How A Popular Two-Letter Word Is Undermining Your Credibility

Is this common tendency in business dialogue undermining your message? Here are three reasons it might be.

You’re at an industry conference making small talk. The discussion invariably turns from "who you know" to "what you do."

Your brow furrows, you cock your head slightly, and you launch into the elevator pitch:

"So, we’re building a multi-channel platform that leverages…"

"So, I’m the global brand director for our portfolio of…"

"So, I recently exited my startup when we sold to…"

The part of this lead-in that seems the least important but actually dramatically frames your message is that first little word: "so."

Everyone—from CMOs to flip-flop-clad "brogrammers"—does it. It’s like the technorati’s way of starting a sentence with "like." However, it’s much more than that.

It’s actually a damaging tendency. Beginning your sentence with "so" orients your message and subconsciously alerts your audience that what you’re about to say is different than what you’ve been talking about up until this point.

We business-types need to drop the "so" for three main reasons:

1. "So" insults your audience

That little head cock, slight furrowing of the brow, and set-up with "so" says to your audience, "I’m trying to dumb this down so someone like you may have at least a chance of comprehending the importance of what I do."

The person with whom you’re talking won’t call you on it, because he won’t even consciously recognize it. But the convention we’ve all created around "so" will register subconsciously, and the damage will be done.

2. "So" undermines your credibility

The "so" setup also announces: here comes the rehearsed part of my discussion.

It’s like a poker player’s tell that announces to your audience that they’re about to get pitched. This one is easier to observe than the insult I talked about above—just walk up to the first peer you encounter and ask him what he’s working on.

He’ll follow with, "So, I’m optimizing our UI to better convert... "

It’s obvious that you just heard his "public" version of his current workload. The more honest answer might be something like, "I’m trying to figure out where one f-ing period is jagging up all this code... "

3. "So" demonstrates that you’re not 100% comfortable with what you’re saying.

Just as the "so" setup announces that this portion of the conversation will be very deliberate, it also demonstrates that you’re not as comfortable with your story as you think you are.

Rather than just plainly answering their question, you’re relying on the crutch of a practiced blurb. Usually, whatever follows "so" is a carefully crafted sentence, evolved over many iterations and audience reactions.

There’s a reason we do it. In psychology, it’s what’s known as a "marker." It’s a little cue to our cognitive mind that says, "Quick, call up that part that we practiced."

Just like a speaking coach will tell you not to fill empty space with "um," you should avoid framing your answer as a rehearsed pitch by starting with "so."

Next time you’re asked, "What do you do?" try dropping the "so." You’ll appear much more confident, and that little piece of discipline will actually sharpen your story.

You’ll be the guy that knows his stuff, rather than the guy that knows the script.

Hunter Thurman is the founder of the innovation consultancy, Thriveplan, and author of the new book, Brand Be Nimble. He’s a frequent speaker in the consumer packaged goods category, coaching companies on how to create disruptive innovation, and then tell the simple story to make it a success.

[Image: Flickr user Jim Pennucci]

Add New Comment

138 Comments

  • Tim Mocarski

    You are, in the nicest terms I can think of, filled with malarkey regarding the use of the word, "so." It's a linguist pause, and at the very least far better than "um." Comedians often use such linguistic pauses to preface a joke, as in, "So there was this guy who walked into the bar..." It's also a way to introduce any statement as a means to make sure the listener is paying attention. "So. Today, class, we are going to discuss ..."

    Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney won the British National Book Award for his translation of the epic "Beowulf." The introductory word of the epic, "Hwæt!" is the poet's way of saying to the medieval audience, "Listen, you drunken Vikings, while I tell you a story." Heaney's translation, fitting for the 21st Century, is, "So."

    If you think a Nobel Laureate in Literature translating arguably one of the true classics of the English language is any less credible for using the word, "so," well, you have no clue what the word "credible" means.

  • Paul Hellander

    Thank you for that! I have noticed the pernicious use of that dreadful weasel word creep in exponentially in the last few months. Grrrr! It's almost as bad as recreational walkers who seem to cling to the concept that is is necessary to clutch a plastic bottle of warm water whenever they exit the house for fear of running into a sudden drought while crossing the park!

  • To those feeling the emotional need to mock the premiss in this piece I would (humbly) suggest you catch the next Fed presser in order to experience the Queen of 'so' herself, Madam Chair!

    Great piece btw...

  • Colby Cantrell

    what about "alright" after a commment...or how about "Good"..or what about that very pushy word " we'll see"...? this is ridiculous article

  • frichan

    Awww, what a precious little powder puff you must be, so easily offended. The comments on this thread are hilarious, too. How about, rather than tearing your hair out over filler words, you all grow up, stop being offended by every little thing, and behave like humans rather than taking lifestyle tips from people who are clearly shallower than kiddie pools? The fact that business people feel the need for "coaching" to interact with other humans tells you everything you need to know about what's wrong with business - all paranoia, no spontaneity. (BTW, overhearing you people talk in coffee shops is hilarious - over-loud, over-enunciated, riddled with jargon - "so" is the least of your worries. For real.) Thanks for the laugh, though.

