You want to project confidence, competence, professionalism, and self-assurance. Not only because it’s how you want people to think of you, but also because your business success depends on it. Yet, chances are, the way you use words is undercutting that professional, confident image. And you aren’t even aware of it.
That’s a shame, according to best-selling author and executive coach Wendy Capland. Would-be leaders and entrepreneurs undermine themselves with what she refers to as minimizing language–words and phrases that imply uncertainty and self-effacement even when they’re trying to give the opposite impression. And while women may be especially prone to harming their images with minimizing language, men can do it too. It’s a good habit for everyone to get out of.
Here’s Capland’s list of words and phrases that can weaken your message and dull your impact. Next time you make a pitch, write an email, give a presentation, or have an important phone conversation, see how many of these all-too-common things you catch yourself saying. Once you’re aware of them, it’s a lot easier to cut down on them, or even cut them out altogether:
1. I just want …
“I’d just like to follow up …” “I just want to mention …” “I just want to tell you …”
Can you see how use of the word just dilutes the impact of each of these statements? Compare “I just want to mention that I have the right experience for this job” with “I want you to know I have the right experience for the job.” Which sounds more powerful to you? To whom would you give the job?
“It’s a qualifier,” Capland says. “It highlights to the person that whatever comment follows the word is smaller or not important.”
2. A little bit
This is another qualifier that may have even more of a minimizing effect than just does. “I’m a little bit concerned that we won’t make our projections this quarter.” Nonsense--if you were only a little concerned you’d have kept your mouth shut. You’re probably scared as hell, and the words you use should make that clear.
3. I feel …
First of all, feel is too often used incorrectly to indicate a thought or a matter of judgment rather than a feeling. But even worse than that is the subtle message it contains that you are an emotional creature subject to moods. Try using “I think” or “I believe” when you’re speaking about an opinion you’ve reached or a judgment you’ve made.
Or, if you really are expressing a feeling, try a form of the more direct and powerful “I am” instead. “I’m excited about this project” comes across stronger than “I feel excited about this project." And “I feel confident we’ll make our projections” indicates a lot less certainty than “I’m confident we'll make our projections.”
4. I’m sorry
This does not mean you should never apologize, Capland says. It’s perfectly appropriate to apologize when you’ve actually made a mistake or miscalculation, acted thoughtlessly, or caused unhappiness or harm. If that’s the case, then apologizing is one of the most powerful things you can do.
The problem is that too many of us apologize almost reflexively, any time anything unpleasant happens, even if it was in no way our fault. One female executive I know has a particularly bad case of the “I’m sorries" and has apologized to me for everything from a bad snowstorm to the fact that I called the wrong number. It always makes me think of a dog with its tail between its legs, displaying submissiveness in the hope that you won’t be mean. Not the image you want to project.
5. I don’t know
The point is not to pretend you know the answer when you don’t, Capland explains. If you don’t know something, it’s wise to say so--but don’t stop there. You’ll appear not very powerful unless you follow “I don’t know” with whatever should happen next--for example, “I’m going to do some research and get back to you.” Be specific about when that will happen. If you’re mentoring someone, you might follow your “I don’t know” with a suggestion as to how he or she might find an answer.
The point is that “I don’t know” should never be the end of your statement. “If you leave it there and you’re done, it doesn’t make you look good,” Capland says.
6. I’ll try
Yoda said it best: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
“When people say they’ll try, it’s not a commitment,” Capland says. “You can’t actually know what that means. It’s minimizing your power.” If you’re not sure you can do something, then be as specific as you can about what you will or won’t do. Not “I’ll try to get to your party,” but “I want to go to your party but my parents are in town that weekend, so it will depend on what they would like to do.”
7. Turning everything into a question
Don’t phrase everything as a question, and don’t make your statements sound like questions, with a rising inflection at the end, or you risk annoying everyone around you. Worse, this super-minimizing phrasing makes you appear extremely weak. It sounds like you’re asking permission for everything you have to say. You don’t need permission. Go ahead and say it.
8. Do you think I’m ready?
When offered a promotion, plum assignment, or big project, this should never, ever be your response. Of course you’re ready to take on this new challenge, and everything you do and say should reflect your knowledge of that readiness.
If the new project requires specific skills that you lack--say, fluent Spanish when you’ve just had a year or two in high school--then address that issue. Say that you need a refresher course, or perhaps an interpreter. But don’t ask your bosses or customers whether they think you’re ready–or they may start thinking that you’re not.