Communication Skills Blog

Effective communication doesn’t have to be a technical process, but let me give you some background to explain a new communication tip. In linguistics, discourse markers are words or phrases with little meaning that are used to suggest relationships: between the speaker and the message, between the speaker and the hearer, or between parts of the message. The best known discourse markers in English are “oh,” “well,” “now,” and “then,” which are all particles,  and “so,” “because,” “and,” “but,” and “or,” which are all connectives. “You know” and “I mean” are also considered particles, but I think they are often more like verbal tics.

Discourse markers were once thought to be filler or simply expletive and didn’t warrant much study. But lately, they have been seen to have a bigger role in effective communication than you might expect. And I found a summary of some as-yet unpublished research that says they can even have a role in persuasion. The summary appeared March 11 on the blog at Influence at Work. It cites new research about “disprefered markers,” which are markers that mitigate a negative comment, such as “I’ll be honest…” or “I don’t want to be difficult…” or even “God bless it.”

Disprefered markers can increase effective communication by making a message sound more polite. When you study online reviews, do you go to the negative ones first? I do, and I suspect I’m not alone. Somehow, the negative reviews seem more credible. And, in fact, research has shown that people have less confidence in reviews that are entirely positive. This means one of the keys to persuasion, at least in terms of marketing and selling, is to include the negative with the positive. The research cited at Influence at Work showed that disprefered markers in reviews and testimonials not only mitigate the impact of the negative, they increase the credibility and likability of the person using them.

In one part of the study, subjects read product reviews from, some of which had been modified to include disprefered markers. They found that readers of a review of a watch that included the phrase “I don’t want to be mean, but…” not only put more value on the watch’s brand but reported they would pay 43% more to buy it, compared to people who read the identical review without the marker.

In another part of the study, people read remarks made by others, including this description of a car one of them owned: “gets good mileage and it still rides nice but the thing is you cannot have the radio and the air conditioner on at the same time.” The speaker of the remark was more likable and credible when the remark included a disprefered marker: “gets good mileage and it still rides nice but the thing is, God bless it, you cannot have the radio and the air conditioner on at the same time.”

The researchers suggested that marketers try to attract and grow an audience of polite customers, who would be more likely to use disprefered markers in reviews of their products. But you can deploy disprefered markers yourself to achieve more effective communication. When you make a presentation or a sales pitch, include some negatives, which will get the attention of the audience and increase its confidence in you. I’ll be honest, you will do better if you introduce these negatives with disprefered markers, which will increase your likability and credibility.


Check Out Our New Communication Q&A Series