  • frichan

    Moronic article. Here's a better one. Insults your audience, my ass - aren't you a precious, easily offended little powder puff? These comments are hilarious - and from adults, no less. Look for fewer ways to be offended and start behaving like humans rather than taking lifestyle tips from websites that are shallower than kiddy pools. http://www.slate.com/blogs/business_insider/2014/05/13/mark_zuckerberg_s_frequent_use_of_so_might_be_a_trend_especially_in_silicon.html?wpisrc=obinsite

  • Brian Collins

    When I was at junior school back in the early sixties, my very strict but also very fair teacher had a section at the bottom right hand corner if the blackboard (remember those), with the words IF, SO, AND, and BUT permanently chalked in.

    Woe betide any pupil who started a sentence with any of those words!

    I despair when listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when an interview is being conducted with a member of the scientific fraternity who seem to start every sentence with that irritating little two letter word.

    Another thing that annoys me is the Americanisation of our language, why for instance is there a wobbly red line under the words Programme and Americanisation?

  • Tony D Cash

    Another really annoying habit is adding "as well..." to end of a sentence for no apparent reason. These must be fillers or words to stall or transition.

  • Molly Fisk

    Speaking of damaging tendencies: "1. The person with whom you're talking... because HE..." "Walk up to the first peer you encounter and ask HIM..." "You'll be the GUY that knows HIS stuff..." And your accompanying photograph has two men in it, no women.

    Why, it's almost as though we don't exist! Or maybe you're just relying on the verbal crutch of habit.

    Have you thought about including women in your writing a little more, Mr. Thurman, instead of sounding like a clueless 1950's gent? You might consider it, rather than alienating slightly more than half the planet. Since you're so interested in poker tells, and all.

  • Jim Bouchard

    AMEN...amen...AMEN!!!

    So- I've been screeching about this for the past two years! It's SO annoying to listen to someone stammer over a SO every time they start a paragraph.

    So- I understand that some of you may not have even thought about this or even knew you were doing it; but you are, and it's a problem.

    Stop it.

    So- THANK YOU for this wonderful article. Sharing now!

  • Bill Lupton

    I guess I should just accept the future and not let it bug me SO much. When someone starts a sentence with SO , or BASICALLY ,or IT IS WHAT IT IS , and including TRANSPARENCY in a sentence its like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. But then again my parents probably felt the same when we said GROOVY, FAR OUT, COOL,OH WOW , DUH,THATS RAD, but it does. SO BASICALLY IT IS WHAT IT IS. HAHA ROFL !

  • Thomas Hartzsch

    Hm. I am in favor of not using any words at all. Silencium. Especially business communication would benefit, greatly! How did Peter Gabriel once sing..."I'll be stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out"... Oh, btw, remember how that Album was called? That’s right: "So"…

  • Brian Collins

    You are American right?

    Thought so.............I am not in favour of American spelling. By The way I can recall WHAT that album was called.

  • Sarah Linton Albiston

    Love it, love it, LOVE IT! I have had great distaste for "So..." ever since I started hearing it from big company "drink the Koolaid" employees. It gave me the distinct impression that people who used this word daily were not only trying to "spin" the person they were talking to, but it also felt like they were using the word to fit in. But, yes, this one word has really bothered, irritated and truly offended me every time I hear it. Until today, I could not articulate exactly why. THANK YOU Hunter Thurman, for your laser sharp eloquence. And here's to thinking before speaking....

  • Tang Kwong Tak

    And so, now I realize that (more so, I have so much been talked to at the receiving end) with such “so-laden” intonation being a tell-tale sign of patronizingly doped with cynicism.

    The most glaring is one of being yelled at, “So what?”

    “And so, you will not take my instruction, Joe?” sneered the supervisor.

    No sooner could Joe manage only so little explanation (facing the supervisor); there was a reprimand overwhelmingly hurled at Joe, to subjugate Joe.

    Without an iota of inference (allowing for Joe’s situation), the supervisor was already passing an instant judgment to sentence Joe to be pilloried.

    “And so, this is our best offer …” (it sounds like, take it or leave it).

    “So, having heard your case … that’s it” (very quickly drawn a conclusion, it echoes so deliberately and contemptuously).

    “So”, as it is delivered in a rather harmless manner, it does so by infusing a pitch apologetically, but without so much an apology effectively.

  • Linda Abbonizio Williams

    I SO agree with this!!! Tired of the condescension or self-importance dripping from that usage of the word.
    And my other pet peeve, the use of "sort of" , another usually unnecessary insert into a sentence. I always want to ask "Is that your statement, or is it 'sort of' your statement? I'm not sure what the psychological effect is, but I find it so annoying. Just speak plainly, people! Your sentences are good enough without this filler phrase.