As I've explained in two previous posts [Brenner 2021.1] [Brenner 2021.2], much of what we say at work follows pre-formed templates. These expressions have a technical name: formulaic utterances. Some of them elevate the status of their users, and some have the opposite effect. "I will tell you that X" tends to make the user seem more authoritative. "Absolutely" once had a similar elevating effect, but by now it's so common that it probably does more harm than good for its users.
For some time now, I've been collecting formulaic utterances that I've encountered "in the wild." In this post I offer them without comment in the hope that their presence in this catalog can reduce their use. The order is alphabetical. In what follows, I've used letters like X, Y, and Z as placeholders for noun phrases.
- Absolutely zero basis for X
- All of the above/None of the above
- As he was prone to do
- As I've mentioned many times
- As I've said before
- At the end of the day
- At the heart of the issue is
- Back here on Planet Earth/Earth One
- Before I let you go
- Best in class
- Bottom line
- By the way
- Complete nonsense
- Don't hold your breath/I'm not holding my breath
- Earth calling Bob
- Everybody was freaking out/losing their minds/had their hair on fire
- Fake news
- Going back to our earlier discussion
- Help me understand why X
- Here's how it looks to me
- How can you possibly know X
- I'm struck by/I was struck by
- I can't speak to that
- I don't know that X is so
- I don't know that you can say X
- I know you know this, but X
- I was/We were in the posture of Z
- I'll have more to say about that when/after X
- I'm just curious, but X
- I'm just making this up, but X
- If things continue to deteriorate
- In a moment like this
- In all caps
- In my judgment
- In real time
- In terms of X
- In the days/weeks/months/years/quarters ahead/going forward
- In the grand scheme of things
- Is that something we/they should be looking at?
- It doesn't add up
- It was like playing whack-a-mole
- It's fair to say that X
- It's all part of the same bundle/package/hairball
- It's always possible that X
- It's important to note that
- It's too soon to say
- It's worth noting/remembering that X
- Just because X doesn't mean that Y
- Keep a close eye on that
- Last point I'll make is
- Let me add one thing
- Let me flesh this out a bit
- Let me focus on just three points
- Let me remind you that X/I might remind you that X
- Let me unpack this for you
- Let's circle back tomorrow
- The similarity between a conversation consisting
solely of formulaic utterances and the discourse
of an ordinary meeting is astoundingLike water rolling off a duck's back
- Maybe we can run this thing to ground
- My belief is that it was
- Not something you see every day
- Numbers don't lie
- On the question of X
- Passed with flying colors
- Specifically what I'm looking for is this
- Stepping back a bit
- Substantial uncertainty
- Sucking up all the oxygen in the room
- That action lit the fuse
- That is not to say that X
- That issue is a subtext
- The big take-away here is X
- The data is singularly unimpressive
- The evidence just doesn't support that conclusion
- The fact is
- The last number of years
- The last thing I'll add is
- The least we should expect is X
- The optics really do matter
- The other piece of this is X
- The other thing is X
- The question is X
- The third time is the charm
- The view from 30,000 feet
- There is a disconnect here/there/somewhere
- There's no credible evidence that X
- They do/don't know what they're doing
- They have some skin in the game
- They seem to have their heads in the sand
- They're a dollar short and a day late
- They're really focused on X
- This is detached from reality
- This is getting under my skin
- This is no big deal
- This is one of the key issues
- This isn't panning out
- This issue has multiple layers
- This sends/would send a message that X
- To add to what X has said
- Too little too late
- Trust me, you don't want that
- Unknown unknowns
- We can leverage that
- We can raise/have raised the bar
- We have a decent shot at
- We have long passed the threshold of
- We in fact satisfied ourselves that
- We know what we know
- We'll be going in a different direction on that
- We're in a tailspin
- We've already knocked that one down
- We've heard from a lot of people that X
- We've run that down/chased that down
- What does that all mean? It means that X
- What I'm really interested in, though, is X
- What jumped out at me was X
- What planet are they on?
- What we know so far is X
- What would it take to make X happen?
- Where is this going?
- Within his orbit
- Words to the effect that X
- Writ large
- You know it
- You must understand that X
The formulaic utterances in this list were selected with meetings in mind. But one can easily imagine other settings for which the lists of formulaic utterances would be rather different. Examples: visits to the dentist, bank robberies, parent-teacher conferences, or performance reviews. As an exercise, develop your own lists for formulaic utterances of specific settings.
Finally, here's a sketch of a very enlightening parlor game. Get together with a half-dozen or so colleagues, perhaps over a virtual lunch. Devise some way of splitting the above list randomly amongst all of you. (An example is in this Excel workbook, which is easily extended if you want to add your own formulaic utterances.) Then, by turns, have each person read one of their items. You'll be amazed at the similarity between that resulting conversation and your regular meeting discussions. Top Next Issue
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Corrosive Buts
- When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us
into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
- Patterns of Everyday Conversation
- Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself
to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
- Ending Conversations
- At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important
to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
- Social Transactions: We're Doing It My Way
- We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors,
and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do
we decide whose preferences rule?
- Ethical Debate at Work: I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad
decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info