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How not to stumble over your words?

In everyday life, whether we’re at the office, in a café or at home, words come naturally. We have our own vocabulary, expressions and rhetorical precautions that we are used to using. Naturally, we have a clear idea in mind and an objective vis-à-vis the person we’re speaking with: making him adopt our point of view, asking for an opinion, making him aware of a situation, verifying that we have his support… The goal, in the end, is rarely expressed but is consistent with what we want to say and how we phrase it.

In our coaching sessions we often see someone starting to stammer, stumbling over words, and getting lost in endless sentences. If it has not already happened to you personally, there’s a strong likelihood that you have seen someone losing his or her composure in this manner. What can we do if this happens? How can we help someone who appears to be losing his footing?

In a previous ZETIP we talked about memory lapses, where we suddenly forget what we wanted to say, where we were and why. When this happens we simply seem to have lost the thread and can’t find the words anymore. This type of situation is always embarrassing for a speaker. There are those who start to stammer, who are lost in the “uhs…” which end up destabilizing them even further. Or, there are those who embroider while waiting for the train of thought to come back, and get bogged down in sentences that don’t mean anything, driven by fear of being ridiculous in public.

Why is it that suddenly, because we are stressed, annoyed or surprised, words fail us? Actually it is because we have lost sight of our goal. Because we want to impress, or are afraid of disappointing, our concentration is no longer focused on the goal of our speech but rather on our ability to convey our message. As a result, we focus on the words and the construction of our sentences instead of focusing on our idea and our intention. By mistaking our goal we complicate something that should ordinarily be simple and obvious.

To pick up the thread again, here are two steps to follow:

Breathing. The more you let yourself be overtaken by stress the more it will be complicated. Finish your sentence as soon as possible or accept that you lost the thread and take a deep breath. Allowing yourself this moment to recover means giving yourself the right to make a mistake. No one will blame you for taking two seconds to clear up your thoughts. And the more you own up to your mistake the more it will be obvious and accepted by everyone.

Preparation. Take advantage of this moment to look at your notes. If they are clear you will find the key words, you intention and especially why it was so important to express it.

If you want to help someone else who seems lost in his remarks, interrupt to ask him why he is stuck. He will answer that he knows what he wants to say but cannot express it. Tell him that obviously it’s not serious and show him the easiest way to come back to the substance of what he wanted to say by asking him: “What is the idea?” – “Well, the idea is that…” and in most cases the speaker relaxes, his tone changes and his remarks will roll out as he had intended. And you can indulge yourself by concluding: “There you go, that’s how it should be said.”

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