Sound more confident at work: Ditch these 5 phrases

The higher you climb the corporate ladder, the more you need to sound the part. If you use any of these five phrases, you could be holding yourself back.

Graduation season is upon us.

Soon thousands of new-minted graduates will enter the workforce, and hundreds of articles will appear about how these young professionals can jump quickly and successfully into the corporate world.

These pieces will cover the usual—email etiquette, how to network and tips for steering clear of office politics—but one important issue won’t get as much coverage as it should for new grads and even for seasoned pros: how to speak like a professional.

I’m not talking about verbal tics, overusing “like” or “umm,” but about phrases that, though they seem innocent, can make you appear less confident than you really are.

Scrap these phrases to look more professional, knowledgeable and sure of yourself:

1. Qualifying phrases

“I’m no expert, but …”

“Just off the top of my head …”

“I haven’t been working on this project as long as you, but …”

Do any of these phrases sound like the beginning of a brilliant idea?

No. They make the person saying them look like he or she isn’t qualified to be in the meeting.

When you use self-deprecating phrases like the three above, you imply that what you’re about to say might be wrong. Don’t introduce doubt about your abilities. Cut the qualifiers, launch directly into your idea and stand confidently behind it. People will give it—and you—more credence.

2. Just

Last year, the business world worked itself into a tizzy debating whether we should eliminate “just” from our professional vocabularies. Some said women used “just” more than men, which made them seem insecure.

I don’t want to reopen that discussion, but it is important to recognize whether you abuse the word.

If you’re talking about time (“I just opened your email”), fairness (“She was a just judge”), or whether something is right, lawful or well deserved (“He received a just punishment”), “just” is appropriate.

If you use “just” as a verbal crutch, it makes you sound like you’re making excuses for yourself when you don’t have to.

3. “Is that OK?”

Unless you’re the CEO, you have a boss whose permission you have to ask for certain things. That’s life.

But the way you ask for permission can make or break your credibility.

Which sounds better:

“Is it OK if I send this version to the client?”

“Let me know if this version is ready to send to the client.”

No. 2 sounds like the more grown-up response.

4. “I’m sorry.”

How many times have you said “I’m sorry” for something you didn’t need to apologize for?

It isn’t news that many people (typically women) say “I’m sorry” when they don’t need to do so. I’m a huge offender. I’ve apologized when someone has bumped into me, or when someone asked me for a favor and I felt I had to set aside what I was doing to begin his or her task.

Perhaps you’ve said “I’m sorry” before speaking up in a meeting.

It’s a bad habit, but one everyone must break. If you apologize for things you don’t have to apologize for, people will start to think you are actually making mistakes. Save apologies for when you did do something wrong.

5. “I think” or “I believe.”

In the Ragan editorial department, we cut these phrases from stories as soon as we see them. If your name is on a story’s byline, it’s a given that the opinions in the story are yours (unless otherwise noted).

The same goes for speaking in the workplace. If you speak up in a meeting or talk with a co-worker, get straight to your point rather than prefacing it with “I think.”

Which sentence makes the speaker sound more confident?

“I think we should try running that ad campaign again.”

“Let’s try running that ad campaign again.”

Are you bothered by other phrases that make colleagues sound insecure? Sound off in the comments.

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