Archive | May, 2016

8 Powerless Words and Phrases You Should Avoid

“If thought corrupts language, then language can also corrupt thought.”
— George Orwell

My last post was all about leadership and communication; specifically, how sloppy presentation skills can undermine a leader’s credibility and influence. But communication goes beyond public speaking. The fact is, your everyday language–the words and phrases you use in ordinary conversation–has a similar impact on how people perceive you. If you pay attention to the words and phrases that come out of your mouth in routine conversations, chances are you’ll notice a few that could be limiting your clarity, impact, and effectiveness.

Here are eight common language faux pas’ to avoid.

Hedges: Phrases like kind of, sort of, possibly, I think, etc. that dilute the impact of a statement are known as hedges. They serve no purpose other than adding clutter to your speech. The more you can rid yourself of these pesky intruders to concise communication, the better.

Hesitations: Also known as “filler words” like uhm, oh, and er are among the most common powerless words. Often, they are so ingrained in people’s speech, they are difficult to remove. But you’ll be surprised at the clarity you will gain if you can, if not eliminate them, at least reduce how much you them. The key is to slow down your pace of speech.

Just. I wouldn’t be surprised if “just” ranks right behind “like” as the most overused word in the English language. The problem with just–“I’m just saying” or “I just want to follow up”–is makes you come across as defensive, and in so doing, saps much of the strength and conviction in your communication.

Basically. While this commonly used adverb at the beginning of a sentence may not seem like much of an issue, in reality, it’s completely unnecessary. (I almost wrote “basically unnecessary!”) Just say what you intend to say instead of weakening your point with this tired expression.

Tag Questions: I am frequently guilty of this, saying something like “Does that make sense?” or “Do you know what I mean?” implying that I was unclear. Like “basically,” tag questions add nothing of substance to your point. If you really want to know if the person/people you’re speaking to understand your point, then try asking a direct clarifying question, such as “What are your thoughts?” or “Tell me what you think.”

Deflections. These are what I call ” verbal buck passers” and include statements like, ‘I feel like…’, ‘I’m wondering if…’, ‘It seems to me…” or “It’s only my opinion, but…” Again, you may question why I prosecute such seemingly innocuous phrases, but as John Stonestreet says on his popular social commentary podcast, The Point, “(Deflectors) serve to dumb us down, pretending every argument is just a hunch we have.” To me, it’s a back door way of absolving yourself of responsibility for your position instead of fully engaging with someone.

Qualifiers: Whenever you insert an adjective or adverb in front of a word or sentence to soften it, you’re using a qualifier. Example:”I’m not completely sure, but…” or “Honestly speaking…” Once again, just say what needs to be said instead of diluting your point.

Intensifiers: Also known as superlatives, words like really, totally, or absolutely, if you’re not careful, can easily become redundant, watering down the strength of what you want to say. Example: “I am totally looking forward to having a really good time this weekend.” Like sugar and caffeine, be careful to use intensifiers only in moderation.

Remember, your communication shapes your personal brand. If you’re serious about presenting the best possible version of yourself to the world every day, then pay close attention to your everyday language.

Which of these common language faux pas’ do you most identify with in your everyday communication? Are there any others that you notice or struggle with?

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The Six Habits of Highly Effective Speakers

Last month, I was invited to attend a half day conference on a significant, somewhat controversial public health issue affecting our community.

The event featured a series of presentations by a group of experts from a local agency, highlighted by the executive director. Anxious to hear his perspective, I leaned forward in my chair, anticipating an informative and compelling talk.

Nearly an hour later when it was finally over, slumped in my chair, I made a beeline for the restroom. I was frustrated and nearly bored to tears as this man stumbled through a sloppy, incoherent monologue that obscured the important information he wanted to share.

That experience told me this: If you’re a leader in virtually any capacity, chances are you will be called upon to present in public. This means you must be armed with a few basic but important skills if you want people to listen and respond to your message. Ignore these skills, and you will face an uphill battle to achieve the influence and credibility you need to succeed.


The following are six habits practiced by the most effective speakers in any field:

1) Focus on a singular theme. While most presentations try to cram too much information and highlight too many “big ideas,” most of which their audience forgets as soon as they leave the auditorium, the best presenters ask themselves an important question when preparing their talk: “What’s the one thing I want my audience to remember?” Then they build their remarks around this single, central theme. This habit alone will transform the substance and impact of your presentations.

2) Tell stories. Nothing creates a more memorable presentation than a good story. Stories engage the brain and facilitate an emotional connection with your audience, making your content much more interesting and memorable. Decades of research backs this up. Throughout history, the best politicians, CEO’s, pastors–leaders who rely on communication–are all accomplished story tellers.

3) Practice, practice, practice. It amazes me how little some speakers prepare. For every minute of my public presentations, I spend hours rehearsing. First, I print the entire speech on a clipboard and practice in my car while driving to and from work. Then, I rehearse my speech in as close to the actual conditions as possible, timing it and paying close attention to my body language, facial expressions, and voice tonality. (Sometimes I even record myself on my iPhone). I repeat this many times before I feel like I’m fully prepared. When you’re in front of a live audience and the inevitable nervousness sets in, you will automatically revert to your lowest level of preparation. Don’t assume you know your stuff well enough to cut corners. Put in the time up front, and you’ll never regret it.

