Thursday, January 28, 2010

about to get caught? 3 ways to tell

Ever watched a colleague, your CEO or perhaps yourself go too far in a speech, presentation, or media interview--and then get caught by their own words?

Of course you have. And if you haven't seen those examples, there are plenty to choose from on television, every day.

Helping clients avoid getting caught by their own words is often the best training I can provide.  It happens most often when you're off-script, as you are in so many everyday situations from speaking engagements to interviews and presentations. The good news: in many cases, the speaker or interviewee gives the listener a clue right before he misspeaks.  If that's the case for you or a colleague, that clue can become an important tool to help the speaker catch herself--even mid-sentence--before she gets caught by her own words.  Next time you notice someone verbally stepping on themselves, look for one of these three clues and share it with the speaker so he can recognize it and use it to stop himself before trouble begins.
  1. Answers the question, then keeps going:  You may have answered the audience member or reporter's question well and fully--then felt like you had to keep talking to fill a silence. But you don't. If you really have answered the question (and you should), stop and wait for another. It's how conversations work, and how you can pause to see where the other person is going before you make any assumptions.
  2. Says "probably....":  "Probably" says, "I'm going to guess that what I'm about to say is right, even though I don't have anything with which to back it up."  A great way to stop yourself here would be to say, "Probably....no, I really don't know. I don't want to speculate."
  3. Says "everyone," "no one," "anyone," or other absolutes.  Particularly trouble-making when coupled with "knows," as in "Everyone knows," these overstatements beg your listeners to wrack their memories for exceptions to whatever comes next in your sentence.  (It's why journalists are taught, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out," and never to write that "everyone had fun at the picnic," lest the unhappy people who attended protest.)  Again, the way to stop yourself if the trouble word has emerged is to say, "Everyone....well, no. Let me speak just for myself here. In my experience..." That's all, at the end of the day, you can really do.
Want more tips on how to spot and root out troublesome overstatements? Check our weekly writing coach advice on how to get over overstatements and rephrase them to stay out of harm's way.  And if you have other verbal clues to share that will keep us all out of trouble, share them in the comments.

Related posts:   More on speaking and presentation skills on The Eloquent Woman blog

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