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Words you choose can speak volumes

| Sunday, July 31, 2011

Much has been made of the influence of body language, but the fact is, our choice of words holds great power. Like, uh, do y'know what I mean?

Let's take "filler" words as an example. Filler words are the words we subconsciously slide into our sentences as a way to stall the listener until we come up with what we want to say next. "Like," "y'know," and "um" are common filler words.

Filler words are so common that they often go unnoticed -- but sometimes not. I used to get my nails done by a manicurist who did a terrific job. She was a talkative young woman who kept a lively conversation going. However, at the end of every sentence -- and I do mean every sentence -- she said, "y'know what I mean?"

I gently tried to make her aware of her habit by frequently responding, "Yes! I know what you mean!" But she consistently took my words as affirmation that she was on the right path with her topic and therefore kept on talking. Eventually, to escape the barrage of "y'know what I means," I switched to a different manicurist.

Regional parlance can get us into trouble, too. Often unnoticeable to those who speak with regional accents and word choices, regional differences can be, for the outsider, as unintelligible as a foreign language. When I was shopping at Harrod's in London, a saleswoman asked me a question. I stared at her blankly, convinced she must be speaking a language other than English. She repeated herself twice. Still, I could not understand a single word. "I'm sorry, are you speaking English?" I asked. I guess she was, because she turned in a huff and stomped off.

Here in Pittsburgh, we certainly have our regional accent, and we use some unintelligible words. We say, "let's redd up the conference room" or "I need to order more gumbands for the office." Non-Pittsburghers are baffled, just as I was with that saleswoman at Harrod's.

Sometimes, we are just plain lazy in our word choice. We rely on bland catch-all words such as "thing" and "interesting" instead of choosing a more descriptive term. When someone says to you, "That's an interesting idea," unless the body language is exceptionally clear, you have no way of knowing what they really think of your idea. They may love it, they may hate it, they may be buying time to think it over. "Interesting" is one of those words that's always open to interpretation.

We want to impress, so we say "utilize" instead of "use" or "orientate" instead of "orient." We mispronounce, so we say, "nuke-u-lar" instead of "nuclear." We make up a word, such as "notary republic," instead of "notary public."

These nuances can be charming, irritating or, if we are fortunate, unnoticeable. But they can be costly in our careers and our businesses. What are your words costing you• A customer• Respect in the workplace• Credibility• A promotion• An opportunity to give a presentation to key clients• A job offer?

Record your voice to learn more about what you say and how you say it. Watch for words that are overused, inappropriate, unclear, slurred, mispronounced, awkward or unnecessary. You may miss some of the problem areas, so ask others to give you feedback, too.

If you choose your words carefully, you will not only sound intelligent and get your message across, but you will be more likely to advance your career. These are good reasons to pay attention to word choice, y'know what I mean?

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