Wheelbarrels and rollycoasters

wheelbarrowI’ve never been a fan of baby talk, even when babies do it. It’s bad enough that parents (and grandparents) encourage it by laughing at the adorable tot’s consonant substitutions, but when they do it themselves, it sets a confusing example.

Surely a child’s language development is seriously delayed every time he hears an adult say, “Aw, wook at him cute widdle toes …How old are you? Fwee?”

I’ve observed the same phenomenon when native English speakers, in trying to communicate with native Spanish speakers, speak English with (their idea of) a Spanish accent. It sounds ridiculous and is both confusing and condescending to the Spanish speaker. Maybe adults think speaking in baby talk makes them somehow more understandable to the child. I always imagine babies thinking, “What the <bleep> is wrong with you?”

Despite years of hearing baby talk, many children grow up to speak correctly. Gradually they listen to adults on television, teachers in their schools, speech therapists (surprise!) … and they figure out most of it. But some words have a harder time than others in making the transition from playpen to board room.

A shocking number of adults never completely graduated from baby talk, even if they don’t realize it. Here are three words that, when mispronounced, suggest the speaker needs a nap:

  • Wheelbarrow (not wheelbarrel or wheelborrow). It contains neither the word barrel nor the word borrow. The barrow part rhymes with narrow.
  • Roller coaster (not rolly coaster). The fact that it is, indeed, rolly does not excuse putting that word in its name.
  • Kindergarten (not kindygarden or kinnygarden). It’s from German, where kinder means children. But that doesn’t give us a pass to mangle kinder and half-translate the rest to garden—even though that’s literally what it means.

The cuteness associated with baby talk decreases rapidly after about the age of two, and is completely gone by the time you start elementary school. So if you’re still saying words like this, don’t be surprised if your co-workers (instead of gathering for cake in the break room) chip in and buy you a dictionary for your birfday.

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Backup slides

backup slides2I first noticed it a few years ago, while working for a huge multinational company. Now I see it in small-potatoes presentations for modest enterprises. Are they trying to imitate the big boys in all their corporate silliness? Or are they just now catching on to what seems like a lazy way to assemble a presentation?

“It,” of course, is the phenomenon called backup slides. You’re forced to sit through a meeting presentation, or maybe you’re responsible for watching it online. There’s a beginning, middle, end, summary, maybe even a quiz … and then (DUN-tun-tun!) the dreaded backup slides. Usually unreadable graphs or charts or screens full of tiny print, with no context, that might or might not have anything to do with the presentation you’ve just seen.

You might use backup slides to add length to a short presentation, to show some awesome graphics or snazzy material you found that doesn’t fit, or to impress the viewers with your research skills. But none of it supports the purpose of the presentation. Imagine the equivalent of backup slides in other forms:

Fashion Week in Paris: At the end of the show, someone throws a bag of laundry on the runway and says, “Here are some designs that didn’t make the show. Feel free to rummage through them.”

Opera at the Met: After the final curtain, random understudies wander onstage, performing their favorite vocal warmup exercises. All at once.

Super Bowl: After the final second ticks off the clock, third-string players who didn’t get into the game take the field for strength and agility drills.

Seriously, if the material is important, include it in the body of the presentation with some explanation and relevance. If it’s not important, leave it out. Simple as that.

Using backup slides is as silly as ending a movie with outtakes showing bloopers (mistakes the actors made during filming) … wait … that’s a thing. But it’s called the gag reel, and it’s intended to make you laugh.

If you have a serious job with a real company, or unless you’re Jackie Chan, just don’t.

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So what!

interviewAny speech teacher will tell you that vocalized pauses weaken your presentation. You could be a corporate bigwig, a PTA committee head, or an international political figure. If your speech is full of fillers (uuh, aah, err, mmm, like, you know) your message will be less effective.

Speakers who address their audiences without vocalized pauses sound more prepared, confident, and credible. Everyone knows that, and the standard fillers have become passé.

A new vocalized pause is all the rage in both business and politics. Often used in interviews, it’s a common response to a touchy question. It’s as if the utterance gives the interviewee time to think … or to pivot off into an evasive non-answer. The word is:


As the first word in a sentence, So usually implies therefore, or as a result.

The event was sold out. So we went to a movie instead.

But it’s now the go-to response for any debate or interview question that might be awkward to answer. In fact, it often signals intent to avoid answering the question altogether. For example:

Q: How do you intend to balance the budget this year?
A: So, as you know, I’ve always been a champion of fiscal responsibility. Throughout my career as a public servant, I’ve sought the opinions of my constituents on this and related matters … [blah blah blah]

Q: Is this product going to be released on time?
A: So, quality is important to us – as I’m sure it is to all of you – and we’ve brought in several experts to guide our development process. Based on feedback from our customers, we’ve added several features we’re sure they will like …

Maybe the So response is just a bad habit and it doesn’t always indicate deception. But listen for it the next time you hear an interview or a business presentation.

Then judge for yourself whether the speaker’s verbal crime is being trendy (a misdemeanor) or lying (a felony).

So there.

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