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So, Do You Choose Words Carefully in Meetings?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 - 09:45
Misused Words in Meetings

So, have you heard of the recent controversy surrounding the increasing use of the word “so” in business discussions?

Well, as far as this blogger can tell, the hubbub started more than a year ago when USAToday’s College blog published a well-researched post by a then-senior at the University of Michigan. Haley Goldberg explored the increasing use of the word “so” to start and end sentences. “Linguists agree that the word is ‘trending,’ but what role does the two-letter word actually play in our language?” she posed in her piece.

Do you use the word “so?” If so, here’s what the experts say:

  • “So” is a “discourse marker” that helps organize sentences and conversations between people in a role similar to “traffic signals.” Other examples of discourse markers are “well, um, you know, oh” etc.
  • “So” at the start of a sentence indicates transition to a topic or conclusion that the speaker believes will be of particular interest or relevance to one listener or audience as a whole. Using the two-letter word is short way to say “Listen Up!”
  • “So” trailing away (oft pronounced “sooooo”) leaves things open ended. At the end of a sentence, “so” acts as a cue from speaker to listeners to draw their own conclusion from the preceding information. In this case, the word serves as a figurative nod to the intelligence of the other party, a sort of “you fill in the blank.”

The Controversy – Should you use “so” so often in a business meeting?

All this discourse seemed straightforward and functional—until Hunter Thurman, author and founder of a consulting firm, penned a column for Fast Company. Thurman claimed that “so” was “like the technorati’s way of starting a sentence with ‘like.’” He went on to assert that using the word in a business conversation “insults your audience’s intelligence,” “undermines your credibility” and “demonstrates that you’re not 100% comfortable with what you’re saying.”

Many readers did not “100%” agree with Thurman’s assessment. One rebuttal came from Christina Sterbenz, a contributor to Business Insider. Her position: “The ‘so’ boom is likely a natural progression of language—not a spinoff of tech-industry jargon. And it’s helping us communicate better.”

On went the debate among pundits, commentators, columnists, journalists and other crafters of what one of the linguists in Goldberg’s original post called the “living language” of English.

So, what does this controversy have to do with you and business meetings?

Should the debate over “so” impact how you prepare for a meeting?

The argument over the use of “so” is another reason to prepare meticulously for your part in any meeting and, when in the midst of any business conversation, choose your words carefully. Because peppering a few two-letter discourse markers into your verbal mix is one of the smallest risks you face as a speaker.

Jeff Haden, a ghostwriter, speaker and contributor to Inc. magazine, recently compiled a list of “Ten Things the Best Speakers NEVER Say” for LinkedIn Pulse. Here are three of my picks from his list to never say in a meeting—in person, online or otherwise.

Phrases to avoid during a meeting:

  • “I’ll keep it short” – If you didn’t specifically rehearse a brief version of your input, you will find keeping this promise difficult. Off-the-cuff comments aren’t naturally concise. So, avoid introducing any impromptu comments—which are perhaps 80% of dialog in a meeting—with a pledge to be terse.
  • “I’ll come back to that later” – Why wait? If you have the floor in a meeting, take the initiative and make your point. A false sense of suspense is more likely to annoy than endear. So, stop stalling and share your insight in linear fashion.
  • “I’m jet-lagged/tired/hungover” – You were invited to the meeting for a reason. You have earned a seat at the table and your contribution is valuable. Dithering with excuses about your diminished state may do more to discredit your point of view than elicit sympathy from the group. So, just step up and say your piece.

Haden also collected a list of word pairs that often are misunderstood and misused by speakers. Here are three of my favorites from his LinkedIn post “39 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Bad” that can easily go astray in business banter:

  • Well and Good – “Good” is an adjective. So, use it to describe something. If a colleague does good work, say “Good job!” “Well” is an adverb. So, use it to describe how something was done, as in “This blogger writes well!” But take note that the word also functions with compound modifiers, such as “This blog is really well-written.”
  • Award and Reward – An “award” is a prize, often as the result of a contest or competition. For example team members can win Employee of the Month awards. A “reward” is given in return for effort, achievement, hard work, merit, etc. Sometimes an Employee of the Month receives a reward, such as a gift card or other bonus. So, be careful not to refer to that Employee of the Month plaque as a reward for good conduct and a job well-done.
  • Sympathy and Empathy – To express “sympathy” is to acknowledge another person’s feelings. So, hearing “I’m sorry you had to work all weekend but nice job on that report” are good words from your team leader. “Empathy” is the ability to step figuratively into another person’s shoes and relate to how the person feels, in part because you’ve experienced those feelings, too. So, statements such as “Meeting a deadline when you don’t feel well is tough. How can I help?” comes from empathetic team members.

Given the limited time we all have to express ourselves in meetings, choosing our words carefully is a rewarding business practice that can earn the award of your colleagues’ respect and confidence. So, what do you think? Have you encountered people using “So” like a mental pause rather than a discussion connector? How can you tell the difference, and does it even matter?

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