The Advantage Blog

I “sort of” want you to stop saying that: A trial consultant’s rant about a vocal filler infiltrating our persuasive communication.

December 31, 2016 | By |

I “sort of” want you to stop saying that. No! I do want you to stop. Not kind of. Not sort of. I do want you to stop saying “sort of.” “Sort of” appears to have become the vocal filler of the year. As formal speech-making has become more casual, the use of vocal fillers has increased. You remember the rise of “valley girl” talk in the 80s. Parents cringed at the frequent insert of “like.” “Mom, Jenny and I are “like” going to go to the store.”

Vocal fillers are interjections of words that fill what might otherwise be pauses in a sentence. “Um” is the most notorious vocal filler. We hear it often. So often, in fact, that many of us no longer notice or care (yes, I know there are some of us who are driven crazy by the “um”). “Ya know” and “I mean” are two other common vocal fillers. But it seems that in 2016, these have been pushed aside to make room for “sort of” and its cousin, “kind of.”

Vocal fillers diminish a speaker’s credibility. It makes you sound nervous and unsure, and makes you look unprepared. Most vocal fillers have no grammatical significance in a sentence. The word just takes up space. Annoying, yes; altering the meaning of your message, no. Herein lies the reason I am so bothered by “sort of.” That filler phrase actually does change the meaning of your sentence. It acts as a hedge or a qualifier, which when intended serves a legitimate purpose (“I am fifty/fifty on whether I want to go or not. I sort of do, but I sort of don’t.” or “Drinking Diet Coke is kind of like the real thing, but they’re not exactly the same.”). But, most of the time, “sort of” acts like a filler, not an intentional qualifier, which has the unintended consequence of diminishing the value of your words. Used often, this can have a detrimental effect on the persuasive impact of your speech.

I can cite endless examples of politicians, talk show hosts, corporate spokespeople, news anchors, and other positions of power and influence using this phrase. But the trial consultant in me will share first-hand accounts of lawyers and trial witnesses inadvertently hurting their credibility.

  • In a recent opening statement transcript I read, “You’re also going to hear how each of those engineers is sort of accustomed to carrying around their own safety notebook.”
  • I heard a nurse on the stand testify that she, Sort of adjusted the external heart rate monitor on the mother’s abdomen.”
  • In closing, a lawyer summarized the expert’s damages testimony by explaining to the jury, “You heard Dr. Baker explain how he sort of used a formula to calculate the expected damages.” 

 

The trouble is that in each of these examples, the jury could be left with an impression of suboptimal performance. Potential inferences are: The engineers were not really following safety protocols; they were only “sort of” accustomed to carrying around notebooks. The nurse must not know what she is doing if she only “sort of” adjusted the monitor. And the expert winged his calculation by “sort of” using a formula.

Replace the filler in each of those sentences and you just have an annoying utterance at best or lower credibility ratings at worst. But filling space with “sort of” adds a layer of impairment to your message.

As is true with any vocal disfluency, awareness is the first step. Listen to yourself speak. Ask your friends and family to tell you if you have fallen prey to the latest speech trend. Once you become aware, you can begin to make a change in your daily conversations. If you are going to court – practice, practice, practice. Vocal fillers threaten to damage your credibility, but using “sort of” threatens the value of your words. Practice causes you to intentionally choose words so you don’t fill space searching for the right words on the fly, and gives you confidence so you don’t fill nervous pauses with extra words.

Thank you for reading, and I really do want you to stop.

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