In Formal Communication, Don’t Hedge Your Bets

question mark 2123966 1920

Sometimes when certain speakers give presentations, it might be the case that the speakers use a lot of sort of hedging language, and that might possibly diminish them credibility just a little bit by making them sound kind of tentative.

Or, more confidently put: Too much hedging language can damage a speaker’s credibility.

See? That second take came across much more firm, confident, and credible than the first, didn’t it? But despite the obvious impact tentative, hedging language has on our reputations as leaders and communicators, we hear it all the time in formal communication. So we wanted to take a moment this week to talk about hedging: what it is, why we do it, and how it affects our audiences’ perceptions of us. That way, next time you step behind a podium, you’ll be ready to present your message using confident, credible language.

The Problem with Hedging Language

“Hedging” or “tentative” language includes the words and phrases that indicate we’re not quite sure about what we’re saying: “maybe,” “almost,” “roughly,” “it would appear that,” “I think,” and so on and so forth. Quantified’s executive communication expert Liz Guthridge calls them “PUNG” words, referring to “probably,” “usually,” “normally,” and “generally.”

Whatever we call it, this kind of language that tells our audience we’re not truly committed to what we’re telling them—we’re hedging our bets.

Several studies have shown the damaging effects of hedging language on a speaker’s reputation. One paper published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review found that hedging language marks the information as unreliable, meaning listeners aren’t willing to take it seriously or recount it later.

As linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says in The Sense of Style,

Many writers cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply that they are not willing to stand behind what they are saying, including almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue.

So at best, hedging makes a speaker look uncertain or unconfident (“Maybe we should try something else”)—at worst, it makes him look like he’s trying to be evasive or talk around an issue (“I think I got home somewhere around midnight”).

Why, then, do we do it?

There are two primary reasons speakers might hedge:

First, to give themselves wiggle room in case they turn out to be incorrect. (“I said that argument might hold up in court—not that it definitely would.”) Guthridge points out how often we hear professionals give themselves wiggle room like this in conversations with clients:

Whenever you talk with your doctor, lawyer, accountant, realtor or generally any other professional, notice how many PUNG words they use in the conversation. These and other hedging words give them wiggle room to explain things without painting them and you into a corner. Much of what they talk about has shades of gray depending on the situation, rather than being black and white absolutes.

Second, to soften what might feel like a contentious topic. (“I know you truly believe that to be the case, but I think we might do well to consider some other possibilities.”) And, according to Guthridge, this rationale is perfectly practical for many informal conversations.

Even when you’re talking with colleagues and friends, you’re likely to use and hear hedging language as it’s a helpful way to make a point without inflicting a knife in someone’s chest or back. And if you’re talking in person, you’re also likely to be able to gauge when you can drop the hedging for more exacting, authoritative language that will please rather than offend them.

But, she says, their usefulness ends once the conversation becomes more formal:

Now, if you’re listening to an expert give a formal presentation and you hear mostly tentative language, that’s another story. It’s hard to find the expert credible.

How Can We Eliminate Hedging Language from Our Vocabulary?

Next time you’re preparing for a presentation, focus on exactitude and certainty. Are you sharing quantitative information? Use precise numbers rather than approximations. Are you expressing your convictions? State them as facts rather than opinions.

When you practice, record yourself, then go back and count the number of times you hedged throughout your rehearsal. Practice your most tentative sections, stopping yourself to fix it every time you hedge. Once you know what words and phrases you’re listening for, it’s much easier to eliminate them from your vocabulary.

With plenty of discipline and practice, you’ll be speaking confidently and credibly in no time.