Strike These Four Words for Greater Gravitas

5 minute read

When we work with mid-level managers who are pursuing positions at the highest organizational levels, but aren’t there yet, we regularly come across opportunities to help them polish their executive presence. Executive presence comprises all the traits that impact how others see us as leaders, and this term covers a surprisingly broad swath of topics.

For example, when we train leaders on executive presence, one of the words we like to talk about is gravitas. It’s a term that most people are familiar with, but have difficulty defining. We looked it up, and some of the synonyms for gravitas include dignity, seriousness, and solemnity. Interestingly, an antonym is frivolity. When we lay this out for clients, particularly using those synonyms, it becomes easy to pinpoint behaviors that are not dignified or solemn, and to replace them with more effective mannerisms without suggesting that 21st Century Leaders should always walk around looking dour.

And while physical presence and body language are important, a stronger influence on others’ perception of gravitas is a leader’s verbal and written communication. Interestingly enough, one of the quickest ways to improve how others perceive our communicative gravitas is by striking, rather than adding, certain words from our vocabulary.

Four Words We Use Too Much in the Business Environment

The first word we’ll mention seems to be the go-to phrase for our clients when we ask how they are doing; 80-90% of the time, their answer will include what we’ve jokingly come to call the b-word: busy. As if that weren’t enough, busy is frequently accompanied by an adverb: really busy, very busy, insanely busy, etc.

Situationally, we like to jokingly ask people, would you rather not be busy? Or, you are getting a paycheck, right? And invariably, the responses are “no, of course I want to be busy,” and usually “yes, I like my job. I’m glad to have my job.”

Perhaps it’s a common desire to want others to know we’re not just dilly-dallying with our days. Perhaps the claim of busy comes from a need for others to know right away that there’s no room on the plate for more commitments. Perhaps people commonly believe that if they are busy, others will see them as engaged, energetic, and/or effective. Regardless of the reason for this word choice, our experience in coaching executives says otherwise. We have found that busy has actually become a 21st Century synonym for I believe I have more to do than I can manage competently. The word busy has the potential to convey an attitude or air of low-level chaos to those we hope would see our gravitas, so we encourage our clients to strike it from their professional vocabulary entirely.

For another example of an overused word, we turn to the television show Inside the Actors Studio, which hosts actors and filmmakers for hour-long interviews that always include asking guests for their favorite and least favorite words. One day, a guest named like as his least favorite word, and he instantly became my new hero. Beyond the ubiquitous social media use of the word, like has become this generation’s substitute for uh—it’s a mindless language filler. And regrettably, like has deeply embedded itself in our culture. Similar to busy, like doesn’t exactly convey gravitas, either. We coach our clients to allow silence between words rather than fill the space with uh, um, like, etc. Awkward as it may feel in the moment, silence comes off much better than any filler.

The third word we coach people to drop from their personal and professional vocabulary is the word sorry. Sorry is used to convey the emotion of regret or as a form of apology, but it also conveys a certain negative context about the speaker’s very state of being and about their sense of permission to make mistakes. I’m sorry carries a self-flagellating and self-defeatist tone that undermines gravitas. We are not suggesting for a second that clients shouldn’t be vulnerable or own up to their mistakes. We simply believe that it’s much more skillful to say I regret this happened or I apologize for doing this to take active responsibility for ourselves and our behaviors.

The logic behind this is straightforward: when we choose to say I’m sorry, the word sorry follows I AM, two of the most powerful words in the English language. Through our own personal and professional journeys, as well as through our work coaching others, we have learned that it is vital that the word(s) following I AM should be affirming at all costs, because the words I AM inform ourselves and others of how we intend to be perceived.

The last word to drop is yeah. Besides being a lazy affirmative answer or response to someone addressing you, yeah is increasingly being used to answer an open-ended (i.e., cannot be answered with yes or no) question, indicating a willingness to answer. This habit is rampant in sports interviews:

“Bob, what did you think about the game last night?”

“Yeah, Joe, I thought we played really well.”

There’s no need for Bob to tell Joe that he’s going to answer his question. He just needs to answer it. We understand that there are instances in which there’s a need to convey openness in response to a question, but there are other ways to express pleasure or eagerness to answer, such as thanking them for asking or simply using an upbeat tone of voice in the answer.

In the final analysis, the key to skillful language usage is intention, but intention is more than just meaning what you say and saying what you mean. Much like writing well, speaking well entails making every word work hard. Speaking well requires being ruthlessly efficient with words—every word selected is both meaningful and vital to precisely conveying the message. Being mindful about word choices results in clear, honest, and impactful communication that motivates, unifies, directs, and reassures those you would lead.

For this week: Pay particular attention to your word habits. Are you using yeah, sorry, like, or busy in ways that undermine your executive presence? Perhaps you have other pet words or useless phrases you over-rely on, such as what I was thinking was or my thought process is. Ask someone whose judgement and ear you trust if there are words you need to eliminate from your vocabulary, or at least give them a rest so that you can re-learn to use them intentionally and skillfully.