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Conversation Mistakes We All Make

You’ve likely heard the oft-cited statistic that more people are afraid of public speaking than of death (and the corresponding joke that, at a funeral, they’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy). And while it’s true that most of us get rather worked up about having to speak in front of a large (or small) group of people, there are certain things to watch for and fix to make it better. Joshua Uebergang lists these six mistakes as the most common. Whether it’s conversation in a professional setting, or giving a speech or presentation, you’ll want to avoid them. It’s like a minefield out many do you commit?


1) The Fast and the Furious

We get fast in many situations. When we’re angry, nervous, excited, anxious, or a multitude of other emotions, our speech quickens and we can barely keep up with our thoughts. And while a good variety of speed and rhythm is desirable, it can often cross over into unintelligible territory, where we get too fast to be properly understood.

Record yourself to get an idea where you fall on the spectrum. Of course, recording yourself while practicing is a far cry different than when you’re out “there”. But it should give you a basic range. The average words-per-minute tends to fall around 160 words. It’s not a steadfast rule, but could be used as a basic guide.

During the conversation or speech, another good trick is to consciously remind yourself to slow down and breath (if you’ve ever run out of air while speaking, you know how easy it is to forget). Easier said than done, but worth the extra effort. Getting nervous and speeding up is normal.

2) Negative Non-Verbal Cues

So much of what we “say” is non-verbal. It’s hard to put an actual numerical value on it, but we can safely estimate that over 60% of what we communicate is via other cues. Gestures and body language take the lion’s share of that chunk.

Closed body language expresses negative emotion, such as nervousness, shyness, lack of confidence, anger, disagreement, and so forth. You want your body language to be open, inviting, and positive.

Stand in front of a full-length mirror and compare: arms crossed vs. by your side or making wide, open gestures, open hands (palms facing out) vs. closed fists, facing your audience directly vs. angled away from them, making eye contact vs. looking down or to the side. The difference is abundantly obvious when comparing it this way.

Be open. Always.

3) Halting. Staccato. Speech.

Try reading a sentence - any sentence - and really hit each syllable and pause. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? And yet, many of us routinely over-enunciate our words in a misguided effort to be clear and understood. While the intention is noble, the means to that end just makes us sound strange and artificial.

Generally speaking, when we are relaxed and comfortable, we tend to blend our words. “Want to” becomes “wanna”, as a quick example. Spoken English is rife with them. While purists would argue that they should be removed from language, conversationalists would suggest otherwise. They make us sound human. Real. The rhythm and flow of our speech is infinitely smoother and more appealing when we lean more towards blending than hard enunciation. In a professional setting, it may be a fine line (you don’t want to come across as too informal), but an appropriate use of blending is preferable...and likely won’t even be noticed by the person (or people) listening to you. They’ll just remember that you sounded natural and real.


4) Using, like, you know, Empty Words

Nothing kills the rhythm and flow of your speaking than using empty filler words. We insert them between words, break sentences into odd fragments, and stretch straightforward statements into rambling run-ons. Additionally, filler words tend to make us sound a lot less intelligent than we actually are, too. It’s a bad combination. We sound uneducated (or downright dumb, according to some people), unfocused, unsure, and they immediately take away whatever authority or expertise we may have on the subject. So...pretty bad.

Not sure if you use them? It’s likely that you do, at least sometimes. Try recording yourself, or ask someone to listen to you speak with specific instructions to watch out for them. You’ll probably be shocked.

Filler words can also be entire sentences or phrases while we take a circular route to a point. Don’t beat around the bush. Say what you mean, clearly and succinctly. Right or wrong, it gives you more authority and you sound more intelligent. You might also try writing it out if you’re going to be giving a speech, which allows us to polish and revise. You don’t want to memorize it word for word (which always comes across sounding robotic and regurgitated), but it does allow you to get the ideas and general structure to a shine. This gives you the confidence to speak without those empty words. The better prepared you are, the less likely you are to fall back on bad habits.

5) Running Out of Things to Talk About

We’ve all experienced this. Awkward silences. Desperately racking our brains to come up with something - anything - to fill the void. Many people dread socializing and networking for this very reason. So plan ahead.

We often think of planning topics in advance as the realm of only socially awkward people. Coming up with a list and stubbornly sticking to it despite digressions and naturally evolving conversation is indeed the wrong way to go. But having a few ideas at the ready is just good preparation.

While we’re at it, avoid the old cliches, too. Does anyone really want to talk about the weather?!

Beyond that, listen more than you speak, as that’s a surefire way to get new topics from the other person(s).

6) Disagreeing

Disagreement has no place in polite conversation. While that might sound like an Oscar Wilde quote, it’s not so much that having a differing opinion is a bad thing, but it just does nothing to enhance the conversation. It’s not a debate. We tend to get defensive when people disagree. We argue. We get angry (depending on how strongly we feel we’re correct in our opinion). We might even yell at each other. What we rarely do in those situations is actually talk. So...use it sparingly, if at all.

Avoid disagreeing too readily, too frequently, and too harshly. Instead, discuss the opinion of the other person as a curious onlooker, not someone with a differing opinion. Ask questions. Questions engage people. They enhance and move the conversation forward, and it validates their opinion (and gets them talking about themselves, which everyone loves). Remember, this has nothing to do with being right or wrong, and everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion. But in conversation (not debate or brainstorming, for example), disagreeing might not be the way to go. Use your judgment.

Conversation is not necessarily easy (it is called the ART of conversation, after all). Identify, fix, and avoid these six common mistakes, and you’ll be better than the majority of people out there.


Photo by Sharon Mollerus

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