Avoid using hedges and hesitations in your business communication, which cause the audience to question your credibility.

Several experiments in social psychology have shown that a person with a powerful speaking style influences how the audience evaluates that person. Speakers received consistently low ratings when they used what psychologists James Bradac and Anthony Mulac called powerless language. They grouped it in four categories:

  • hedges (using sort of, kind of)
  • hesitations (“I … uh … think so”)
  • disclaimers (I’m no expert, but …)
  • meaningless particles (you know,  oh, well)
  • tag questions (“It’s a good idea, isn’t it?”).  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.

In one experiment, a job candidate wanted to present herself as authoritative, confident, and intelligent in the interview, but a transcript of her responses to questions in the interview showed that she used all of the language features listed above. Evaluators who participated in the experiment 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 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 attention.

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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 here at Amazon.com.

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