To “PUNG” or not to “PUNG” — or somewhere in between? That’s a helpful question to ask yourself whenever you’re preparing to deliver a formal presentation or have an important conversation.
PUNG words are “probably,” “usually,” “normally” and “generally.”
Using these tentative words gives you wiggle room, especially if you’re explaining a complex topic or addressing a controversial issue. That’s a plus.
On the downside, too many tentative terms and qualifiers can dilute you and your message. You can become the human equivalent of a bowl of soup served with a side of jello.
How To Be Credible And Confident With Your Choice Of Words
The challenge is that we’re often not aware of the degree to which our speech sounds hesitant, just as we’re often oblivious to the “ums” and “ahs” we use. (And yes, “often” is another tentative word.
Other examples of hesitant words and phrases include “I think,” “maybe,” “almost,” “tends to,” “possibly,” “appears to,” “might” and many others.)
By contrast, individuals who are clear, credible communicators have a handle on PUNG words. They know how to add and subtract them to their advantage, adjusting their language to fit the messages they’re delivering.
Here’s What Effective Communicators Do When:
• Advising on a technical matter. The successful communicator will use concrete language to describe a technical topic, whether it’s the law, a medical condition, finances, or whatever.
When the communicator shifts to explain how you might respond based on the situation, you should notice a change in words. You’ll hear phrases such as “you might consider,” “you should take into account,” “it’s likely that…” With this tentative language, the speaker acknowledges important distinctions related to the personal choices available to you.
• Explaining a point of view on a sensitive topic. The communicator may start the explanation with tentative language to acknowledge the shades of gray coloring the matter.
Then, depending on how you respond — either verbally or with body language — the communicator may modify their language to make it more exact if they think you’re agreeing with them or keep it cautious to avoid offending you.
• Asking you and others to take action. Individuals who desire you to act accurately and on time will avoid cluttering their requests with tentative words. Instead, they will make their request clear, concise, and compelling and encourage you to ask clarifying questions to improve your understanding.
That will help you focus on the pertinent elements of the message so you can follow through. Excellent communicators also will listen carefully to your questions and comments to detect the extent to which you’re using tentative words asking or commenting about their request. That will help them assess the potential risks with your ability to fulfill it correctly and on time.
• Positioning themselves as experts. Credible communicators will use precise language to show they are certain, confident, and in control of the topic, even when they’re well aware of the nuances that exist.
If the experts use too many PUNG words, those who are listening can start to doubt whether the speaker has credibility on their topic.
Note that this can be a double-edged sword both for experts and their listeners. Experts who are well-steeped in their area of specialty often prefer sounding thoughtful rather than simplistic about their complex field, which means using qualifiers. Yet, laypeople may sense the nuanced approach as too tentative. After all, if the expert is not expressing confidence, why should they believe them?
• Advocating for a cause. Communicators who want you to rally around their cause make an effort to engage you to feel part of their message.
For instance, they strive to build trust by speaking from their heart and making frequent eye contact. They’re more concerned about making a personal connection than achieving a perfect delivery, so no need for a teleprompter.
They use everyday language — minus tentative words — starting with “I” and “we” and using the word “you” and another inclusive language in simple sentence structures.
As a bonus, excellent communicators also will provide commentary as to what they’re doing and why. For instance, while I was interviewing an individual recently about her work experiences, she stopped to explain why she was using so many qualifiers.
She said she wasn’t being indecisive, but instead describing highly nuanced situations that she wanted me to understand and ideally appreciate. Based on what I was hearing, I had assumed that. And her explicitness increased my confidence in her as a credible subject matter expert.
Her commentary also inspired me to write this article about the role of PUNG words. By using them wisely, you can communicate more intentionally and signal increased credibility and confidence.
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