One of the best pieces of speaking advice that I’ve ever heard came from a world champion speaker and speaking coach named Craig Valentine. He tells his coaching clients to resist the temptation to begin their speeches with what he terms “unpleasant pleasantries.”
Many people will start their speeches by saying things such as, “Good morning, thank you for having me here,” “It is an honor to be here,” “What a privilege to be in the company of so many fabulous people,” “It is a lovely day here in sunny California,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. People hear these types of openings all the time.
When you begin a speech in one of these extremely common ways, people do not tune in—at least not right away. Instead of grabbing their attention, you are saying to them, “This is just another typical speech, we’re just warming up, it’s not time to start listening yet.” And they go ahead and check their phones one last time or finish the conversation with their neighbor.
The biggest problem with “unpleasant pleasantries” is that they are everywhere. Not just at the beginning of presentations. Many everyday personal and professional conversational exchanges are filled with “unpleasant pleasantries” and they do nothing to establish connections, build rapport, build trust, show concern, exchange information, solve problems, or generate growth and improvement.
When asked, “How are you?” most people respond with “Fine, how are you?” or, “Good, how are you?” or something similar. For most people, this is simply small talk. The average person is usually asking this question to be nice or because they don’t know what else to say, not because they are genuinely interested in how the other person is doing. It is so common that when people hear you ask it, they don’t think you really want to know how they’re doing.
If you truly care about your team members, employees, clients, prospective clients, and other people in your life, consider changing the words you use in your everyday exchanges.
Instead of saying, “Hi, how are you?” you could say, “How are you feeling today?” This causes people to put more thought into their response. They are more likely to give you some information that may give you some insight into how better to manage or work with them if they are a co-worker, or how you can better serve them if they are a client or prospective client. They are also more likely to feel like you have a genuine concern for their well-being.
You can also replace “How are you?” with an inquiry question based on something that you have talked to that person about in a prior conversation (to show that you were listening and that you remember.) For example, you could say, “How’s that remodeling project you were working on?” or, “How’s that big project coming along?” or even, “Have you been back to karate practice lately?
You also could ask, “What’s your latest news?” These types of questions are more engaging and catch people’s attention, endearing them to you and most importantly allowing them to feel important and heard, which is one of the greatest gifts you can give other people.
For extra credit, also try answering the question “How are you?” differently from the way you normally do. Resist saying, “good,” or, “fine,” and give a more thoughtful answer. And be honest: If you’re not fine or good, don’t say that. Try instead “harried,” “focused,” or “discombobulated.” You don’t have to be negative, but be authentic. It’s refreshing to hear something unexpected, even more so if it is a particularly optimistic response.
Instead of wasting your precious time and that of your co-workers, clients, and acquaintances by engaging in unpleasant pleasantries—start engaging in meaningful conversations that improve your relationships and ability to connect with and positively affect people.
Do you have other questions that you use when greeting and conversing with others to show that you’re interested and to build rapport? We would love to hear what ideas you have.
Michelle Baca is speaker, consultant and career coach at ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, where a version of this article originally appeared.