Sunday, September 25, 2011

Never Ask 'Does That Make Sense?'

Just as a chef is attuned to the subtleties of flavor and trends in the culinary arts, a presentation coach is attuned to the subtleties of language and trends in the communication art. One trend I've noted recently is the expression, "Does that make sense?" often used by a speaker during a conversation — or a presenter during a presentation — to check whether the listener or audience has understood or appreciated what the speaker has just said. Unfortunately, the expression has two negative implications:

• Uncertainty on the part of the speaker about the accuracy or credibility of the content
• Doubt about the ability of the audience to comprehend or appreciate the content.

"Does that make sense?" has become so pervasive, it joins the ranks of fillers, empty words that surround and diminish meaningful words, just as weeds diminish the beauty of roses in a garden. Most speakers are unaware that they are using fillers, and most audiences don't bother to think of their implications. The phrase has attained the frequency — and meaninglessness of:

• "You know..." as if to be sure the listener is paying attention
• "Like I said..." as if to say that the listener didn't understand
• "Again..." as if to say that the listener didn't get it the first time
• "I mean..." as if to say that the speaker is unsure of his/her own clarity
• "To be honest..." as if to say the speaker was not truthful earlier
• "I'm like..." the universal filler which says absolutely nothing

Responsible speakers or presenters, in their well-intentioned effort to satisfy their audience, have every right to check whether their material is getting through. However, instead of casting negativity on the content or the audience, all a speaker has to say is:
"Do you have any questions?"

While all of the preceding cast doubt on the competence of the presenter or the audience, another group of phrases and words casts doubt on the content itself:

• "Sort of"
• "Pretty much"
• "Kind of"
• "Basically"
• "Really"
• "Actually"
• "Anyway"

These, too, have taken on the frequency of fillers. Sometimes these words can have a purpose. Writer Maud Newton recently analyzed the late David Foster Wallace's predilection for "qualifiers like 'sort of' and 'pretty much.'" She deemed it a "subtle rhetorical strategy" to make a critical point and defuse it with irony. As a prime example, she cited the title of one of Wallace's collected essays: "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think."

Presenters do not have the luxury of indulging in irony or — with all due respect — the literary talent to engage in such artful wordplay. Qualifying words lessen the importance and the value of the nouns and verbs they accompany. Those nouns and verbs represent the products, services, and actions of the business — the family jewels — that the presenter is pitching, and a presenter should not diminish their worth. Parents do not describe their children as "sort of cute."

Instead, follow the advice of the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style: "Use definite, specific, concrete language." To accomplish this you must diligently delete meaningless words and phrases from your speech, a task easier said than done due to their pervasiveness. One way to kick the habit is to capture the narrative of your next presentation with the voice record function on your smart phone, then play it back post mortem and listen to your own speaking pattern. (You're in for a surprise in more ways than one.) You will have to repeat this process several times before you start correcting yourself, but do it you must.

Jerry Weissman, a leading corporate presentations coach, is the founder of Power Presentations, Ltd.

Thanks to Jerry Weissman / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business Publishing


1 comment:

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