In the last month, I have spoken to groups of college students, global technologists, and entrepreneurs. A common theme I observed in these conversations is how what we say doesn’t always match what we mean.
I am not talking about this from an insincerity perspective but rather from how we aren’t always aware of the subliminal messages that sit behind our words. This only gets further complicated in our digital world depending on whether we are speaking in-person or on camera, if we’re sending words via emails, instant messaging, or posted on social media, or recording them in voice messages or videos.
The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that how we share our words reveals subtle signals on how we feel about what we are saying.
An example of this was when I was talking with a very enthusiastic entrepreneur. She’s a life coach for women and she works with women who are redefining how they mother now that their children are adults. It’s a great niche and a topic of which she is very passionate.
We sat down together to work on simple sentences to quickly explain her business to others. As we talked through her background, and her experience running several businesses, and her personal passion for the subject, she was animated and gregarious. We played with different words, and I suggested she highlight her expertise.
“Okay,” I said, “say these sentences out loud to me.”
As she spoke, I noticed that she looked away at one part, so I stopped and encouraged her to try it again.
Same flicker on the same word.
“Do you believe people need this coaching?” I asked.
“Absolutely!” she said.
“Do you know how to help them?”
“Oh, I do,” she said. “I’ve lived it.”
“Great, so are you an expert?”
“That’s the word I don’t like,” she said.
But I already knew that. Her body language told me as soon as she said the word.
The average adult uses around 16,000 words a day and psychology studies have shown that 60-90% of communication is nonverbal. Now that’s a big range but the key component is that meaning can often be conveyed – or interpreted – from things that aren’t spoken or written. This includes facial expressions, body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and even punctuation or emojis.
In today’s digital, global, neurodiverse and hybrid world, this gets even more fuzzy (that’s my non-scientific term).
But let’s actually turn to science. Our brains participate in communication by looking for patterns, signals, and stimuli. So how we deliver our words – either verbally or written – will affect how the recipient absorbs them.
As you think through your own internal soundtrack behind your words, consider a few focus areas:
When you’re speaking, do you ever rush to deliver a word or a phrase-almost try to get through it quickly? Or do you ever notice that your voice flattens out to almost monotone or might even drop in volume. Those can be indicators of our lack of confidence.
Another signal is cushioning words with a lot of filler words (like um, uh, like, ya know) or qualifiers, such as saying “I’m somewhat of an expert.” Qualifiers can boost words like when we say: “Oh, she’s the most creative artist.” They can also dilute the words, too, especially ones we say about ourself: “I’m just a part-time professor” or “I’m kinda good at math.” Other times, they become common phrases we use to signal to others that we would like them to agree with us-such as saying you know, right? or does that make sense?
Fillers and qualifiers can be hard to hear with our own ear so ask a couple trusted people if they notice if you use them. You might be surprised at what others hear that we don’t.
These same subtle shifts can sneak into our written communication as well. One way is through what is called hedging, that’s usually when we overuse a phrase like “Well in my opinion,” or “One thing you might want to consider,” or “you’ve probably thought of this already, but.”
Most of the time, when we’re speaking we use shorter sentences. According to research, the average length of a sentence written in English is 20 to 25 words whereas the average spoken sentence is between 10-15. Studies from the American Press Institute have shown that when the average sentence length is 14 words or fewer, more than 90% of the audience can then understand it.
Why does this matter? Simply put, the more you say, the harder it is for people to quickly understand. And the less you believe what you say, the less memorable your words will be.
So in the spirit of saying fewer things, I’ll close by encouraging you to make friends with your words. If you work to believe them yourself, it won’t feel like work to use them.
Upgrading even a few of our common words is an investment into our brain bank, it’s also an important way we can take care to take good care.