Fielding questions is a crucial communication skill. It’s important for job interviews, chats with your boss, dealing with clients, and virtually every workplace situation.
But too often we sabotage ourselves by opening our answer with meaningless words. Sometimes we utter these expressions to give ourselves time to think. Other times, we resort to these terms because we’re afraid to pause. These empty expressions are often spoken unconsciously, but they undercut our ideas.
Here’s the solution: Pause before answering. As actors know, pauses are powerful. They show you’re thoughtful and take the question seriously.
Another suggestion: Role-play Q&A situations with a friend and record your remarks. You may find you’re using these filler terms and are unaware of it. (You can also check out my book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment, for more tips.)
Below are the eight most common culprits. Cut them out of your answers, and you’ll sound stronger:
Using “um”—or its near kin, “ah”—at the beginning of an answer makes the speaker sound tentative. That’s been the case for hundreds of years. As early as the 17th century “um” was identified as “a sound denoting hesitation.”
It can be tough to give up this behavior. But catch yourself once, twice, and every time you can, and eventually you’ll give it up.
This is another expression that creeps into our answers and is best left out. If you use it as a placeholder, you’re not alone. When Henry Blodget, editor-in-chief of Business Insider, asked Jeff Bezos, in a 2014 interview, “Can Amazon make money?” Bezos answered, “Well, and yes, and in fact we have in the past.”
The answer sounds tentative—the hesitation before saying “yes” makes Bezos sound like he’s not quite sure. Responding with an emphatic “yes” is stronger. Bezos could then have explained that they’d made money in the past.
3. “Let me think”
Why ask permission to do what you should be doing with any answer? You won’t inspire confidence if your boss asks you when a project will be completed, and you reply, “Let me think, ah, it should be ready in a week.”
4 .”You know”
Beginning an answer with “you know” or “as you know” is similarly a poor choice. If your questioner knew the answer, she wouldn’t have asked the question. If a recruiter asks you, “Why are you suited for this position in marketing?” and you reply, “You know, I’m a good fit for this job because of my experience in the field,” the “you know” distracts from your key point.
5. “That’s a good question”
In working with leaders to develop their Q&A skills, I’ve often heard them begin answers with “That’s a good question.” Why do people begin this way? They’re buying time to think. I always say to clients, “You’re not there to evaluate the question, you’re there to answer it.” Individuals who respond with “that’s a good question” can sound condescending, as though sitting in judgment of the questioner.
6. “That’s a tough one”
This opener is another example of a phrase that serves to evaluate the question. It also can be extra dangerous, as it suggests that the speaker is struggling to think of an answer.
If it’s truly a challenging topic that’s been raised, you might pause and then say something like, “That’s something we give a lot of thought to, and there’s no easy answer to it.”
7. “I’m asked that a lot”
This opener is delivered when a speaker is silently thinking, “Oh, this one again,” or “I’ve answered this a million times.” But the expression gives a slight jab to the interviewer since it implies that the question is boring.
Instead you might introduce a touch of humor, for example, when you hear a probing question that is on everyone’s mind. You could begin your response, “I was wondering when you’d get around to asking me that!” Or, “I’m sure everyone in this room would like to hear the answer to that one! So, I’m glad you asked.”
I’ve noticed lately that politicians and media commentators frequently begin their answers with “Look!” as in, “Look, that’s not the reality at all,” or “Look, here’s the deal.” They may feel this expression makes them sound more authoritative, but it can come across as aggressive.