Hesitations (u-m-m-m), hedges, and other cautious expressions reflect a weak language style that can diminish credibility.

For decades, social psychologists have found that a communicator’s language affects how the person is perceived by listeners, and experiments have revealed that speakers exhibiting powerful speech styles are evaluated more favorably with respect to credibility and competence.

The concepts of powerful and powerless speech were introduced by James Bradac and Anthony Mulac, social psychologists at the University of California, who divided speech markers into several categories:

  • hedges (I guess, sort of, kind of)
  • hesitations (u-h-h, you know)
  • tag questions (“That’s the best approach, don’t you agree?”).  A “tag question” is a statement with a question hooked on the end, conveying the sense that the communicator does not assume the reader or listener will believe it.

Psychologists consider those to be the strongest indicators of powerless language, but there also are intensifiers (very, really, extremely) and disclaimers (I’m no expert, but …).

In one experiment, Bradac and Mulac told participants that “Susan” wanted to present herself in a job interview as authoritative, confident, intelligent, and aggressive. Then participants read a transcript of her responses to questions during the interview, in which she used all of the qualifying devices listed above. Participants gave her a low rating, because she sounded tentative and uncertain about her position.

People exhibiting a more powerful language style tended to be fluent, direct, and concise, and participants who evaluated them viewed them as being more confident and more in command of their thoughts. They were judged more favorably regarding their credibility, competence, intelligence, and social power.

One important factor in these experiments is the audience’s ability to concentrate on the message. If a person is in a hurry or is in a noisy room full of distractions, powerless language directs the person’s thoughts away from the message and more toward the speaker or writer’s presentation style.

The speaking style not only affects an audience’s perception of the speaker/writer as an individual; it also influences attitude’s toward the communicator’s idea or recommendation “because the speaker is perceived as powerless or not credible,” said psychologist John Sparks, of the University of Dayton.

One way to avoid a weak style is to rehearse, sometimes over and over, before going into a meeting or doing a presentation. You will hold the audience’s attention and make a stronger impression.


These and numerous other communication techniques will be part of a storytelling webinar June 9 called Engaging Your Readers. Join Ken and his colleague Nancy Shulins for an informative discussion of how to tell vivid stories in an era of shrinking attention spans.

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.

Related Articles:

Engaging Your Audience: Why the Brain Likes Visual Content

Compelling Storytelling: Capture Attention with Leads that Arouse Curiosity

Use Communication to Build Credibility at Meetings


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