The Master Communicator Blog

Three words that can kill your credibility

Words such as actually, really and like when used improperly can kill your credibility. Become aware of how and when you use them to avoid leaking power and authority when you speak.
March 11, 2024

Like it or not, we judge other people by the way they speak. Is the person clear, concise, and confident? Or are they long-winded, disorganized, and caught in a verbal maze of unnecessary words?

One telltale sign of the latter is the bad habit of using words that clutter and confuse instead of magnifying the meaning of your message. Words such as actually, really, and like often find their way into your speech, acting as linguistic accessories that can weaken your communication.

English has an arsenal of features of speech that don’t directly contribute to meaning. You may know them as those pesky filler words, e.g. um, ah, you know. Add the words actually, really, and like to the list. Linguists call them discourse markers which signal to the listener the organization, structure, or direction of a conversation. They help to convey the speaker’s attitude and indicate relationships between ideas.

There are good discourse markers such as those that enumerate (rank and order) ideas: first, finally, and in conclusion. There are useful causation (why) markers that amplify statements: because, since, as a result, and therefore. And there are those that obscure your intended meaning.

Let’s explore the impact of these seemingly innocuous words and how their casual use might unintentionally dilute the power of your words and the way you are perceived.

There are approximately 170,000 unique English-language words in current use, yet the average person uses between 20,000 to 40,000 of them. Being aware of your language choices is the first step towards more effective communication. By consciously selecting words that align with your intended tone and message, you can communicate with greater clarity and authority.

Here’s why you should use the trio of weak words sparingly:

The illusion of precision.

The words actually, really, and like are often used to add emphasis or provide clarification. While they may seem harmless, their overuse can create the illusion of uncertainty. Consider the sentence, “I actually enjoyed the movie.” The use of actually suggests an unexpected element but also implies that the speaker’s enjoyment was somehow surprising. This can undermine the straightforward expression of opinions and dilute the strength of the statement. Say “I enjoyed the movie” to express your sentiment more confidently.

Or the use of the adverb actually can gloss over a lack of knowledge or accuracy. Question: “How many units have you sold in the last year? Answer: “We actually sold one million units.” The response may prompt the listener to doubt the validity of the number. The word actually isn’t important to the answer. Why not say: “We sold one million units?”

The casual overuse of like.

Like has become a ubiquitous filler word in contemporary speech, especially among Gen Z and younger generations. Educators and parents fret that the overuse of like among teenagers makes them sound uneducated and will affect their success in the future. It’s tempting to use like when expressing uncertainty, approximation, or even a pause in conversation. But the frequent and unnecessary habit of the word can make communication sound informal and lack merit. It’s essential to be mindful of its usage to ensure your words carry the weight they deserve.

Perceived lack of thought.

When used excessively, really may dilute the meaning of a statement. It often serves as an intensifier, but if everything is described as really something, it can become unclear, and exaggerated, and make your speech sound less polished. “Our financial performance last quarter was really great.” Why not say, “Our financial performance last quarter was exceptional.” If someone consistently uses really (put very in the same category) without offering substantial content or depth to their statements, it might give the impression that they haven’t put much thought into what they’re saying or are unsure about their information.

To strengthen communication, choose words that add value to our sentences, and work towards more precise and confident expression. Analyze your own speaking and observe if you use these words often. If you do, then create a mental alarm or ask friends and colleagues to keep you in check so you don’t inadvertently lose credibility and authority when you speak.

Rosemary Ravinal

Business leaders and entrepreneurs who want to elevate their public speaking impact, executive presence, and media interview skills come to me for personalized attention and measurable results. I am recognized as America’s Premier Bilingual Public Speaking Coach after decades as a corporate spokesperson and media personality in the U.S. mainstream, Hispanic and Latin American markets. My company’s services are available for individuals, teams, in-person and online, and in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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