Is It, Like, OK To Say ‘Like’?

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Is It, Like, OK To Say ‘Like’? on Monday, July 17, 2017.

John Hamilton McWhorter V thinks that the pervasive and prolific insertion of the word “like” into daily conversations by teenagers—and increasingly by adults—is a positive contribution to spoken communication. Although Mr. McWhorter is an unimpeachable authority on language (Columbia University faculty and countless articles, papers, and books), I disagree with him; not with conversational usage, but in presentations. Given his estimable credentials, I cannot challenge his turf, only mine.

The professor builds his case for liking “like” in his most recent book, Words on the Move, by tracking its etymological origins back to Old English, forward to its usage by Beatniks, and culminating in today’s youth by citing no less than three contributions he calls:

• “reinforcing like”

• “like [that] acknowledges…discomfort”

• “quotative like.”

You can find his full discussion of his rationale in this Atlantic article adapted from the book, but as my point of contention, I will focus only on his conclusion, “Like is not just a tic of heedless, under-confident youth.”

As a presentation coach, I regularly ask my clients which of their public speaking skills they want to optimize. By far, the two most-frequently cited goals are to overcome nervousness (a universal concern I addressed in this prior Forbes post) and, of equal concern, how to project confidence/executive presence.

Professor McWhorter’s three benefits notwithstanding, “like,” is only a stylistic grace note—it adds no substance. “Like” conveys the informality associated with youth rather than the maturity of executive presence. Senior management must communicate a company’s messaging with language that is succinct, articulate, and assured. Can you imagine a CFO telling a Wall Street analyst who is assessing a company’s product strategy, “Our product will be priced at, like, a thousand dollars”? Hardly.

But there is another, and by no means lesser, reason that “like” falls short of inspiring confidence: it is a filler word, the dreaded bane of all presenters. Microsoft, a company quite focused on Word (pardon the pun) has developed TrueText, a new machine-learning technology, in which a key function is to remove “speech disfluencies (filler words), such as “um”s, “ah”s, “and”s, “like”s.”

“Um”s, “ah”s, “and”s, and “like”s are the lingua franca of teen speak, but they also create bridges—artificial bridges—between clauses and sentences. So do “which”s, “therefore”s, “wells”s, “so”s, and “but”s, words which occur in the speech pattern of all demographic segments. When presenters arbitrarily populate their narratives with these artificial bridges, it produces a long, unbroken string of verbiage—a flatline pattern that makes it difficult for audiences to process and, worse, makes the speaker appear rushed and harried.

Not executive presence.

With all due respect to the estimable Professor McWhorter and to Microsoft TrueText, do it yourself; replace your “like”s—as well as all of its filler cousins—with pauses. The pause refreshes your content.

Best of all, it will make your meaningful words intelligible and your audience will, like, get it!

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Is It, Like, OK To Say ‘Like’? on Monday, July 17, 2017.