I recently found myself in a new position: book agent. When Dan published ORBiT, I scoured the internet, articles, social media—anywhere I could think of in the search for well-known folks to read his book and share a review. This new role became a familiar process: reach out to complete stranger, make effort to gain favorable attention, hold breath, get response.
The responses, in truth, come few and far between. So when I opened my email one morning and the name “Seth Godin” appeared in my inbox, I was starstruck. Admittedly, Seth does email me every morning because I’m on his newsletter, but the subject line was one of my own creation.
With great anticipation, I opened the email. It was short and sweet: “I don’t review books.” You would have thought he was handing me a pot of gold in responding; it really didn’t matter what he said, Seth F*&^ing Godin responded directly to me. Me. But as I read the next line, my starry-eyed gaze became a little less rosed-colored and a lot more gray.
The judgment began. Are you? Are you sorry? If you don’t review books, don’t review books, but don’t be sorry. If not for that feeble second sentence, if it was just a frank “I don’t review books,” I would have retained the respect and admiration I’d always felt for him (I might have even printed and framed that email). Instead, I sent an email back. “No need to apologize. It discredits your authority.” And put Mr. Godin on a human platform, rather than that of a mentor or super-human.
A few days later, I got an unsolicited email from a retailer. The email started: “I’m sorry. I am about to give you feedback on Dan’s weekly videos.” Guess what? It was incredible feedback that in no way warranted an apology. That introduction was merely a representation of his discomfort or inability to address the subject directly.
Month after month in Mann U, we teach managers and owners how to become effective communicators. And month after month, we strike apology words—pieces in a series of “filler words”—from their vocabularies.
Our society has created a community of leaders who are uncomfortable in their power. This awkwardness is amplified by a lack of confidence, especially in conversations that might create discomfort. Rather than own our leadership role and address the subject directly, we cushion it with apologies and hesitation.
As a leader, using filler words (also known as a “compliment sandwich”) actually devalues our credibility.
Think you’re not guilty? Let’s look at some words you might be using:
I mean, if you want
You know more about this than me
You might want to
So. Um. But. Er. Uh.
It is critical to become aware of our use of these words and understand why we incorporated them into our vocabulary in the first place. Oftentimes we might not even be aware that we are saying these words that ease our burden but leave our employees dazed and confused.
We need to be strong leaders who are intentional about growing other strong, confident leaders. We have become a society that prioritizes preparing for a negative reaction rather than giving solid feedback. But it’s cyclical: intentional and clear feedback breeds growth; growth breeds new, strong leaders.
We devalue all our words—and our leadership—when we insert filler words. It’s challenging to examine our vocabulary and the ways in which we express ourselves, but it is also exciting. Language is an area in which we can exercise our free will and create positive change by simply carefully choosing our words. It may seem like a small thing, but our words have a rippling effect, like a stone thrown into a pond. People naturally pick up on the way others speak, and consciously or unconsciously change the way they speak in response. We don’t need to actively try to influence people; it happens without even thinking about it.
You may already have some ideas about phrases you’d like to transition out of your language, and now that you’re thinking about it you may come across many more. So how do you implement those changes?
Observation. Over the course of a couple of weeks, in meetings and conversations at home, begin to listen for filler words others say. Write them down. Understand why they were not necessary. Why did they bother you? In what way did it take away from the overall conversation? Analyze both the phrases and your reaction to them.
Listen. After you have a good working list of words that devalue or distract, it’s time to listen to yourself. Pick your top three or four filler words and pay attention to when you say them. Why did you say that? How many times did it come up? Listen to yourself without judgment—this is a time for change, but not a time for being self-critical.
Pause. Slow. Down. Often our use of filler words is a result of harried or nervous speaking. When you get nervous, stop. Use the 7-second rule: Wait for seven seconds and collect your thoughts. And then pay attention to what happens.
Action. I live in a community in which I am surrounded by teenagers and college students who are constantly incorporating new filler words into their vocabularies (regular, BRB, RIP). Last month one word stuck in my brain: “super.” I was using it with everything I said:
“It was super fun.”
“You look super cute.”
“This tastes super good.”
The list goes on. Then I heard myself say it in the context of a business call and I was mortified. I needed to take drastic measures. My solution:
1. Every time I said it, $10 went into a jar.
2. Every time I said it, I had to either sing or listen to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
By setting repercussions for my filler word, I became hyper-aware of my use of it and the consequences of doing so. It didn’t take too long for me to break the habit. As you take note of your own ticks, address them and create rules for yourself; it won’t take long for you to change, either.
As leaders, public figures and community advocates, we have to take matters into our own hands. We have to build a culture of value, of confidence, and of maximum effectiveness with our words.
You need to clean the bathroom. PERIOD.
You need to be to work on time. PERIOD.
I don’t review books. PERIOD.
Your sales were X. Our Goal was Y. PERIOD. PAUSE.
Your words aren’t just a few jumbled letters—they’re tools for establishing your position. Don’t hide behind filler words, and don’t apologize: you’re saying what you’re saying for a reason. Say it loud.