discourse markers that can be construed as a kind of laziness in speech. (Think of how often kids will say “like” when trying to explain something to adults.)
Were you ever chastised for using “um” or “uh” when doing a speech in school or at work?
These are the easy things to criticize in speaking because they are often signals of a lack of confidence.
Or are they?
What is fluency?
I’ve been thinking a lot about stuttering and the impact that can have on a person’s confidence. When I was younger, I had a stutter that impacted how I said certain words.
“R” sounding words can trip me up still, which is a problem when your last name is Rigoletti. 😄
The trouble with stuttering is that it’s a physical impediment (the words don’t come out), and it can also feel like a social blocker or a wall between you and your audience.
She offers a remarkably brave look at how someone can work with their challenges, rather than try to just push through them. She does this by owning it and not trying to hide. She makes it intentional.
Once I heard her speak, I started to think differently about how we communicate and what we expect from each other.
How can we be more intentional in our own speech?
Notice the words you use.
What I want to convey here is that there aren’t “bad” words or “good” words, rather it’s how we notice them and how we choose to use them to communicate.
I’ve met a few people who say “um” or “uh” so often in their speaking that it’s distracting. I’ve also met people who use the phrase, “know what I mean?” after every sentence, which is equally difficult to hear.
Then again, I’ve had the experience of working with people who have done the yeoman’s work of scrubbing all these markers and utterances from their speech pattern, and that was also oddly distracting.
What’s going on?
Well, I think that in the first two examples of saying “uh, um” too often or asking “know what I mean?” there’s an unconscious habit that has taken over their communication style.
In examples like those, I find that they aren’t aware of the pattern at all. It isn’t until they see themselves on video or hear themselves recorded on audio that they suddenly realize what’s going on.
In the example of the people who scrub themselves clean of all affect, the issue is one of too much awareness or control. The impression can seem almost robotic or disconnected. (I think of newscasters from forty years ago as an example of this.)
What if we thought of words as being either obstacles or invitations to deeper connection?
What if we didn’t expect perfection and fluency, but rather focused on the quality of the connection?
How can you do this?
Well, for one, you could notice how often you use words that weaken or undermine your message.
I’ve probably written the word “really” and deleted it about six times in this article.
Why delete it? Well, adverbs like “really” and “very” tend to weaken the power of a message. Ironic, since adverbs are supposed to amplify the meaning.
(Here’s a good blog post about it from a writer named Britainy Sorenson. My favorite example of hers is how we might say “tiptoe quietly” which just feels redundant.)
What I’ve noticed in speaking is that adverbs like these tend to signal that we want to be understood.
They give a little extra emphasis in the statement that might signal a lack of confidence.
“I really, really think this is a good idea.” Do these adverbs help or hurt the statement that this is a good idea?
I believe that they weaken the statement in writing, and they suck all the authority out of the sentence in speaking.
When you are more choiceful, you can focus on the message and the connection more accurately.
“I think this is a good idea.”
“This is a good idea.”
Less is more.
The thing is that the more intentional we are about these discourse markers and phrases, the more aware we are about the impact
Keith Johnstone wrote in his book Impro that it isn’t the “er” and “uh” that rob us of our authority, it’s the way we use them.
The longer we hold the sound, the more authority we can claim in the room.
The thing is that one can feel exposed. The same is true for eliminating the “very-s” or “really-s” from our sentences.
It just feels naked.
If you want to increase your authority and build stronger connections, experiment with your own discourse markers.
Be curious about what your speech patterns are and what impact they have.
Please don’t judge yourself (or others).
The point isn’t to be perfect.
For me, the goal is to communicate, connect, and build relationships that are based on trust.
Imagine if we were all better at this?
What if we all had the freedom to communicate more clearly as our true selves?
Understand the power of the words that you use, the patterns that you’re in, and the impact you have, so that you can communicate with clarity, impact, and confidence.
Regardless of the situation.
All we have to do is to notice and recognize the power we have with the language that we use.