Editor's Note: This is one of the most-read leadership articles of 2014. Click here to see the full list.
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:
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.
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... "
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.