Years ago, while working for a big corporate, I used to deal with a PR Agency. The business we were in was very technical and highly regulated, so everything we said, wrote or released for consumption outside the company required about 29 levels of approval. (OK, maybe not quite 29, but a lot!)
As such, there was no room for woolly writing or spurious claims in any of our PR releases. The Account Executive who was handling my account was a clever, well-qualified, eager and conscientious young woman. We’ll call her Joan.

Joan’s favourite expression was, “I’m not quite sure Rowan.”

My least-favourite expression of hers was, “I’m not quite sure Rowan.”

This was serious, technical material relating to human pharmaceuticals. There were many, many occasions when I would look at something and not have one clue what it meant. Out would come the medical dictionary. Out would come Sear’s Anatomy & Physiology for Nurses. Or I would lift the phone and talk to our Medical department.

When Joan would write some copy that I felt was borderline, I would ask her what her source was, or how she had arrived at her conclusion. Her answer? “I’m not quite sure Rowan.”

It became a standing joke between us; because, try as she might, she could not stop saying this. I suspect on her first day on the job her boss pulled her aside and laid down some ground-rules, the first of which must have been, “Never admit ignorance to a client. Tell them you’re not sure and that you’ll get back to them.”

Presumably, Joan spent all of her days saying, “I’m not sure” to all her other clients and so, couldn’t stop herself from saying it to me almost every time we spoke.

What are your verbal tics? I was listening to a recording that a client made during a recent interview and he must have said, “You know” 50 times. The interviewers did not know! That’s why they were asking him a bunch of difficult questions! He was unconsciously using this verbal tic to buy a tiny bit more thinking time while he was speaking. Momentary silences probably would have served him better.

Here’s my quick-and-dirty verbal tic checklist:

  • You know
  • Kind of
  • Sort of
  • Like
  • Emmm
  • Hmmmmm
  • Let me see …
  • Buuuuut
  • Sooooooo
  • Thaaaat
  • Weeeeeell
  • I think
  • I believe
  • I feel
  • I suppose
  • I would say
  • In all honesty
  • I’m not sure
  • Profanity

Know ’em and fear ’em, but most of all, go and find ’em. All of these tics detract from your fluency, persuasiveness and ultimately, from your credibility. Do we all say these things? Of course we do. But one of those expressions that sounds fine in day-to-day conversation sounds simply dreadful on its fiftieth iteration in the course of an important presentation.

I remember one client who used the colloquialism, “As the fella says” incessantly during a mock interview. When I pointed this out to him, he looked blankly back at me. I finally had to put him on camera to get him to believe how often he was saying it. If I had been interviewing him for real and he was displaying that degree of nervousness and that absolute lack of self awareness, I would have committed hara-kiri in front of him just to get him to stop …

Got an interview, speech or presentation coming up? How about an important negotiation? Record yourself. Listen to yourself. Find your tics and kill ’em off!