Off the Shelf: A Speech Barometer

I recently finished reading James Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. As always, I was hoping to find some easy strategies for improving your speaking: change a few words here and there, and you will be perceived as more competent, more confident, more credible, etc.

Instead, what I found was something quite different. In the book, Pennebaker writes:

Can leaders become more effective by changing their language? Yes, I think so. But not for the reasons most people think. Simply using words differently won’t automatically change speakers’ psychological states. As noted throughout the book, words reflect our personality and social situations but rarely directly affect them.


In speeches, commercials, and brief interactions, it is possible that the words individuals use can influence how their audience perceives them. Our brains do, in fact, register if a speaker is using I or we and react accordingly. And in fact, if the goal is merely to make a person sound leader-like, then the careful crafting of their words can be effective in the short run.

For Pennebaker, however, this approach is secondary. Instead, he recommends the following approach:

People can become better leaders by using their words as markers of how they are relating to others. Words are like a speedometer in a car that reflects how fast the car is going. You can’t slow the car by directly affecting the speedometer. Rather, you use the speedometer to gauge your driving. Train a person to become a better driver and their speedometer will follow.

Although not quite as easy to apply as a simple change in language that will improve the audience’s perception of you, this insight is quite a valuable one, relevant to many different aspects of speaking.

For example, as presentation coaches, our first response to hearing someone using filler words is often to give them advice on how to change the behavior itself (e.g., the clicking pen exercise from The Science of Speaking). While this is not a bad approach, Pennebaker’s analysis suggests another one: rather than trying to change the behavior directly, use it as a barometer for underlying causes. Then, when you address the underlying causes, the behavior will naturally change as well. For example, perhaps the filler words are indicative that the speaker is nervous, or lacking preparation. While the pen clicking exercise will certainly help reduce filler words, giving the speaker techniques for managing their nervousness and preparing their speech will help as well—in addition to improving other aspects of their speaking.

As another example, when someone speaks with a monotone voice, our first response is often to give them exercises that widen their range of vocal variation—which, again, certainly won’t hurt. But we can also use their monotone voice as a barometer for underlying causes: perhaps it is indicative of a lack of enthusiasm. If we can help the speaker feel more enthusiastic about their topic (or to pick another topic that they’re more enthusiastic about), their voice will naturally become more dynamic, along with other aspects of their speaking.

Therefore, whether you’re a speech coach, or simply a speaker trying to improve their speaking, it will pay not only to look at the speech behaviors themselves, but also search for underlying causes, and try to address those as well. In many cases, when the underlying causes are addressed, the symptoms will naturally resolve themselves.

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