Communication Matters
MAY 2020
Are Your I's Too Close Together?
One of the easiest traps to fall into as a speaker is the misuse of pronouns. We were taught in grade school that pronouns make communication easier by shortening references to characters in a story. They can be viewed as pro-nouns, used by elite communicators. But in practice, it’s a lot harder to use them correctly.
When I was writing my first book (and did you catch the announcement of my latest effort, co-written with writing machine Stan Phelps!?  Silver Goldfish  is due out May 5) I was directed to never use a pronoun in a paragraph where the object had not been specifically identified (in that paragraph). Always put the person’s name before you refer to them as he or she. But that isn’t the only problem with pronouns.
First, there is the simple issue of understanding who the pronoun refers to.
  • The boss told his new director that he hoped his plan would work. (Who is he? Who’s plan?)
  • As we launch our project, we need to remember who they are listening to (Who is we? They?).
  • The difference between new speakers and experienced speakers is their greater use of visuals. (which group uses visuals more?!)
The next issue with pronouns is who is included in its reference. In writing, ‘you’ is preferred by many business authors. It tells the reader that what they are reading is directly applicable to them. It shows that they can apply what is being discussed and gives validity to the reason they bought the book in the first place. It’s also very clear who “you” is – there’s only one person reading.

But for the oral communicator, ‘you’ is a dangerous and divisive word. A former football coach at the university that I have degrees from used to refer to the fan base as “you people.” If he had brought home a championship, I don’t think anyone would have noticed. But when his team found mediocrity, the people who ultimately paid his salary didn’t take too kindly being referred to as “you people.”   Watch out for ‘you’: It can seem as though you don’t relate to the audience. I’m on stage, YOU are not. I am talking about what is important, YOU don’t know as much as I do. Perhaps the most egregious example of this I’ve ever seen was a presenter at a national conference I was speaking at. His idea was a list of ten tips on how to give better presentations. When he was asked why he didn’t follow his own rules (I counted that he had violated seven of his ten rules in that one presentation!) his response was, “ Because I’m ___ and you’re not”. I’ve made a conscious choice to avoid this well-known speaker and anything he has to say ever since.
For the speaker, the most dangerous pronoun may be ‘I’. As a friend told me once, “ You don’t want your I’s to be too close together.” I’ve seen self-help books and business seminars try to map the number of personal pronouns to inclusive ones. I get a little squeamish about “statistics” like this: the magic ratio of 5:1 positive interactions to offset one negative as a predictor of marriage success (Do they – and who are they?! – not even consider other foundations of the relationship? “ The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict.” No other factors at all?  Really?)
A great way to avoid the I and You trap is to combine them. Make your presentation or talk about us. We will find… We will cover... Together, we will discover the secrets to... We will unearth….

Obviously, first-person stories require ‘I’. (“ There we were, on the edge of the St. John’s River River when we looked down and saw the water moccasin, coiled to strike us!” You weren’t there, so that’s an ‘I’ story, not a ‘we’ story – and yes, that really happened).

But if all you do is talk about you, your audience will tire of the subject quickly. Make whatever your topic is (even if it’s YOUR story!) about them. Them is your audience. That them. One way to do this is to ask the probing question, “ What about you?” and apply the story’s principle. (“ What about you? When have you ever faced danger and been scared?”) At that point, the story stops being about you and starts being about them. That’s where the audience wants to end up anyway.
The last danger in using pronouns is the typical verbs that we allow to follow pronouns.  These easy words are potholes on the road to professionalism as a presenter.

I am going to talk about…” Nobody came to hear you talk. They came to hear your wisdom and leave with something of value. I was just gonna say… I’m going to cover… I’m going to tell you…

You need to…” or “ you have to…” No one likes being told what to do. Telling me I have to do something is likely to invoke the response “ No, I don’t”. Telling me I have to gives me no options, and even if I do it, I might harbor bitterness or hatred towards you (just ask your kids). A more persuasive tone is to ask. Or outline the benefits and/or consequences and lay the decision at their feet. Couple that with a Power Phrase (“In my experience…” and its derivatives) and you have the perfect makings of an ask that will connect and persuade your audience.

Working with pronouns is easy to do poorly. It takes work and rigorous assessment to eliminate potentially divisive words from our speech. But the audience’s attention, connection, and response is worth the effort.

What about you? What phrases have you found that working at bridging the difference between a speaker and an audience?
Communication matters. What are you saying?
FREE! Eleven-page Guide just for you!
Virtual Communication:
Mastering the Online Meeting
Practical Tips for Success 
We’ve created a full, 11-page guide for mastering the online meeting that includes more in-depth tips and practical elements for success. As a thanks to you for being a loyal Communication Matters newsletter subscriber, we’re offering this guide to you as a free download.

This Guide addresses five main topics:
  • Getting Ready to Meet 
  • Your Equipment and Setup
  • Skills to Make You a Star on the Web
  • Content and Facilitation
  • Ending Well
MillsWyck Minute Podcast:
Why You Should Practice Your Speech OUT LOUD
What does practice make… ? (It’s not perfect!) Why practicing your presentation OUT LOUD is the single biggest thing to make your speech better. Alan talks about why it’s so important to practice out loud and then provides an extra, advanced tip!
Upcoming Workshops
Corporate Workshops
Bring us in to your organization to hold any of of our public workshops or custom training for your group.
Personal Coaching
We offer a variety of one-on-one coaching packages to meet your needs, including virtual coaching!
Public Workshops
May 4-5 (moved to Aug 24-25)
Aug 24-25
Nov 16-17
May 6 (to be rescheduled for a future date)
Sneak Peek Video
Here's a sneak peek video at what a PPS workshop from MillsWyck Communications is really like:
Need a Speaker for your Conference, Meeting, or Event?
Keynotes / Breakouts / Workshops
  • Communication
  • Presentation Skills
  • Coaching
  • Sales Presentations
  • Leadership
Visit for more.
Follow me on Twitter!
MillsWyck Communications
Communication matters. What are YOU saying?
Alan Hoffler, Philorator (Teacher & Lover of Speaking)
(919) 386-9238 
email:  [email protected]

Alan Hoffler is the Executive Director and Principal Trainer at MillsWyck Communications. He is a Trainer, Speaker, Author, and Coach who passionately moves others to effective and engaging communication.