In case you haven’t noticed, there is a whole lot of “white noise” in our speech. For the most part, we speak unconsciously. Why? Because speaking is a habit. We talk and communicate all the time. Many of us “think out loud” – speaking while we form our thoughts. Often there is also the presence of anxiety and nervous energy that exists in our bodies when we speak in front of people (e.g., meetings, presentations, etc). That adds to the mix of what comes out verbally – a sprinkling of non-words, sounds and phrases. This verbal white noise is distracting to your message and compromises your communication effectiveness.
“So” is the new “Um”
The sound “um” has been on the most wanted list for removal from our speech. Audiences have been trained to count the number of “ums” a presenter will utter in any given presentation. It becomes a game for the audience and takes their attention away from our key message. Now, there’s a new “um” in town and that’s the word, “so.”
Last week I attended a professional association meeting. There were two guest speakers – both expert in their fields. They had the expected PowerPoint slide presentations (although the font sizes were so small that people in the back had to ask what was on the slide!) Their topic was important (leading culture change) and they engaged the audience in a lively discussion about corporate culture dysfunction. (who doesn’t like to rant on about that???)
As the presentation dragged on, I became aware of something odd. One of the speakers kept repeating key words. It became distracting to me and I became annoyed. I decided to count how many times he used these repeatedly unnecessary words. Within a five minute period, he said the word, “Right?” thirteen times, and he said the word, “So” eleven times. That’s twenty four white noise infractions in just five minutes.
This bad habit of speech chipped away at this professional’s credibility and caused his audience a fair amount of pain and suffering. I met up with one of the guests after the program, and she told me that she had to leave the room and take a break because the presentation was so bad. I don’t think she was talking about the presenters’ content, but about their delivery.
Quick grammar lesson
According to my local community college (Capital Community College), the word, “so” is a coordinating conjunction and serves a similar purpose as words such as “and” and “but.” Basically a conjunction is a joiner, a word that connects (conjoins) parts of a sentence. FANBOYS is a memory-jogging acronym for the conjunctions: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So.
The word “so” means “as well” or “in addition” or “therefore.” Sometimes, at the beginning of a sentence, the word “so” will act as a kind of summing up device or transition, and when it does, it is often set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
When we overuse or misuse a coordinating conjunctions like the word, “so”, our communication gets disjointed and we unconsciously disconnect from our audience. That is not our intent, but it is the unfortunate result.
White Noise verbiage is distracting and contagious
“…what I call white noise such as “ums” and “uhs.” This “normal” communication is not strategic. We are definitely not conscious or aware of it – we just speak. We have become inured in daily conversation and settle for being average. But perception is reality. When we are speaking, we are also personally being evaluated – subliminally or intentionally. ” – Arthur Samuel Joseph, Vocal Leadership (page 4)
I am not immune to this speech flaw, in fact, I am catching myself regularly. I am becoming more aware of not only what comes out of my mouth, but also out of other people’s mouths. Last week, I taught a two-day workshop on effective presentation skills for technical professionals. The participants were engineers of different disciplines, all subject matter experts with bright futures ahead. I called their attention to the frequency with which they used the word “so” to transition to a new idea, and how often they ended their sentences with the the word “right” as a means of checking in with their audience. I challenged them to 1) become more aware of this in their speech; and 2) to eliminate it from their speech.
We laughed as we came into conscious awareness of the overuse and misuse of these words. One participant said in his defense, “At least I’m consistent.”
Another participant made the comment after she caught herself speaking white noise, “You’re right. It is contagious!”
We can do better
As a student of Vocal Awareness, I have made the commitment to Communication Mastery – to embody the leader that I aspire to be in every communication. I recognize that voice is power and when I own my voice, I own my power. I also recognize that I have a choice. I can choose to speak conversationally and without conscious awareness, or I can pay attention and listen at deeper level.
What do you replace this white noise with? How about silence, a smile, or eye contact? These verbal and nonverbal options will bring you closer to your audience than overused words such as so, right, like, er, um…
You get the picture.