4 Sloppy Speech Habits that Undermine Your Influence

At what point would you stop listening to a speaker who opens with: “So, OK, I wanted to just briefly, you know, give you an overview, I think …”

This is how Ian, a director at a scientific research institute, recently started one of our coaching sessions. (I’m changing any identifying information to protect client confidentiality.)

As you might guess, people tune Ian out because his speech is littered with meaningless fillers. Worse, they frequently interrupt him because they worry he’ll waste their time.

Even though Ian is brilliant, visionary, and prolific in his research, he struggles to earn respect as a leader. Team members often emerge from meetings with him confused and unsure of what he wanted.

Increase your own clarity and look more like a leader by eliminating these four influence killers in your own speech:

1. Saying “so” when you begin speaking.

It’s a little word with a big impact. When you start with “so,” you’re tentatively asking for permission to be heard. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of raising your hand.

Eliminate your “so” starters:

• Say a person’s name instead. When directly addressing one person, instead of saying “So here’s an overview,” say “Jamie, here’s an overview.”

• Address the entire audience. When you’re addressing a group, you might say something like, “Thank you all for your comments in preparation for this meeting.”

• Pause before speaking. Breathe, and then begin intentionally. You’ll look thoughtful and grounded.

• Prepare your first sentence ahead of time. For example, you could state the purpose of the meeting, “Our purpose today is to ensure the overview matches the goals we set out to achieve.”

2. Using filler words.

Words such as “you know,” “kind of,” “um,” “ah,” and “er” are fillers because they don’t convey meaning. Most people have embedded their favorite filler word or phrase so deeply into their speech that they don’t notice it anymore.

While the occasional filler word is unavoidable (and may be a sign you’re speaking conscientiously), an abundance of them give the impression you’re uncertain.

Trash the fillers:

• Analyze your speech. With permission from the other person, record a conversation. When you play back the recording, count how many fillers you used, noting each type. Do you use fillers throughout your speech or only in particular places? Knowing when you use them can help you understand why you use them.

• Create an antidote. Depending on when you use fillers, you might have different antidotes. For instance, if you use “ums” instead of periods at the end of each sentence, visualize the period at the end of the sentence and consciously take a breath instead.

• Eliminate one at a time. If you have a diverse vocabulary of fillers, trash one filler at a time. Paying attention to too many will distract and frustrate you.

• Ask a friend for help. Ask a trusted colleague to cue you when they notice you using your favorite filler.

• Play back your conversations. Keep recording your conversations and notice any progress. With regular listening, you’ll be able to anticipate when you’re about to filler-ize your sentence and stop yourself.

Gmail users can try the Just Not Sorry add-on to eliminate fillers in their emails.

3.  Asking permission.

When you say “I want to” or “I’d like to,” you may come across as diffident, and listeners may become impatient for what you actually want to say.

Don’t say, “I want to show you a chart with our competitive analysis.” You can simply say, “Here’s a chart with our competitive analysis.”

Be stingy with your wants:

• Distinguish between a want and a statement. “I want to sleep now. Would you please turn down the TV?” is a want. “Here’s our competitive analysis” is a statement.

4. Using “I think” as a qualifier.

When you frequently use “I think,” you sound unsure–like you’re trying to establish your competence.

Jackie (not her real name) is a general manager at an IT company and another one of my coaching clients. Two months ago, her manager told her she needed to be more assertive. She started using “I think” frequently because she believed this phrase asserted her point of view more forcefully. In fact, it made her appear less confident.

James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at UT Austin, who studies how we speak, shows in his research that frequent use of the word “I” lowers a person’s perceived status.

Reduce your “I think” count:

• State your opinion. Your audience will assume that what you’re saying is based on what you think.

• End with assurance. Qualifying your statement at the end will equally undermine its credibility.

Clean speech isn’t window dressing; it’s a powerful leadership tool for being heard, influencing others, and, ultimately, getting what you want.

This article appeared in Inc. on October 24, 2016.

Sabina Nawaz

Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working with executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government, non-profits, and academia.  Previously Sabina spent 14+ years at Microsoft first in software development and then in HR.  She led the company’s executive development and succession planning efforts for over 11,000 managers and 700 executives. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences. Sabina believes the greatest privilege of working with leaders is bearing witness to their acts of courage.

Look for more stories, insights, and advice on thriving as a leader on Forbes, HBR, and Inc and her TEDx talk. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

25 Questions to Ask a Mentor

Whenever I’m asked “What are some of the best questions to ask a ...

25 Songs For Your Leadership Playlist

What are your all-time favorite leadership songs — the ones that make you ...

How to Shut Down a Colleague Who Takes Credit for Your Work

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting and the unthinkable ...

Four Types of Questions To Ask Your Mentor

Have conversations with your mentor gotten a bit repetitive lately? Perhaps you approached ...

11 Leadership Lessons Learned

Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about leadership—mostly from much-admired colleagues, and just ...

5 Ways to be a Leader, Not a Manager

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a manager and a leader? ...

7 Ways To Build Great Relationships With Your Team

The challenges facing new leaders in a business situation are many and varied. ...

15 Leadership Quotes to Help You be a Leader, Not a Manager

Sometimes you need a reminder and some inspiration to be a leader, not ...

100 Leadership Qualities

What are your leadership strengths? That’s a question I ask in a survey ...

10 Killer Leadership Skills: The Great Differentiators?

Last week at Hallmark I hosted a couple gentlemen from a partner company. ...

Leaderly Quote: The tasks you let go of…
Leaderly Quote: The tasks you let go of…

“Shoulds” are tasks or obligations we take on, accompanied by an inner monologue that goes,

How to Write a Simple and Beautiful Manifesto
How to Write a Simple and Beautiful Manifesto

Traditionally, a manifesto is a written statement where you publicly declare your… – Intentions (what

Leaderly Quote: Leadership is not about doing more
Leaderly Quote: Leadership is not about doing more

You probably already had a to-do list longer than a CVS receipt before this global

What’s on Your Not-To-Do List?
What’s on Your Not-To-Do List?

Leadership is not about doing more. It’s about switching from doing to leading. From this

100 Leadership Qualities: What’s Your Signature Style of Leading?
100 Leadership Qualities: What’s Your Signature Style of Leading?

There’s an entire industry of books and seminars founded on the assumption that if you

20 Leadership Quotes by Women to Inspire You in 2020
20 Leadership Quotes by Women to Inspire You in 2020

20 of our favorite leadership quotes by women At Be Leaderly, we’re on a mission

Happy Holidays 2019
Happy Holidays 2019

May your Holidays sparkle with moments of love, laughter, and goodwill, and may the year

5 Ways to Shift From Doing to Leading
5 Ways to Shift From Doing to Leading

To become a leader, there is a series of key shifts in mindset and behavior

You Do You: Claim Your Leadership Strengths
You Do You: Claim Your Leadership Strengths

We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses that we neglect to

Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…
Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…

We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses that we neglect to

At Be Leaderly, our mission is a simple one: To provide proven career strategies that help you lead, climb, and thrive as a rising woman of influence. If you’re ready to lead, we’re here to support and inspire you.

Copyright 2022, Be Leaderly