The other day my husband and I were watching the news and a politician discussing the state of affairs in Washington began with “in my humble opinion.” Over the course of his short interview he repeated that phrase four or five times. He was a good speaker except for this.
He had much to say, but all we remember of his interview was “in my humble opinion.” Expressions like these are called “caveats”—phrases tucked into our speech to qualify what we’re saying.
“Caveat” comes from a Latin word meaning ‘beware.’ When we use caveats we literally warn our audience to beware of what we are saying. To sound more credible, remove the following caveats from your speech.
1. “TO BE HONEST”
This is one of the most common expressions of this kind. It also pops up as “honestly,” or “let me be honest with you.”
When you use this caveat, you’re warning your audience that everything else you’re saying may not be true. Suppose you announce, “Our team will complete the project on time, but to be honest, it’s going to take a big push.” The second half of the sentence beginning with “to be honest” implies that the first half might not be true.
Why plant doubts in your audience’s mind? Remove this caveat and state what you know to be true.
2. “IN MY OPINION”
We hear this one a lot, usually indicating that the speaker wants to qualify what he or she is about to say. Variations include, “it’s just my opinion,” “in my humble opinion” or (for texters) IMHO.
Calling your views just an “opinion” weakens your statement. It suggests your contribution reflects a personal whim or bias, rather than a reasoned argument.
Remove this caveat. You might replace it with the stronger “I believe.” Or, even better, show the reasons you’ve taken this stance. The audience will sit up and take notice.
3. “YOU MAY ALREADY KNOW THIS, BUT … “
Speakers who preface their comments with this caveat, may use this expression to sound humble and accommodating. But in fact, they suggest their remarks are redundant—and not worth listening to.
Think before you speak, and if you feel somebody knows what you’re about to say, either don’t say it, or present the information in a new, forceful way. People don’t mind hearing a new slant on a topic they’ve considered.
4. “I’M NOT SURE”
We often hear this one from people who may be perfectly sure of their views but want to sound humble. A junior staffer might say, “I’m not sure, but I think we can cut our meeting time down by one hour. Here’s how.” By the time we get to “here’s how” we’ve ruled out any wisdom from this fledging team member.
Eliminate a phrase that declares, “Don’t listen to me.” Just plunge into what you believe. Others will listen to you and respond to your good ideas.
5. “I COULD BE WRONG”
This expression projects weakness and uncertainty—why should anyone care about those views?
If a financial analyst says, “We expect inflation to increase, but I could be wrong,” we don’t know what to believe. The expert essentially has ruled himself out as an expert.
Leave this caveat out and deliver a more thoughtful response: “We expect that inflation will increase. Here’s why.” Expand on those points, and show you’ve considered various contingencies. Don’t create the impression that you’re over your head in dealing with the subject.
6. “THIS IS PROBABLY A STUPID QUESTION”
This is a self-inflicted wound. Listeners will immediately discount the words that follow. Imagine a job interview where a candidate asks, “This is probably a stupid question, but can you tell me whether I could work from home.” In fact, it is a stupid question. The candidate betrays that they haven’t done their research—and shows they don’t deserve the job.
If your question is valid, ask it. If it’s not, don’t. But don’t flag it as a dumb question.
7. “JUST A THOUGHT”
This harmless sounding caveat is another credibility killer. It’s sometimes used when a senior person doesn’t want to sound overpowering. A boss might say to a junior team member, “Just a thought, but are you looking for a mentor?” While the intention is honorable, the phrasing undercuts the suggestion.
A better way of expressing your views—without sounding authoritarian—would be simply to say, “Have you thought of finding a mentor?”
8. “IF YOU DON’T MIND”
This caveat, along with expressions such as, “Do you mind?” or “If that’s okay,” weakens you—and sounds a bit edgy.
One might say to someone they admire, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you how you built such a successful career.” The prefatory expression, “If you don’t mind,” makes it sound like the speaker is entering territory where she may not belong. It suggests the listener could mind the question. If you use this phrase when asking about someone’s health or job, you might be hinting that what follows is rude.
If you’re close enough to that person, and the question is appropriate and important, ask it without the caveat. Otherwise, holding back is the best way to go.