I received an email from a reader who posted an article on the use of “so” at the beginning of sentences, “Sew, A Needle Pulling Thread (Actually ….. the Other “SO”)”. She included a link to an article I wrote back in 2004, “The Red Pill Affects Your Speech Patterns“. Oh, how I wish that the links in that post still worked. I had included links to the transcripts of several technical product managers giving interviews and demonstrations. Each of them regularly started sentences with “So”, with one of them only missing one sentence… when he said his name.
I was told that this phenomenon started due to the huge TechEd and PDC conferences that Microsoft hosts. Presenters were required to have a presentation coach evaluate their speaking style. The coach recommended that presenters start sentences with “So” to give themselves time to collect their thoughts, effectively substituting “So” for “Um”. I don’t have proof of this, but it would certainly explain how this trend started so quickly. It is also rumored that the coach suggested substituting “right” for “um” in the middle of a sentence to make the presenter appear more authoritative and confident. Again, I do not have proof, but that also would explain why “right” is used so liberally within many technical presentations at Microsoft.
I have to admit, using “So” and “right” are humorously annoying to me, but both pale in comparison to the most serious offense of grammar abuse at Microsoft: Using “ask” as a noun. Using “ask” as a noun is by far the most aggravating and serious form of abuse of the English language and it must be stopped.
Inside Microsoft, there are time periods after software becomes feature complete referred to as “Tell Mode” and “Ask Mode”. This has started the nerve-grating trend of using “ask” as a noun, as in, “What is your ask?” or “My ask here is that you fix it.” Not only is “ask” inappropriately used in verbal communications, but it is often used in written communications as well, and is frequently included in emails and newsletters with customers and partners. I frequently wonder what a CEO of a company thinks when they receive emails from Microsoft that improperly use “ask” as a noun (see, I used it properly there).
I have included the phrase “Ask is not a noun, please don’t use it like one” in my email signatures. I jokingly mention it during internal presentations. I have sent emails to repeat offenders. It’s not working, so I came up with a different approach that will be fun, provides instant feedback to the presenter, and involves crowd participation.
For the next conference you go to, I suggest a game for the attendees, a variation of “Punch Buggy”. One punch for “so” or “right”, two punches for “ask”.
I am speaking at VSLive! in Redmond next week, and at the Best Practices Conference at the end of August. For those attending either conference, please play along! I want to see punches thrown around the room! It’s funny to imagine a keynote with one of our execs (the folks that seem to litter their speeches the most) that suddenly erupts into mayhem in the auditorium as he starts:
“So, my ask here, right, is that you go ahead and..”