So...The New Y'Know


Last time I took a swipe at the filler phrase “y’know,” which has invaded so many interviews that for some it’s become a reflex, like breathing when answering a question, a colleague of mine reminded me that a couple of years ago we began encountering another useless time-buying verbal gimmick, the word “so.” It began popping up in media training sessions with scientists and engineers.  Some of them began their answers to our practice interview questions with, “So...” as in this exchange:

Question: “How will this experiment expand our knowledge of the universe?”

Answer: “So, what we are going to study is.....”

It was so pervasive that a few science and engineering media training participants began every single answer with the word “so.”  They were unaware they were doing it until we played back the interviews for our critiques. One confounded scientist, for whom the critique was a revelation, asked, “Why am I doing that all the time?” At the time I couldn’t answer his question, but now I think I know the answer.  Scientists, by inclination and training, prefer to build to a conclusion.  But they know that laymen want a conclusion first, followed by the supporting data.

In fact, during media training sessions I drive home that message using the slogan, “Key Point Up Front.”  In other words, we are asking people to do something counterintuitive: to start with what would normally be the end of an answer.  Normally, when our scientist is building his argument with peers, he lays out his evidence and when he is going to to deliver his conclusion uses flags the fact with the word “so.” Actually, “so,” used this way is layman speak for “ergo,” which in its original Latin meant “because of,” but was adopted as a synonym for “therefore” in 14th century English.  Now when urged to begin with the conclusion, many scientists and engineers instinctively start with “so,” even though they haven’t presented the facts leading up to the conclusion. At a recent gathering I attended, there were a lot of scientists on panels and laymen in the audience and almost every scientist present began many answers with the word, “So....”

Why is this relevant to the business community?  Well, lately I’ve noticed the answer-starting “so” creeping into media interviews with businessmen.  Perhaps they picked up the habit listening to Nobel prize-winning scientists using the word.  Perhaps there is a “so” virus out there.  Whatever the reason, I am hearing more and more “so” answers from more sectors of the economy.

Whether you have talking about dark energy or monetary policy or business opportunities in third world countries, starting answer with “so,” is distracting and annoying.  First of all, the “so” is totally misplaced and somewhat baffling to the listener, since the basis of the conclusion hasn’t been given.  Second, it becomes a cliche like “y’know” and can lead to such overuse that it becomes a distraction -- just like “y’know.”

As I pointed out earlier, a lot of perpetrators of “so” responses were totally unaware they were committing the offense.  So (sorry, couldn’t resist) how do you know you’ve fallen into the trap and what do you do to get out of it?

I know of only two ways of catching yourself deploying the inappropriate “so.” Ask colleagues to listen for it -- a less than reliable solution -- or record yourself in conversations and practice interviews and play back the tapes listening for “sos.” If you are a so-er what is the remedy? Incorporate the sense of the question in your answer.  If you are rephrasing the elements of the question, it’s virtually impossible to begin an answer with “so.” Back to the example I used earlier:

Question: “How will this experiment expand our knowledge of the universe?”

Answer: “This experiment will expand our knowledge of the universe by studying.....”

What about my mandate for getting your key point up front?  Restating the sense of the question doesn’t push the key point all that far back in your answer, AND, importantly, it makes your answer totally self-contained -- something the media love.  If they can use your answer without their question, they are a giant leap toward a good soundbite or pull quote.

More By George Merlis
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