The Psychology of Weak Language

One of the things I listen closely for in our workshops is a certain kind of vocabulary that we call “weak” or “qualifying” language. And when I hear it, my coaching sensors start ringing loudly. Words or phrases like “sort of,” “kind of,” “pretty much,” or “basically,” can be toxic for the speaker and dramatically reduce the chances for persuasion.

Some classic examples that I hear all the time:

“We are sort of ready for the next phase.”

“We are pretty much on budget.”

“We are basically on schedule.”

In each example, what I hear, and what your audience likely hears is “this actually isn’t true, I don’t believe it myself, and you should have a low level of confidence in what I am saying.”

If you hear this kind of weak language in yourself or in others, look for opportunities to correct the problem and eliminate it as quickly as possible. Why? Because if you are trying to persuade anyone of anything, your lack of conviction that this language clearly telegraphs will lessen the level of confidence or urgency that the listener will get.

A more interesting question is why do we speak this way? There are probably several different answers that range from the psychological to the lack of practice to a lack of awareness about what good speaking actually is. But where I want to focus is on the psychological. I am no psychologist, but my colleagues and I coach and train thousands of people each year. So we see a lot. And from my perspective, the psychology of the weak language comes from an unwillingness to be too direct or forceful. People weaken their language to soften themselves, to round off their own edges, to avoid overwhelming their audience.

I would never advocate an approach that might overwhelm your audience or be too forceful. But I think there are better ways to soften your approach rather than saying “pretty much” or “basically.” You can use direct language and clear vocabulary, but soften the impact through tone of voice or volume changes. If you want to avoid being too forceful, weak language does not solve that problem. It creates a different one, one of indecisiveness or lack of conviction.

Be aware of the vocabulary you choose, and also be aware of how those vocabulary choices can impact the audience experience with you. If you need to soften the edges, then soften them through voice, not vocabulary.

Good luck!

At The Latimer Group, our individual Coaching services are highly customized and designed to help you achieve your specific goals. Typical engagements focus on developing skill sets in Leadership Communications, Public Speaking, and Executive-Level Business Presentations. To learn more, e-mail us at


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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.