Dressing for success may create a good impression, but people judge your intelligence and credibility based upon what comes out of your mouth. Based upon working with the readers of my free weekly newsletter, here are eight verbal habits that immediately mark you as somebody who's either foolish or shifty:
Jargon (aka "biz-blab") consists of hijacking normal words and using them in odd ways to make them sound "businessy." Example: "We're reaching out to our customer advocates to leverage a dialogue on...." While others who speak fluent biz-blab might not take notice or care, everyone else cringes and rolls their eyes.
Fix: Use words as they're defined in the dictionary. Example: "We're contacting our customers to discuss...." That way, you'll sound more like a professional and less like a cartoon businessperson.
These are those metaphors that have been used so frequently that all the juice has been leeched from them. Examples: "out-of-the-box thinking" or "hitting one out of the ballpark." Clichés aren't just unoriginal but also reveal a lack of respect for the listener. If you really cared, you wouldn't trot out these creaky phrases.
Fix: Avoid metaphors completely or use original ones. If that's too hard, tweak the wording of clichés to make them less cliché-ish. Example: my use of "leeched" rather than "squeezed" in the paragraph above. Worst case, adding "proverbial" can refresh a cliché with a pinch of irony. Example: "out of the proverbial ballpark."
Using big, impressive sounding words rather than smaller, common ones can leave listeners with the impression that you're pompous and pretentious. Examples: "assess strategic options and tactical approaches" (i.e. "plan") or "implement communications infrastructure" (i.e. "add wireless"). Fancy-schmancy wording adds bulk and extracts clarity.
Fix: The core problem here is the need to feel as if your business and your activities are more important and impressive than they really are. The fix, therefore, is a big dose of humility. Business is neither rocket science nor brain surgery--it is, in fact, a place where plain talk is both valued and appreciated.
This is when, uh...you insert a word or sound into a sentence when, like...you're pausing to think, um...exactly what you're going to say. I once heard a guy say "um" over 100 times in a five minute presentation. By the end, the audience was practically tearing their collective hair out in annoyance.
Fix: This one is easy. Simply eliminate the hiccup word and pause instead. When you simply pause in silence, rather than trying to fill the thinking space with the hiccup, you end up sounding wise and like you're choosing your words carefully. You may need to record yourself a few times to break the habit, though.
An uptick turns a statement into a question. The uptick can be a raise of pitch at the end of the sentence or, worse, can be signaled by an actual phrase, like "[statement], you know?" or "[statement], eh?" Upticks communicate that you're not confident of your ability to communicate clearly, hence the constant checking.
Fix: If you're unsure whether the other person is following your statements, ask a specific question such as "Are you following me?" or "Does that make sense so far?" In other words, either ask questions or make statements. Don't try to fudge them together, OK?
6. Weasel Words
These are attempts to fool employees by disguising ugly facts as bloodless abstractions. Examples: using "development opportunity" when you mean "drudgery," or saying "rightsizing" when you mean "firing people." Weasel words mark you as a coward who's afraid to face the social stigma of making an unpopular decision.
Fix: Show some courage! You'll get more respect and credibility in the long run for telling unpleasant truths than for pleasant-sounding lies. Because--here's the thing--everyone knows anyway and you're not fooling anybody.
7. Fake Apologies
This is what people do when they feel socially obligated to apologize but they aren't really sorry. Common example: "I'm sorry if anybody was offended." Such "apologies" add the insult of blaming the other person for being offended to the injury of the original offense.
Fix: Real apologies are like: "I apologize for doing Y. I wasn't thinking clearly and I won't do Y again." They come from the heart. If you can't apologize from the heart, don't bother, because you're not really apologizing.
8. Spray and Pray
This consists of blurting out a stream of facts or observations before finding out which ones (if any) might actually be of interest to the listener. Probably 95 percent of all presentations fall into this category but when it happens in conversation it makes you look like a blathering fool.
Fix: Always think "conversation" rather than "sales pitch." Ask questions, respond to comments, figure out what's needed, and only then trot out facts and observations that are immediately relevant.