Powerful vs Powerless Speech

In social and political advocacy, there are numerous situations where effective speaking can be critical. One of the simplest ways to enhance effectiveness is by getting rid of the powerless speech. There is plenty of research on the powerless speech and it generally shows that powerless speech cuts into perceived credibility and overall effectiveness.
The following are the main forms of powerless speech:

1. Hedges. These include phrases that show lack of decisiveness: “I guess,” “sort of,” “you know”. Related to hedges are hesitations: “uhm”, “uh”, and similar. Some research suggests that hedges are the most damaging of all forms of powerless speech (Hosman & Siltanen 2006).

2. Tag questions. These statements beg for the listener’s approval. A tag question is the little question that is added on the statement: “This will have very positive effects, don’t you think so?” or “This was a very clever move, wasn’t it?”

3. Disclaimers. Probably everyone occasionally makes some disclaimers: “I am not a specialist but” or “I don’t know very much about it …”. Instead of acting like disclaimers, these statements usually serve as discounts on your persuasiveness.

4. Intensifiers. Very obviously and clearly, these are words like “very”, “clearly”, “obviously”. Research does not show definitely that intensifiers in fact reduce persuasiveness of speech. Yet, when they appear with other forms of powerless speech, intensifiers do limit persuasiveness.

As with all research, none of the findings on powerless language applies across-the-board one hundred percent of the time. For example, some forms of powerless language like tag questions may be useful on certain occasions, like  showing goodwill to children or in doctor-patient relationship. Similarly, some research shows that only colloquial hedges, but not professional hedges, have the harmful effects (Durik et al 2008).

Overall, it is probably better to avoid all forms of powerless language, perhaps with occasional exception of intensifiers. Overall, almost any audience will be more influenced by the powerful language – language that is direct, concise, and divorced from any forms of powerless speech.

Sources

  • Hosman, L. A. (2002). Language and persuasion. In Dillard & Pfau (eds.), The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice.
  • Hosman L. A., & Siltanen S. A. (2006). Powerful and Powerless Language Forms: Their Consequences for Impression Formation, Attributions of Control of Self and Control of Others, Cognitive Responses, and Message Memory. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 25, 133-46.
  • Durik A. M, Britt M. A., Reynolds R., Storey J. (2008). The Effects of Hedges in Persuasive Arguments: A Nuanced Analysis of Language. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 27, 217-234.