On the advice of a participant in her communications class, Barbara Pachter came up with a Do-Not-Say List to help businesspeople avoid words and phrases that only serve to undermine their message and image. Less consequentially, some of these same utterances are at least a contributing factor to the tedium and length of most staff meetings.
Pachter calls them “weak beginnings,” and they include phrases like “I was wondering if perhaps…” and “May I ask a question?”
Just come right out and ask the question, Pachter advises.
Asked specifically about time-wasters in meetings, Pachter built on the original Do-Not-Say List that makes up Chapter 27 in her book, “The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat and Tweet Your Way to Success.” (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013) Phrases like “In my opinion” and “I have something to add” are unnecessary and therefore inefficient, but the main reason to eliminate them from speech is that they “make people sound tentative and unsure,” she says.
But then there are phrases that almost always introduce drawn-out commentary that’s a complete waste of time. “If you catch yourself saying ‘Let’s revisit’ or ‘Just to reiterate,’ it’s an upfront acknowledgment that you’re not contributing anything new,” Pachter says.
To be clear, “Some repetition can confirm to another person that you have heard what was said,” she adds. “But in a group meeting, in addition to wasting time, too much repetition can be viewed as one-upmanship – the need to let everyone know that you also knew that information.”
Another phrase that should be used sparingly for efficiency’s sake is “I’m just thinking out loud,” according to Joe McCormack, author of “BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less.” (Wiley, 2014) Though occasionally helpful in brainstorming sessions, generally “this comment opens a floodgate of disorganized rambling that confuses more than it clarifies,” he says.
For productivity’s sake, Chris Szpryngel would ban “We’ve always done it this way” and “When I was at my previous company.”
Although fresh ideas can come from previous experience, overuse of these phrases reveals a stuck-in-a-rut mindset, says Szpryngel, academic program manager of business and co-director of undergraduate business at Post University’s Malcolm Baldrige School of Business in Waterbury, Conn.
Other phrases that are enemies of productivity and progress include “But it’s got problems” and “Whatever the group wants is fine with me,” says Stephen J. Lind, visiting assistant professor of business communication at The Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
“Groups often fail to make a decision because they let the perfect remain the enemy of the good,” Lind says. “Most good ideas have drawbacks, but focusing on the negative attributes can paralyze a group from ever realizing the positive ones” and making a decision that moves the company forward.
While on the face of it, “Whatever the group wants is fine with me” seems like a generous, time-saving concession, it can lead to “group think” and problems down the line, says Lind: “Bad decisions are often made because no one was willing to speak against the flow even though they have important suggestions to offer.”
While certain utterances tend to make meetings drag on or stall out, “Meetings often fail when certain phrases are missing,” Lind says, such as when a meeting lacks specifically stated goals and decision-making criteria.
Additionally, it’s well worth the time to wrap up every meeting clarifying what the next steps are, who is responsible and the timeframe for completion.