Is “so” the new “well?” Harley-Davidson in speech.

Lately it seems speakers, presenters, and interviewees start every talk, every answer to a question, with “So…”  “Are there any potential toxicity problems with this new treatment?”  “So…that will be addressed in the large-animal clinical trials, but at these concentration levels we’ve seen no sign of a problem so far.”

What purpose did “so” play in that sentence?  The same purpose as revving the engine on a Harley-Davidson before taking off from a stoplight.  No progress, just noise, though it did get everybody’s attention.

“So” isn’t the first common engine-rev to pollute the streets of discourse.  Years ago when people couldn’t think of what to say, they said “um” or “uh” (sometimes written “er” but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually say “er”).  When I was a teen-ager, right after the invention of indoor plumbing, “well” became common.  “What’s your opinion about legalizing marijuana?”  “Well…I think when pot is outlawed, only outlaws will have pot.”

“Well” ruled public dialog for many years.  Then in the ’80s or ’90s, “you know” or “y’know” appeared and started to infiltrate sentences.  “Y’know” initially appeared as an opening gambit like “well,” but soon started burrowing into the guts of sentences like a trichina worm, proving equally resistant to extirpation.  “Well” didn’t disappear but mutated; sometimes abbreviated to “W’l” in Harley-Davidson position, sometimes forming a genetic recombinant, as in “w’l y’know…”

I will leave the somewhat-related history of “like” to philologists with greater expertise and stronger stomachs.

So…what’s the, y’know, marketing point of all this?  The point is that as marketers we are communicators, and as communicators we must always be attentive to the effect produced on our audience.  Speakers using “so” mostly do it unconsciously, having absorbed trendy patterns of speech.  People start to expect “so” or “well,” and speakers use them in order to blend in.  But do we really want our messages to “blend in?”  Don’t we want them to stand out?  Don’t we want people to notice the substance of what we’re saying?  A cluttered background, visual or verbal, obscures the foreground, it does not emphasize it.

Politicians mostly want their pronouncements to glide by and keep them off the hook while making them look good – that’s why they love the verbal Harley-isms.  Communicators with a purpose – which is what marketing is all about – want to make their audience stop and say “Yes!” or “I understand!” or “I’ll do it.”  Which you accomplish by carefully considering the meaningful words you use and not muffling them with background noise.

Mike Baum – Sophia Consulting LLC


About mhbaumk12

Mike Baum has 40 years of experience with all types of direct marketing, has run several companies, spent 25 years as a consultant in franchising and in K-12 education, and currently helps companies find solutions to growth challenges.
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