Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Words to avoid in presentations and in speech

Barry J Marshall (courtesy:

This month I have decided to go public with my list of "meaningless words" which should no longer be used in public, especially not in meetings or presentations and never on TV or radio. Here are the ones I recall today.

1. Basically
a. This word has become a favourite of scientific people especially when they are answering questions. I am also guilty. Example as follows - Question: If the DNA is copied until the primer just falls off, how is it that all the pieces of DNA end up exactly the same length? Answer: Well, basically, you are almost correct however, only the first copy gives a random length. After that, basically, the primer in the next cycle has to start 637 base pairs from the start point of the first copy. So, basically, all except the first copy are the same length, basically 637.
2. I mean
a. This seems to be used as a spacer between sentences, where the speaker continually likes to embellish details and add ideas. I mean, just as one would normally give the listener person a chance to talk by leaving a short gap in the conversation, by using "I mean" the gap is stolen back so that the normal person might not get a word in edgeways. I mean, let's say that it was you being the listener, and you are a nice polite person; I mean, like Marj in the Simpsons. Then you never have a chance to speak because ...
3. Sort of
a. A vague term implying that the speaker has not put any thought into the discussion and is sort of making stuff up as he goes along. This seams to be common in presentations from young artists.
4. Yeah
a. Australians have become adept at placing this word in the middle of sentences as some kind of emphasis. I think it is very common in interviews with surfers; yeah – .
5. Absolutely
a. Television personalities, especially on gardening shows, continually say absolutely. Then the show "Absolutely Fabulous" started up perhaps as a send up of this trend. Recently it has been used more and more by almost everyone. By adding this word, a very vague concept suddenly becomes absolutely correct and proven beyond all doubt. Also, other words can be added to it, especially "fabulous" to make something rather mundane and boring into something apparently exciting. Take the concept of picking up handfuls of animal poo. We don't have smellovision yet, and the warm temperature of a putrefying heap is hard to transmit to the gardening audience. But I can call it compost and say how this material is absolutely the best thing for your garden. How absolutely fabulous it is to feel the warmth as you thrust your hands into the pile in order to experience nature as the good bacteria convert biodegradeable organic material into absolutely perfect plant nutrients. Actually, it sounds rather attractive as I write this.
6. Umm
a. A non word, also used as a spacer to stop other people butting in. Luckily there is no need to use this on TV interviews because a smart editor will cut out all the wasted time anyway, so as to add more content, or another "non umming" person to the time allocated for the story.
7. Like
a. This word is more often used by teenagers – or even myself actually – as emphasis in a story. But it is used rather informally, among friends, with alcohol on board usually, and often as a preamble to an acted out part of the story telling. I am having trouble explaining it but here goes. Just say that I am telling you about a scene from the movie Avatar. So the main actor Sam Worthington is just a dumb marine so he's like, "I need to walk again so I will do anything to pay for an operation"; but Sigourney weaver, she's like some kind of genius professor so she's like "don't break the machinery you dumbass!" etc.
8. You know
a. Everyone uses this Phrase, again a spacer to show that you probably don't know all the facts but what you say is probably about right. Of course, as the brainy listener, you probably have more information or already have heard this story, but if you do know it you would not be so rude as to correct the speaker or embellish his own story. You know.

I think it might be fun to add a few more of these and give funny examples. It would be good practice for a screen writer in a sitcom. My son reminded me of a program we used to have which converted normal speech to "Jive" which was a kind of black American street gang speech which most Australians would hardly ever hear but probably rappers and people from Los Angeles might be familiar with. Time is up – I can't spend my life just doing a blog. Back to real life.

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