We work with others – and communicate with them – all day. How others perceive us makes a big difference in how we are viewed and treated at work. Our communication habits either make it easier for people to support and promote us, or make them decide not to support and promote us.
In other words, how we communicate has a big effect on our success. It matters. A lot.
Fortunately, improving our ability to communicate is something we can do, if we work at it, and the payoff is significant.
Talking: Don’t be a valley girl.
I’m just as guilty of this as the next person. I suppose you could say it comes from growing up in Southern California, but that’s no excuse.
One of the reasons I’m writing this article is to remind myself to remove some bad speaking habits. I recently edited a transcript of a group meeting, where one of our beloved clients was talking about his industry and customers.
Most of the editing consisted of removing valley girl talk out of the transcript, for me and others on our team, and even the client. I’ve done this a lot in my career, having edited the transcripts of thousands of customer interviews I’ve conducted for clients. In those cases – and in this one, too – the goal is always to make sure the speakers sound as intelligent as they really are.
That’s a hint. Most of us are smarter than we sound. Those who speak for a living – as in, newscasters – often sound smarter than they really are. So if you want to sound as smart or even smarter than you are (ok, smiley face here), you should pay attention to how well you communicate.
Here are the conversational valley girl bad habits that we should all be eliminating from our conversations:
- Wussy words: “Sort of,” “kind of,” “a little,” “pretty much [whatever]”, and the worst offender: “Like.” We are all so afraid of being forthright that we have turned into conversational apologetics.
“She was sorta upset about it.”
“It was, like, pretty bad.”
You will sound much more intelligent and confident if you say, “She was upset.” “It was bad.”
- Lazy words: “Gonna” is the worst offender, and I say it all the time. Give each word its just due.
- Unnecessary words: We worry that we will be interrupted before we have a chance to make our point, so we use “filler words” to keep the floor. We are afraid of pauses. But we sound a lot smarter if we let there be a little silence, rather than filling in between significant words with valley girl phrases. Speaking in complete sentences, with pauses for commas and periods, will raise you up more than a few notches in the eyes of others.
- Talking like our pants are on fire: “Trying to get everything out as fast as we can because someone might interrupt and we really need to make our point and we think we sound smarter because we’re talking fast and oh by the way I know that I shouldn’t talk like this because I know it makes it even harder for people to respect me but I’m going to do it anyway . . .” And after all that, what was really said? Listeners will tune you out if most of what you say is insignificant.
- Sounding anxious. The person in the room who acts most like the leader – and whom others will be pleased to follow – is the one who is most calm. In fact, nothing in life is worth getting upset about; the best possible way to get through life is to simply do the next right thing, regardless of the situation. Stress and worry are a complete waste of time.
- Ending each sentence with a question mark. Nothing sounds more valley-girlish? Than ending each sentence? Or even each phrase? With a question mark? Only questions should have question marks. Don’t be afraid to speak declaratively.
Writing: Banish typos from your life.
Even when you text – and I know this is almost sacrilegious – if you want to get ahead in business, and especially if you want to be a manager or own your own business someday, you can’t let text typos go out into the world.
Write the email or the text or whatever. Before you hit “send,” read it once more. Clean it up, organize it, make it solid.
Why does this matter? Because you can absolutely, positively lose the chance to get that job you always wanted because your “thank you for the interview” email had a typo or common grammatical mistake, such as using “there” when it should have been “their” or “they’re.” I have certainly chosen to hire people for this reason (especially writers, but also anyone who is going to be interacting directly with clients).
People hiring other people are not looking for any excuse to hire you. They are looking for any reason not to hire you.
This may sound really harsh, but look at it this way. They’re looking for signals. Red flags. They want to uncover the negatives before they hire you and train you and invest in your success. They are concerned about how well you’ll do your job in the long run and how well you will work with others. They are paying a lot of attention to how well you communicate, because as you do your work, you will be communicating with others – not only team members, but also partners and customers. You will literally be representing the company that has hired you.
Someone who sends out error-filled emails or even texts will reflect badly on the company. The customer will think: “Hmmm. That’s the third email I’ve gotten from this person with typos in it. I wonder if they’re making the same mistakes when they build their products or provide their services?”
Hiring someone is like dating, where you are looking for “the one.”
When you’re looking for a mate, don’t you pay attention to the little things? Are they neat, or sloppy? Do they pay attention to you, or are they often distracted, or worse, dismissive? Do they burp out loud, or politely and quietly? Are they someone you could confidently introduce to your friends and family, without you being on edge every minute, hoping they don’t embarrass you?
People who are interviewing someone for a job are going through the same types of thought processes.
One typo is a red flag. Two typos or a typo and a grammatical error is a BIG red flag. It means you’re sloppy; that you don’t care; that you haven’t been paying attention to details; that, even when you are doing your best to impress, you still make silly errors that you wouldn’t have made if you cared enough to do your very best.
You can never stop learning about the proper way to use words. For example, when should you use “who” or “whom”? (There’s an easy way to remember – if you could substitute “him” for the “who,” it should be “whom”; if you could substitute “he” for the “who,” it should be “who.”)
Punctuation matters, too. Here in the U.S., periods and commas always go inside quote marks; colons and semicolons at the end of a quoted phrase always go outside the quote marks; and question marks and exclamation points can go inside or outside, depending on whether the ! or the ? are part of the quote or part of the larger sentence.
Don’t hold yourself back.
This is all even more important now, because no one – no one – needs to remain ignorant in this day and age. People who hire and manage others know this. It used to be that people with less money couldn’t hope to be properly educated. Now anyone can educate him or herself, using the resources on the internet. Sites like Grammar Girl make it easy to improve yourself.
Yes, you need to work at it. That’s why we call it “work.”