Two poison pills for great speaking

The language of leadership is clear, concise, and decisive. Hedging a statement with a conditional phrase that makes you sound uncertain or tagging what you said with a question will make you sound insecure and unprepared. Here’s how you can avoid these credibility-killing habits.
May 9, 2022

Do you start a statement at a meeting with weak phrases such as Correct me if I’m wrong… and forgive me if somebody said this already, but…? Similarly, do you habitually end a sentence with …is that alright? Don’t you think? or another question that signals you lack confidence? These habits are credibility killers. Besides, time is precious; attention spans are short.

If you hem and haw when you present, you are hedging and tagging and unconsciously chipping away at your ability to command the room. These are speaking tics that make you seem indecisive, unsure, and just plain wishy washy or fuzzy. I hear these every day during in-person meetings, video conferences and media interviews.

Hedging is poison for persuasion 

Sometimes hedging is a deliberate attempt for speakers to distance themselves from the proposition they are communicating. You may hear it in political speech. But it has no place in business communication where you want to be perceived as knowledgeable and trustworthy.

You may argue that this language tactic may be useful for politeness, and to soften your statements and make them sound less forceful. That’s not entirely bad when you don’t want to sound too bossy, overpromise or communicate unrealistic expectations:

I think…

Sort of…

Generally speaking,…

If you don’t mind,…

But in most business communication, hedging is a poison pill that detracts from your authority. Hedging doesn’t just make you sound insecure, it may look like you’re trying to sugarcoat, disguise or hide that you don’t know what you’re talking about:

It may sound strange but…

I’m not an expert, but…

As far as I can tell,…

You may already know this, but…

If you want to come across as a leader and own your ideas, you need to speak more decisively and be direct. After all, speaking with confidence is a hallmark of an influential leader. If you’re to-the-point and sound self-assured, people will respond favorably to you and your ideas.

Tagging weakens your statements

Tagging is often used by poor communicators to gain validation in the form of a fluffy question at the end of a declarative sentence. It turns an idea into a request for needed approval. If you’re in a group setting with aggressive colleagues who hog most of the time on a video call, you cannot afford to let them dominate the conversation.

Here are some common tag questions:

That’s good, isn’t it?

…do you mind?

Am I right?

Both hedging and tagging are forms of indirect communication. They make you sound like you doubt your own ideas or lack the courage to say what you think. 

Language expert Deborah Tannen, and author of the seminal book on gender differences in communication, You Just Don’t Understand, says that we tend to distrust indirect communication. Tannen notes that “many Americans find it self-evident that directness is logical and aligned with power whereas indirectness is akin to dishonesty and reflects subservience.”

I hope this isn’t the reason why hedging and tagging are more prevalent in women than men, and in younger professionals than more seasoned ones. 

This is the case with one of my clients, a 23-year-old woman with the smarts and sparkle for a brilliant career, who would often say in meetings, I’m only a junior manager, but…. She has tremendous potential but doesn’t believe she has the authority and seniority to contribute ideas of value. We’re working on that.

How do you stop hedging and tagging?

1. As with other bad communication patterns, the first thing to do is become aware that you’re doing them and practice. Ask a friend, colleague, or public speaking coach to listen for hedging and tagging in your speech. Write them down and add to your list whenever a hedge or tag comes out of your mouth. Take a deep breath or a three-second pause before you speak. The techniques are like those I recommend for overusing filler words

2. Substitute weak phrases with assertive ones. For example, I think becomes I believe, or I know. Kind of and sort of can be replaced with one way to do this. Finding more definitive substitutions affords you a way to make your points more clearly.

3. Think of yourself as a heavyweight, someone with the gravitas of good ideas and solutions. People will form judgments about your leadership skills from the way you contribute during one-on-one and group conversations.

4. Aim to speak with fewer words. Brevity will force you to say just what’s important without cluttering the beginning and end of your statements. 

Once you start cutting back on hedging and tagging, you’ll sound and feel more confident. Your vocal quality and body language will reflect that confidence. That’s because you’re learning to communicate with greater directness and authority. That doesn’t mean that you need to be cold, combative, or controlling. It just means that you’re finding new ways to say exactly what you need to say, powerfully.

Rosemary Ravinal

I teach business leaders how to shine on video calls and have more productive virtual engagement. As Founder/Chief Trainer at RMR Communications Consulting, I also help executives master the art of public speaking, inspiring presentations, and authoritative media interviews online and in person. My company’s services are available in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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Let me help you speak, engage, and persuade like a pro in person and online in English and Spanish.

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