A verbal ‘tic’ has emerged in the past few years – increasing numbers of people seem to be unable to start speaking without saying ‘so’. And it afflicts communication professionals as much as anyone. I listened to a podcast with a legendary broadcasting executive and no less than five of his answers started along these lines: “So, the interesting thing is…” or, “So what you have to remember….”
So is essentially a variation on ‘umm’ or ‘err’. It’s what the linguists call a ‘voiced pause’ – a filler word that gives us a moment to think what we want to say. As such it has no part in presentation – it soon becomes irritating and it diminishes what you are saying.
Verbal tics come in waves because they are infectious. So follows the Upward Inflection (finishing every sentence as though you are asking a question), which thankfully seems to be on the wane, and Literally. I reckon this last one – which is all about emphasis - actually recurs every 15 years or so. I remember during my schooldays being told of a boy who had stuck his fingers in a toaster and ‘literally screamed his head off’. A generation later it was adopted by Hooray Henry-types you would use it as an opener: “No, literally…”
Some people have their own personal tics. I once knew a marketing agency executive whose job it was to present – and therefore sell – the agency’s creative ideas. As he introduced each idea he said: “This is just a concept based around….” Just? For goodness sake talk it up, not down, I kept thinking.
The problem with So for a business presenter is that your opening is one of the two most important parts of any communication – it’s what your audience remembers and it’s the bit that engages them (or not). I was coaching a business presenter in Q&A recently and her answers started thus: “So the shareholders are delighted with the return they are getting currently…” It’s only a tiny two-letter word that’s getting in the way, but the statement could carry much more impact if she got straight into the meat of it, especially as the So prefix hints at hesitation and perhaps a looming qualifier.
Conversely, So can be rather effective when you make your closing statement, which, along with your opening, is the other most important part of any communication. At this point you need re-gather attention before hitting them with your big finish – usually a Call to Action. That can be achieved quite effectively by proclaiming in a very definite way: “So….” It must, however, be followed by a decent-sized pause.
So….it’s time for me to close. The nature of tics is such that you probably won’t be aware your own – which means you need help from friends and colleagues. So is the current one to watch for – it’s harmfully superfluous up front, but can be really quite useful as you close.