"It has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you are talking about" is the opening line to a short Youtube video (with nearly 2 million hits). I've shown this Taylor Mali speech to over 20 sections of English composition over the last 3 years. That is, I show it to all my composition classes. This semester I showed the video twice in all four of my classes in hopes that Mali's message would deeply sink into my students brains.
Have you ever heard Millennials or Gen Xers include unnecessary filler words such as "like," "totally," and "ya know" while expressing their opinions? I still include "like" as a filler word. I am working on breaking this habit. This is the focus of Mali's message. He explains that many people have to preface their language with some of these words to make their language "cool" and/or take the edge of true conviction out of their words.
While communication instructors drill their students to be self-aware of their "ums" and "uhs" during public speaking class, writing instructors should drill their students to be articulate for the sake of conviction and clarity. If you give a speech with repetitive "uhhs" and "umms" your audience will get distracted. Likewise in Mali's speech-------he pushes his audience to examine the effects of using "like" and "ya know." Here's Mali's speech. It is funny and insightful:
Below I've reflected on what Mali is pointing out and some practical tips I tell my students and myself for speaking clearly in conversation, classroom discussion and most important in spoken argumentation.
Consequence #1: Mali suggests that repeatedly using "like" and "ya know" can make us sound inarticulate and lacking intelligence. He says that "we are the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along, in like, ya know, a long time." This is somewhat obvious, who doesn't want to be articulate on command?
Nobody wants to be seen as unintelligent. Watch some commercial today and you'll likely hear that the product being advertised is either the "smart" choice or the product could even make you "smart." The idea of the "Smartphone" is appealing to our desire to be seen as intelligent and "in the know." Being smart is a reality that can be achieved, but it cannot be bought in a particular product. It works in the same way that a Gatorade commercial appeals to our desire to have a physically fit body. Who doesn't want to look like those fit people aggressively training in the commercials? But we all have to come back to the reality that in order to be fit, we have to go run a mile or two consistently (for at least a month or so) to become more athletic. This is likely miserable and hard.
Likewise, we need to be intentional and do the mental work of being articulate in speech to at least sound smart. Sounding smart is the result of training yourself to be articulate. Taylor Mali is well known for his poetry, but he has worked as a middle school teacher for years. Mali says (in one of his other Youtube videos) that he enforces a "like-free zone" in his middle school classroom in which he prohibits his students from using the word "like." His students find it very hard to avoid using "like," but what better age than middle school than to start being intentionally articulate?
Consequence #2: When our speech is littered with filler words, it shows we are uncertain about our beliefs. Mali says this in his intentionally flawed speech: "Don't think I'm I nerd just because I've like noticed this, OK. I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions. I'm just, like, inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty."
I'm a big fan of conversation. Part of the reason conversation is fun for me is because I can unpack beliefs I already have. Casual and serious conversation helps me to understand my own thoughts. Unpacking your beliefs in conversation might mean that you might stumble across your own uncertainty about what exactly you mean. For the external processor, this means going back and saying "Maybe I don't believe that, let me think through this." When there is space for a rambling conversation, this makes it possible for us to come to terms with what we do think.
Yet as we grow as people, we should grow in our ability to put our beliefs into words. No one likes to listen to an uncontrolled ramble or rant. At some point we need to be personally invested in our own opinions by developing them and self-correcting them. Rambling conversations can help us decide what we believe. But we want to be self-conscious about phrasing and accuracy so that we don't begin a monologue that our friends are hoping we will wrap up as soon as possible.
Consequence #3: The third consequence of repeatedly using "like" and "ya know" is that we might be hesitating to speak with conviction. We can hedge, evade and beat around the bush for a variety of reasons. One student said in classroom discussion that she thinks people use "like" as a buffer or a way to soften the blow of the truth. Buffers are useful, but sometimes we need to speak directly for the sake of the truth.
After watching Mali's video, I have my students complete an online worksheet of questions. One question I ask them: "Mali says people do not use declarative statements because they might seem like a nerd for making a statement. Do you think it is nerdy or “uncool” to take a stand on certain issues? What is at risk when we say what we believe?"
There is no disagreement here. Every semester students say things like "I do not think it is nerdy to take a stand on certain issues." "I believe people should speak up for what they believe." "If it is nerdy to take a stand for what you believe, then I am certainly a nerd." There is no shortage of passion about standing up for what you believe. My students have strong, defined convictions about the freedom of speech. But sometimes it is annoying to read these responses over and over. I'd like to get them to get fired up about another issue or claim. Getting fired up about freedom of speech is sort of pointless if you never find a second claim to "take a stand for" other than freedom of speech.
Why do we hesitate to use our freedom of speech? Sometimes we are worried that our beliefs will make us "uncool." When we state what we believe-----there will be some that disagree. It is unrealistic to think everyone will agree with us on everything. Compare the following two beliefs:
#1 "Shopping on Black Friday corrupts what is considered to be a sacred holiday of rest."
#2: "I like believe that you should totally not go shopping on Black Friday."
The first statement is a clear claim. It has conviction. The second statement sounds half-hearted. In a way, the second statement might sound a little bit more approachable in conversation. It also sounds like it is worded as you are trying to avoid hurting some avid shopper's feelings. We could sometimes value "not rocking the boat" by speaking like example #2. But isn't this conforming for the sake of "coolness?" Both of these have conviction----but the first one sounds more carefully worded. The second statement sounds like the first draft of an essay------the first statement sounds like the final draft of the essay.
So----what has happened to our convictions? I think we all have convictions. My college students today have many deep convictions. I think part of the reason we aren't hearing them is that it takes practice to put our convictions into words. Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that men needed to be able to "report the conversation they have had with nature." In a way, we understand ourselves internally, but we need to learn to communicate to the world. Emerson says it best: “Every man should be so much an artist that he could report in conversation what had befallen him."