Words matter. What you say matters. You may not be aware of certain words you say habitually that can have negative effects on how you and your message are perceived. Here are seven words that endanger your ability to convey your best ideas.
These words on their own are benign but when used in certain situations they can detract authority and power from your speaking. I’ve grouped them into two categories: the Minimizers and the Maximizers.
Minimizers are a form of hedging but more subtle. Hedging is a statement with a conditional phrase that makes you sound unsure and wobbly.
When used as an adjective, “The soldier fought for a just cause,” it’s a noble word that means conforming to reason or a standard of correctness. But when used as an adverb, it becomes a minimizer, “She just made it to the train,” meaning barely or by a small margin. As an adverb it also lessens the importance of something: “He’s just an intern,” implying lower competence and smaller in value.
TED speaker and author Julian Treasure says, “Many regrettable actions have started with the word just!” He cites important real-world issues that can be trivialized by phrases such as “Just say no,” referring to the Reagan-era anti-drug slogan which has been widely ridiculed.
Just can also be used apologetically and to mask discomfort with what you’re saying. Here are some examples of common statements that illustrate this idea:
“I just want to add…”
“I just want you to know that I care.”
“I just want to cover some housekeeping details before we start the meeting.”
Rephrasing these statements would serve you better:
“I want to add…”
“Know that I care.”
“Let’s cover housekeeping details before we start the meeting.”
Without the minimizing use of just, these statements are more assertive and efficient.
This is another annoying minimizer that can sound judgmental and sarcastic when used as an adverb. “It’s only a little rain,” when a tropical storm is pounding your house.
“If only you listened when I talk to you,” when you are being bullied.
“If only you were a little taller,” a putdown for someone you don’t find attractive.
On the other hand, notice how only works well when used as an adjective to mean peerless and one of a kind: “The only species remaining.” “I am an only child.” It then takes on a different meaning.
This word is a clear minimizer when used in the context of “except for.” “You would be beautiful but for your big nose.” If you want to sidestep any misunderstanding when you say “but,” try saying “and” instead. Your tone and intention will sound much more positive, or at the very least more neutral: “You have a big nose AND you are beautiful.”
This is a deal-breaker. It transmits guilt, self-judgment, and regret when you use it on yourself: “I should have skipped that piece of pie.” Or it is bossy, imposing, and superior when spoken to or about someone else: “You should not speak to your boss that way.” Or “You should have let me drive and we would have arrived on time.”
In the context of self-improvement and human development, the use of the word should is a way of punishing ourselves and others for not hitting a mark or reaching a goal, which could well be artificial or impossible.
I’m not suggesting that you stop using these minimizing words altogether. Instead, I urge you to be more aware of when and where you use them and how they can lessen your power to communicate effectively if you say them habitually and unconsciously.
Let’s look at the Maximizers.
These are words that are hyperbole and exaggerations you may use to supercharge your statements with emotion. They lose potency because fundamentally they are untrue.
Listen to media interviews and you will likely hear “Absolutely” used in response to a question—even an insignificant one.
Question: “Would you ride a bicycle in the rain?”
A better answer would be to simply say “Yes” or “No.”
Often absolutely is an overreaction mainly because nothing is absolute “but taxes and death” as the saying goes. It’s also an exaggeration because there’s little certainty that you would ride your bicycle in the rain, but you may want to boast that you would do so unquestionably.
ALWAYS and NEVER
In arguments, these words can be inflammatory because they denote extremes that are unrealistic. Few things in nature are everlasting, forever, or permanent. Similarly, never, the antonym of always holds little weight in the context in which we may use it for business and everyday speech. The adage, “Never say never,” suggests that you could look foolish if what you said would never happen comes true.
Add to this category the bloated words: everybody and nobody. These absolutes easily fall apart because exceptions abound.
Think twice about making statements like these in business conversations:
“My boss is always kind to me.”
“I always hand in my work on time.”
“I would never work for that company.”
“Everybody likes me.”
“Nobody cares what you think.”
Really? Do these phrases make you sound sharp and thoughtful, or superficial and immature?
In speaking, think twice about your choice of words that you think help you become a better speaker but in practice erode your credibility and the potency of your ideas. It’s empowering to observe your speech patterns and habits and avoid giving your authority away when you’re called on to persuade, influence, and exercise leadership.
P.S. Private coaching makes perfect. Office hours with Rosemary are available. I will work with you privately to polish your public speaking and boost your credibility online and in person, in English or Spanish. Schedule a discovery call with me and get started.