Speaking Clearly Is Not Threatening

OY GEVALT!! PeaceBang MARCHES forth in her crusade to stop vocal fry, cutesy inflections and the verbal fillers “like” and “sort of” from infecting our public discourse.


Seriously, my darlings. This is nothing short of a socially transmitted disease, this affectation. I was recently in attendance at a public conversation facilitated by two very talented (and young) religious leaders. The man presented first, and was interesting, intelligent, and fairly unexciting as a conversationalist. He had a somewhat flat affect and little vocal inflection. But his content was good, he was an obviously engaged and caring person, and I readily granted him the authority to be “the person up front” telling me things I should know.

That’s an important transaction right there: the moment when the listener decides to trust and grant authority to a speaker or a leader.

The woman followed the man. She was enthusiastic, charismatically engaging, and charming. But she undercut her authority by sprinkling her speech with “like” and “sort of,” which frustrated me greatly. It seemed obvious to me that this habit was an unconscious technique for distancing herself from her own authority. There is a huge difference between saying, “The church should do this” and “The church should sort of do this, right?” I was horrified by the way she undermined her own strength as a woman religious leader.

We need good, strong, intelligent and loving leadership in this generation. It is no different today than it has ever been. Can you imagine Dietrich Bonhoeffer sprinkling his phrases with “sort of” and “like?” How about Martin Luther King? “The moral arc of the universe is long, but you know, it sort of bends toward justice.”

Here’s what was amazing and horrible about the event I attended: after the woman did her presentation, she and the man riffed for a while between the two of them and then took questions from the crowd. Much to my dismay, the man actually took on the verbal distancers and cutesy qualifiers of the woman’s speech pattern that he had previously shown no evidence of using, thereby proving my point that this affectation is contagious and unconscious. We do it when we want to be liked, we want to be appealing, and we don’t want to be thought too serious or authoritarian.

They both sounded less intelligent than they needed to, and it broke my heart. This is absolutely a generational issue and it truly concerns me as someone who wants to see Millennials and Gen Xers take their place at the head of the board table, the lecture hall, the pulpit and the press corps.

Here, because I love you, I have provided the most egregious recent example I can think of of a speaker whose vocal fry and verbal distancers (my term for “like” and “sort of”) are irritating, self-sabotaging and affected. Thanks to Ted Raz of the Ted Talk Radio Hour for teaching by negative example. Sorry, dude. I needed actual audio.

Speak clearly. Don’t pull back from your statements with “like” and “sort of” and “right?” I am trying to avoid these inane fillers myself and it’s difficult, as they are infectious and have the effect of making me feel sort of more fun to myself as a speaker (see how I snuck in a “sort of” there?). But let’s take this issue of contagious vocal affectation seriously and accept clear and direct speech as one of our key responsibilities in public ministry. We all need to be able to code switch. Save the “likes” and the “right” for your friends. Leave them out of public discourse, meetings, preaching, teaching and anywhere you are exercising leadership.

Take the PeaceBang Pledge! “I will do my utmost best to speak clearly and directly, and to avoid using vocal distancers that undermine my own authority, intelligence and impact.”

P.S. My own worst filler phrases are “just” and “you know?” I notice myself using “kind of” a lot more, and when I hear vocal fry creeping in, I sit up straighter, take in more oxygen, and KNOCK IT OFF!

7 Replies to “Speaking Clearly Is Not Threatening”

  1. The timing of this is perfect! In our Deanery we are running a Lay Reader’s course. Last Tuesday I was teaching about Liturgy and Worship and one of the subject that came up was the appropriate way to speak. It SHOULD be obvious to enunciate and raise your head when speaking. It SHOULD be obvious to slow down when you speak and ensure everyone can hear and understand you. But sadly it’s not.

    Well said PB as always.

  2. Just is a massive one for during prayers… “Dear Lord, I just want to ask you to just fill us all with your Holy Spirit and just wash through this place and just fill us all up with joy…”

    I imagine God saying ‘Just shut up!’ (although I’m sure He wouldn’t be so rude!)

  3. Or making the ends of every sentence go up? To make them into questions? It says, “Please like me, please agree with me.”

    My verbal sin that I seem to have difficulty shaking is to put “little” in front of too many things. I wrote a little report that had a little budget, etc. “I promise not to take up too much room with my little ideas….”

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Vocal fry is of the devil. My aging ears give up about 30 seconds into listening to it. Andrea, I agree with raising your head when you speak, unless you are a lay reader. If one is reading from a text, one needs to keep the head in one position the entire time, eyes glued on the text, which, please God, one has read beforehand.

  5. As a 50-something, I find these verbal habits annoying. I do wonder, however, how (or even if) they are interpreted by those who are in their late teens to early 30’s. Of course we have to consider our entire audience, but change may be coming down the road. Or not. It’s simply something that causes me to wonder.

  6. One I’ve been catching myself doing is using lots of exclamation points in emails.

    When I don’t want to seem too threatening as I ask someone to do something, I’ll find that I tack on completely unnecessary exclamation points. I hope you can understand! I’d really appreciate it! That would be great! Thank you so much!

    This Onion article illuminates the problem: http://www.theonion.com/articles/stonehearted-ice-witch-forgoes-exclamation-point,36005/

    I now find that I have to go through my emails to keep my exclamation points to a minimum.

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