"So" what?

“And so,” said the Cat in the Hat, “so, so, so … I will show you another good game that I know.” – Dr. Seuss

A recent article in Fast Company takes direct aim at a seemingly innocuous two-letter word that can undermine your credibility when you speak. That word is “so”. Author Hunter Thurman frames the problem this way:

You’re at an industry conference making small talk. The discussion invariably turns from “who you know” to “what you do.”

Your brow furrows, you cock your head slightly, and you launch into the elevator pitch:

“So, we’re building a multi-channel platform that leverages…”

“So, I’m the global brand director for our portfolio of…”

“So, I recently exited my startup when we sold to…”

The part of this lead-in that seems the least important but actually dramatically frames your message is that first little word: “so.”

It’s actually a damaging tendency. Beginning your sentence with “so” orients your message and subconsciously alerts your audience that what you’re about to say is different than what you’ve been talking about up until this point.

The word "so"

According to Thurman, “so” undermines our credibility in three ways:

1.  It subconsciously tells the audience that the speaker is going to dumb down what follows so that they can understand it.

2.  The “so” announces that what is about to follow is rehearsed.

3.  It shows that the speaker is not 100% comfortable with what comes next. The “so” is a psychological marker that the speaker is trying to call up the response.

I agree. Beginning a sentence with “so”, as in the examples cited above, is unnecessary and potentially damaging to the speaker. Much better to cut the “so”, pause a moment and give the response.

So … does this mean that we should never start a sentence with “so”? Of course not. There are times when “so” at the beginning of a sentence serves a useful purpose. For example, “so” can be used as a synonym for “therefore”. It can also serve as a pivot in a story that sets up a transition into what happened next.

To put this discussion into context, let’s look at the short the speech below, which I have analyzed in a previous post. In it, Dr. Daniel Kraft begins several of his sentences with “so”. Sometimes the “so” is fine; other times, it is not.

Bad uses

  • 0:19 – “So, I am a pediatric cancer doctor and stem-cell researcher at Stanford University …”.
  • 1:53 – “So, the Marrow Miner, the way it works …”.

Acceptable uses

  • 1:45 – “There’s probably a better way to do this. So I thought of a minimally invasive approach …”.
  • 2:20 – “We can do multiple passes through that same entry. … So very quickly, Bob can just get one puncture, local anesthesia …”.
  • 3:01 – “So why should you care?”

So be careful how you use the word “so”.

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  1. I disagree with Hunter Thurman. He is over analyzing the use of the word and creating controversy where none should be. So as I was saying . . .

    1. Thanks for the comment, Harley. I appreciate your voicing a contrary opinion even though I side with Thurman on the point. What I will say, however, is that although people should reduce their use of “so” as in the examples in the post, they should not focus about it to the point where it takes away their focus on the content, message, connection with the audience, etc.

      It is similar to my views on filler words such as “uh” and “umm”. There is no question that removing those words from your speeches and presentations is a good thing. However, it’s important that we don’t become obsessed with our “ums” and “ahs”. If one sneaks through every now and then, it is not the end of the world. I would much rather hear a few “ums” in a speech filled with passion and substance than none in a bland speech.” For me, it is the same with “so”. I think Daniel Kraft’s talk would be improved by dropping a few of those “so’s” but it is still a good talk for many reasons.

  2. Like Harley, I disagreed with the Fast Company article when I read it, tweeting that it was “twaddle.” Now I do agree that overuse of “so,” as with any word or phrase, can certainly be distracting and diminish a speaker’s impact. But as with “uhs” and “ums,” there’s also an argument that these words are a natural part of human conversation, and on stage make you sound more authentic and less “canned.”
    Like you said, sometimes it’s okay and sometimes it’s not. But I worry that the focus on those little things gets people twisted up in knots, when they should be focused on the big picture: delivering good ideas with energy and conviction. (Which you also alluded to in your comment above.)

    1. Hey Rob, thanks for the comment. I am with you on focusing on the big picture. I still think that reducing the “so’s” and “ums” is a worthwhile objective but not at the cost of delivering good ideas with energy and conviction, as you put it.

      This discussion reminds me of my shop class in elementary school (at which I was terrible). When we were doing woodwork, there was a natural progression of the tools that you used to turn a block of wood into a bowl or box or whatever. You started with a saw, then used chisels and gouges and files (with the wood on a lathe), then coarse sandpaper, then medium sandpaper, then fine sandpaper, then a soft chammy with some wood oil. The tools have to be used in that order or the result will not be good. I think it’s the same with polishing your speech. Reducing the unnecessary words, for me, falls towards the fine sandpaper / chammy end of the scale. There are other things that should come first.

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