3) Avoid “death by PowerPoint.” How many presentations have you attended where the presenter basically replicated his entire speech on PowerPoint slides? If you want to put your audience to sleep as fast as possible, there’s no better strategy. Here are some simple tips to use slides to enhance, rather than weaken your message:
– Use as few words as possible. Marketing guru Seth Godin advises no more than six words per slide. Though that may be difficult, the fewer words, the better. Brevity and simplicity enhance recall.
– Use visual images instead of words. Graphics, rich photographs, compelling diagrams, and colorful charts are far more impactful than bullet points and copy.
– Avoid cheesy transition effects like dissolves, spins, etc. All they do is distract your audience. Keep your transitions sharp and focused.

4) Keep cutting until you think you’ve cut too much. Call it the pride of authorship; the fact is, even the best presentations are often too long. Our digitized and distracted culture rewards brevity and punishes the long-winded. The more word economy you can build into your presentation, the more effective it will be. The genius behind the massive global success of TED Talks is the 18 minute limit (which is based on research of the human attention span). Same with Twitter. When it comes to really effective communication, less really is more.

5) Pay attention to your body language. Good posture, “quiet” arms, and maintaining eye contact with the audience are a few of the body language skills of good presenters. For a great explanation on the role of body language in communicating, check out this hugely popular TED Talk by behavioral researcher Amy Cuddy.

6) Work hard on reducing filler words like “‘Uh’, ‘Ah,’ ‘Um’ and ‘you know.'” One of the most frustrating things about the local agency director’s presentation in the experience I shared at the beginning of this post is that he used so much filler language, he came across as tentative, unprepared and scattered. This is why rehearsing your talk many times before the live presentation is so important. If you’re unsure how much filler talk you use, have a friend sit in on your practice talk and tally every time you say “Uh, Ah,” etc. Chances are, you’ll be surprised, and be able to correct the issue appropriately before your presentation.

Your reputation as a leader has a lot to do with your ability to communicate in public. Work hard at developing and perfecting these six presentation habits and you will never regret the time and energy you invest.

Which of these six habits resonate the most with you? Which ones are the most challenging to you? Which are the easiest?

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5 Keys to Becoming a Good Conversationalist

“Conversational competence may be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach.”
– Paul Barnwell, teacher and writer

A fellow blogger and good friend of mine once described good communication as “the act of furthering understanding between two people.” I think that’s true, which is why I find the increasing polarization of our society deeply concerning.

Today, people seem to live in echo chambers where they continually reinforce their own belief systems. The result: We are less likely to compromise and more likely to make decisions based on what we already believe–losing our ability to listen to and learn from one another.

If you’re serious about personal development, you must be committed to the free exchange of thoughts and ideas with others. In other words, you must learn the skill of good conversation.

CREDIT: Getty Images

Here are five “must have” skills shared by good conversationalists the world over:

1) Be present. According to public radio host Celeste Headlee, the average person can talk at a rate of approximately 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. Our minds tend to fill in the other 275 words (this is a huge struggle for me!) which is precisely why it takes energy and concentration to be attentive during a conversation. Remember, multi-tasking is a myth–you can only focus your attention on one thing at a time. Engaging in true conversation means giving the other person your undivided attention. It requires the same concentration and self discipline as training for a marathon or studying for an exam.

2) Listen more than you speak. It’s been said that the most interesting person in the world is the one who makes you think you’re the most interesting person in the world. That may sound like cheesy networking advice, but it’s true. The more you talk, the more you deprive yourself of learning and growing. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand…then be understood.” Becoming known as a good listener is one of the best ways to build your personal brand because you build rapport and trust with others very quickly.

3) Stop stealing stories. Resist the urge to interject your own stories and experiences. If someone shares their grief over losing a close friend, for example, don’t tell them about the time you lost a family member. You don’t know exactly how they feel, so don’t try to equate your experiences with theirs.

4) Ask questions that provoke a thoughtful response. Good questions are open-ended, asking who, what, why, and how verses questions that ask for a yes or no response. Listen to a skilled interviewer like Charlie Rose or Oprah Winfrey. Their questions help those they’re interviewing feel safe and understood, they are clear and relevant, and they continuously move the conversation forward.

5) Practice genuine curiosity. As Mary Schaller writes in The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations, “Curiosity is the bridge that moves you from listening to asking questions and fully engaging.” The word curiosity comes from the Latin word cura, which means “to care, to tend, and to heal.” Genuinely curious people possess a sincere and humble desire to know more about other people. They honestly believe that they can learn something from everyone.

Celeste Headley tells her audience that if you really want to share your opinions with no response or disagreement, then write a blog. But if you’re serious about engaging the world in the marketplace of ideas, commit to growing your capacity for good conversation.

Which of the five points about conversation challenges you the most? What is one habit you could develop to get better?

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